Jennifer Ward Lealand on being honoured for her commitment to her two great loves, theatre and te reo

''Honestly, I felt a little bit unworthy and then I realised what a wonderful responsibilty it is.''
Jennifer Ward-Lealand Cabaret

Berlin in the 1920s was a hotbed of cultural creativity and technical innovation.

But the escapism and artistic freedom of Weimar Germany went hand-in-hand with growing inequality, nationalism and political storm clouds.

Given the current political climate, it’s no surprise that the era is revisited in film, literature and art, and Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s cabaret Delicious Oblivion, which she performed earlier this month, was no exception.

The actress is amazed at how relevant the 1920s songs still are today.

“It’s startling,” she says, “especially with how the world is changing. There’s a lot of right-wing white supremacy around, and a rise in fascism and nationalism in the world, which is frightening. I’m reading these lyrics and thinking they could be written now.

“The songs are utterly relevant and they’re funny, moving and extraordinary… You can go completely into the world of each of these songs.”

Actress and singer Jennifer was this year made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

With her luminous beauty and endless limbs, Jennifer (56), who is mum to Jack (22) and Cameron (19), is perfectly suited to the famed glamour of the era.

And she’s certainly no stranger to the world of cabaret, having toured her Marlene Dietrich show Falling in Love Again for 15 years.

“I’m often asked if I like singing or acting best,” she says.

“But really it’s all the same because a song is just like a monologue and it requires all of the same commitment to storytelling and all of the craft that goes into a monologue.”

The Desperate Remedies star trained as an actress at Theatre Corporate in Auckland and honed her singing ability through her years on stage.

“As a young actress, we were doing play after play and one or two might have musical components. It was like, ‘Well, I’m in the company and I can sing,’ so suddenly you are singing in shows. I’ve gone back and worked with various teachers as well because I still want to be able to sing when I’m 80.”

She has also been a member of Auckland’s Jubilation choir for the past 19 years, which means she practises regularly.

“That’s been really handy, actually, because you’re not having to crank up to a musical – your voice is already oiled. You don’t have to do all of that preparation to get back into vocal fitness.”

The choir boasts two members of the New Zealand Order of Merit – soprano and former NZ Idol judge Jackie Clarke, and alto/actor/director Fiona Samuel.

The stunning performer has worked for six years to become fluent in te reo.

Now, Jennifer has been made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to theatre, film and television, having previously become an officer of the order.

Both investiture ceremonies were poignant.

“I was thrilled that Dame Patsy Reddy invested me with the honour as she’s a great supporter of the arts. And in 2007, Sir Anand Satyanand did the honours, and he had worked as a young lawyer in my grandfather’s office.”

That grandfather, the late Denzil Ward, was made a Companion in 1967 for his work in law, and that commitment to service clearly runs in Jennifer’s blood. She’s in her 12th year as the president of the performers’ union Equity New Zealand.

“I take my service to the acting community seriously. We’re the largest creative guild in the country now and I’ve just loved seeing that growth,” she says.

And that isn’t the only honour that has been bestowed on Jennifer recently. The actress has worked for six years to become fluent in te reo. Two of her teachers, Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and the late Te Wharehuia Milroy, gave her a Māori name, recognising her appreciation and love of the language.

“I was given the name Te Atamira – the stage – by these two extraordinary exemplars of te reo. Honestly, I felt a little bit unworthy and then I realised what a wonderful responsibilty it is and it makes me want to champion the language even more.”

Delicious Oblivion was part of Auckland Live’s Cabaret Season at The Civic earlier in June.

Her supportive husband, actor and director Michael Hurst (61), has also started to learn te reo. He won’t be at the opening night of Delicious Oblivion though. His latest work, An Iliad, in which he plays an ageing poet forced to relive the horrors of war, has been so well received that the season has been extended – meaning his closing night falls on Jennifer’s opening.

“It’s a shame, but we both still love our work and we’ve just never stopped!” says Jennifer.

Photos: Robert Trathen

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