Jennifer Ward-Lealand would love to play a Pākehā woman who speaks Māori — because, well, after six years as a student of the reo, she’d be perfect for the role. The actor, singer and teacher who’s entertained Kiwis with her art for more than 30 years sits down with Dale.
Normally, in an interview like this, I’d start by asking about your background and childhood. But, with Waitangi Day having just passed, perhaps we should reflect on that and on our feelings about how, as New Zealanders, we’re dealing with our challenges.
I’ve noticed a huge change among my Pākehā friends, in their willingness to understand more about the tangata whenua of Aotearoa and about the language. And there’s much more of an ease, even in using various reo words — especially when you compare it to the furore when Naida Glavish dared to answer a call to Telecom with “kia ora”.
I mean it’s par for the course now. Nobody bats an eyelid. I’d like to think it’s indicative of a larger move for acceptance. However, I’m still horrified at the amount of racism in this country, like the stuff that gets spat out in such a nasty way around Waitangi Day. But I’d like to think we’re moving forward and embracing what makes this country amazing — and having Māori culture and the language on our doorstep is unique.
Some say our problems will be resolved by our kids’ generation because our young people are far less nervous about kupu Māori, and about the Treaty and other Māori issues than perhaps those who now have grey hair?
A friend of mine said to me the other day that they went to see their niece at the end of her first day at school — and the whole welcome was in te reo Māori. This wasn’t a kura kaupapa or anything. It was just a normal primary school. He was blown away. He was thrilled. The teachers were saying: “Sit down. Pay attention.” All in te reo Māori.
That’s fantastic to me. Our children are sponges and now is the time to do it. I don’t think that te reo Māori is ever going to be the predominant language in this country — I say that with a heavy heart — but I’d love to see all the tamariki have it as a compulsory subject so that their wonderful sponge-like brains can soak up the reo and give them an ease around the language and culture.
I tautoko what you’re saying about the reo being a natural part of schooling in this country. But what about civics? We have inter-generational ignorance about the Treaty and about our very complex and quite proud histories as peoples. Do you think that civics studies should be something we look at more carefully in our curriculum?
Yes, because right there is the antidote to ignorance. So you don’t get people going: “Why don’t they just get over it?” Or whatever. That comes out of ignorance, that kind of rhetoric. If you grew up knowing much more about the realities of our history and actually what the Treaty meant, you would realise how unique we are in the world, and how lucky we are to have it as a foundation document.
You’ve had a wonderful career in theatre and film in this country. Is that an area of the arts that has the potential to make a difference to our society?
I believe that performance, and theatre in particular, is very good for our mental health. When you have humanity reflected back at you from the stage — in all its joy and pain and heartache and sorrow and wonder — you unconsciously connect with that and it affirms us as human, as feeling and sentient beings. That’s why you’ll never get actors replaced by machines or computers.
Media has a role in comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Is there a role for the media, and I’d add theatre in here, to be part of our country’s social conscience?
If good plays keep being written about us and who we are as a people, then yes, absolutely. I’d love to see more New Zealand plays about things that matter. We’ve had some seminal New Zealand plays. But I think we’re really growing up in our writing. We’re so much more used to seeing ourselves on screen now. I think many years ago there was a cringe factor at hearing the New Zealand accent or seeing New Zealand faces on TV. There was a feeling that somehow our work wasn’t as good as American or English work. But that’s so not true. We’ve produced some incredible film and television, and we’ll continue to do so.
You grew up in Wellington. Could you tell us a bit about that and those who you regard as having helped shape your personality?
We lived in the Aro Valley area and I went to Te Aro School on The Terrace. My parents split up when I was four, so my grandparents were a great influence on me. I come from a family where the law was very important. My grandfather was a law draughtsman in parliament for about 35 years.
And there are a lot of musicians in my family. Music is very important to us. I remember my granny having her choir group round at her place. My mum remembers my granny singing on the wireless. My mother’s a pianist and her sister’s a violinist. Music was always there. I didn’t really appreciate how much that influenced me until I started working in the theatre, and doing more work in musicals.
My dad went to live overseas when I was nine. But he was also a good singer and the one who introduced me to theatre when I was seven. That’s when I decided this is what I wanted to do. I was very, very clear about that. Never wavered. Never knew how I was going to do it, but never wavered in my desire to be an actor. After that very first rehearsal, I went home and told Mum that was what I wanted to do.
Through secondary school, I had some great teachers. My form teacher was Cassidy Tangaere (Ngāti Porou) and, even though I wasn’t learning the reo then, I had a really great connection with him. I only wish that he was alive now so that I could tell him in te reo Māori how much he influenced me.
I’m pleased that no one discouraged you by saying: “When are you going to get a real job?” Because, if there were no artists, we’d live in a grey world, wouldn’t we? What personality traits do you think you have that meant you were always suited to be an actor? Are you outgoing and gregarious?
When we stand on stage we have a responsibility to give the audience the best experience they possibly can have. My ability to give 100 percent and work hard comes from both my parents and my grandparents. With all the juggling of work that I do, I think I probably have a good sense of time-management. I love doing comedy and I think I’ve got some quite witty people in my family. That’s been really helpful.
And I’m not afraid of going anywhere emotionally that I need to for the part. So I suppose it’s a sort of fearlessness. When you’re on the stage you kind of have to be fearless because it’s an inherently dangerous situation in that anything can go wrong and you just have to cope.
Reading this, a lot of Māori will be curious to know about your ga-jing ga-jeek. Can you ga-jing ga-jeek on a guitar? Or dalink, dalink, dalink on a piano?
I can ca-ching ca-chuk on a guitar, but I’m better on a ukelele. I could probably keep a beat on a drum kit. I did pick up the piano again but there was a point where there was so much that I wanted to do. And I was getting old, Dale, and te reo Māori won out over the piano.
Speaking of Māori, it’s clear that you’re comfortable in Māori settings. How did that come about? Did you grow up with Māori mates in Wellington?
Te Aro School was incredibly multicultural, so I never felt like Māori were separate. I had lots of Samoan mates. I didn’t have any close Māori friends, but there were Māori in my class and, as a school, we’d regularly go to “Māori Club” at Ngāti Pōneke. I’ve never felt uncomfortable around a lot of different cultures.
I guess that the make-up of your school, or your class, is your world when you’re young. And, if you feel comfortable in your world, it sort of expands, and you feel comfortable with those people anywhere. Since my reo journey, I’ve also learned a whole lot more about my whakapapa and generally feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin, in this country.
I understand that your reo journey started at Kura Pō, at Unitec in Auckland, about six years ago. And I imagine that, at times, it’s been a struggle.
Yes, I started with just one night a week and went for nearly four years. I’d been studying alongside a friend, Jo, and we ended up doing part-time study, and then a full-time rūmaki course, Te Aupikitanga ki te reo Kairangi, at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa out in Mangere.
I have to say it was a massive year. Quite scary — and a real challenge. But I quite like a challenge and I kept going, even though I’d be telling myself off all the time for getting things wrong. For the last two years, I’ve continued studying at Te Ara Poutama at AUT. And, next month, I start again back at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa doing Te Pīnakitanga with Anaru Martin. But I have to say, it has never been about getting a degree, only to keep speaking and learning the reo — keeping it in my life in some way, every day.
My friend Jo and I made an agreement a long time ago that we’d only talk to each other in te reo Māori. Would only text each other in te reo Māori. Would only email each other in te reo Māori. Sometimes that means you have to take a long pause and have a good think about what you’re trying to say. And try not to construct your thoughts in a Pākehā way — but to think kia Māori te reo.
When people ask me if I have any advice about learning, I say: “Find a mate.” You need to find a friend who has the same desire as you — and who’s on the same level as you. And you need to encourage and test and work alongside and share your struggles with each other. So you’re not alone in that situation. For me, that’s what really helped.
How have your acting colleagues reacted to your growing confidence with the reo?
They have been very supportive. Particularly in my role as President of Equity New Zealand. I often go to Australia to our trans-Tasman union meetings to deliver the New Zealand report to the greater committee. I always start with a mihi and a waiata. And my Australian colleagues, most of the time I do it, for some reason, they all start crying.
Well, not all of them are crying. But some are. They absolutely love it. Even if they don’t understand exactly what I’m saying, they understand the wairua. I translate afterwards but it never has the same feeling. But I see it like this: I’m a spokesperson for our 800 members back home, and I need to take a piece of us over there — and the reo is a value to me. I consider that my obligation.
It is especially important when we have visitors come in from overseas. We held an event recently with a lot of extraordinary casting directors from America and Australia. They came here to work with 80 actors and we needed to welcome them properly. I’d already pre-warned everybody and said: “You need to learn this waiata.” Man, you should have seen those actors. Māori, Pākehā, all stood up, full-voiced, singing this beautiful, strong waiata. And it felt just great.
I’m curious to know about your observations about the Māori theatre and film scene. Can you recall the first piece you worked on that had a Māori theme?
Here’s a funny one. God. 1983. Working in Theatre Corporate, and we’re doing our schools tour: five stories for primary schools. One of them was Māori myths. I kind of cringe now when I think about it. Because there we were. Five Whiteys. Five Pākehā. Doing Māori myths. Not a brown face among us. But I remember doing a little karanga. I don’t think we were really conscious of looking deeply into what we were doing, but that’s the first piece I remember. I’d love to do that now — but maybe I’d be directing. We’ve got so many great Māori actors now. Really, really great Māori actors.
There’s one thing I’d like to do. If anyone was writing such a role, I’d love to play a Pākehā woman who speaks Māori.
Who from the Māori theatre or film scene has inspired you as you’ve watched them grow?
When I started this reo journey, the language work wasn’t to do with my work in the theatre. Except I knew somehow, as I went on, that my work and my reo would meet. Those paths would start to cross. And that has really started to happen in the last few years.
I’ve been asked to direct a couple of workshops for a Māori playwright — to help the development of a piece. Some of the actors in that were fluent — they were matatau. And some, not at all. Some just had a little bit of reo. But it’s very useful for me to be comfortable with ngā reo e rua. I see people like Te Haumihiata Mason doing incredible work translating Shakespeare, and I’d love to be able to perform in something like that.
Do you think Māori might be at risk of stereotyping ourselves? Some of the stuff we write is about the darker side of our communities when, in actual fact, 95 percent of us are good people. Doing our best. Not gang members. Not part of that scene. But we allow ourselves to be portrayed as a hard, rugged mob.
I guess we want to see all parts of our society reflected. But when I think of some Māori films — like Boy, Dark Horse, or Mt Zion — I don’t think immediately of the dark side. I think of the joy and beautiful humanity in those films. So, stereotypes? Only as much as you could look at every Pākehā film and say: “That’s about the dark side.” Or: “That’s about the light side.”
Maybe these stories have to be told because a lot of them have been kept quiet for a long time. When they come out, there’s more ease around them and you get a release and an understanding. And, if a story doesn’t reflect reality, it won’t hold up. It won’t have any potency. But we want to see all our humanity reflected.
So what do we need to do to push along brown theatre and cinema?
Nurture our writers. You haven’t got anything without a good story, have you? So where do the good stories come from? From the writers. If they’re being developed, you’re always going to have a great slew of films ready to go out. But, without the good story, you don’t have anything. Give them the opportunities.
And allow for one film, for instance, not going well. Allow for a failure — and give a writer or film-maker a second chance. Actually nurture them so that they can become the best they can be.
For a while, it felt like you do one film in New Zealand and, if it didn’t go well, that’s it. That’s your career. You’re done.
Well, Jennifer, I thank you for your kōrero. Is there something you’d like to add?
Ka rere aku mihi atu ki ngā kaiako katoa. Nā rātou ahau i tautoko. I really wanted to acknowledge and thank deeply, all of my teachers, my te reo Māori teachers from the Kura Pō, to the Wānanga, to the Kura Reo, to Te Ara Poutama, who’ve always backed me and never once said I couldn’t do this. I wouldn’t be here without those teachers encouraging me, nudging me along.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand was a founding board member of the Watershed Theatre and a co-founder of The Large Group and The Actors' Program. She is currently President of Equity New Zealand, Patron of Q Theatre, and serves as a trust board member of Arts Regional Trust, Silo Theatre, Clarence St. Theatre, and Actors Benevolent Fund. In the 2007 New Years Honours List, she was named an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit "for services to theatre and the community." After six years’ study she is now fluent in Te Reo.
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