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A class act: Jennifer Ward-Lealand

New Zealander of the Year talks about acting, gender inequality and championing te reo onstage.

As charismatic offstage as on it, New Zealander of the Year, actor and director Jennifer Ward-Lealand's talk in Gisborne this week was so personable the audience forgot to clap at the end.

It was as though a particularly engaging dinner host, who had chatted about her life in theatre and film and her passion for learning te reo Maori, had momentarily excused herself from the table.

The charmed audience at the Gisborne Business and Professional Women event easily made up for the lapse during the thank yous before the star was whisked away to an actual dinner.

The New Zealander of the Year's talk began with her first love — acting.

“I knew I wanted to do this when I was seven years old, when Dad took me to a show,” she said.

“He was in Oedipus and they needed kids. As soon as I walked into that room I had an epiphany. Something hit me and I knew I wanted to be an actor.”

New Zealand's performing arts industry was a challenging one to find regular work in, she said. At any one time 80 to 90 percent of the country's actors were unemployed.

“The nature of our work means we need lots of resilience, lots of versatility,” she said.

Between stage, film and TV contracts, Ward-Lealand finds work in other areas such as voice-overs, hosting events, workshops and speaking engagements.

Gender inequality still existed in film and television, she said.

“Male and female actors have consistently different experiences.

“It's definitely not a level playing field. There is an over-representation of men and younger women characters.

“Radio and theatre come out more positively. Theatre and radio seem to be refuges for women. In radio there is no emphasis on physical appearance.”

Quoting from Shakespeare's Hamlet — “The purpose of playing . . . was and is, to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature” — Ms Ward-Lealand said the actor's job was to reflect to the audience what it was to be human.

“We feel our common humanity and this gives rise to one of our greater human qualities — empathy — and we need that more than ever,” she said.

Ms Ward-Lealand also talked about her passion for te reo Maori.

While a student at multicultural Te Aro School, her Maori teachers made it their business to regularly take students to Maori Club.

“The sound and feel of te reo Maori was in my ears and on my tongue from an early age.”

About 12 years ago she committed herself to night classes in te reo and her first tertiary education experience at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in Mangere, where she joined a total immersion class.

“I'm infinitely more connected now to my land from climbing on to this waka te reo Maori,” she said.

“Te reo is fundamentally connected with the natural world.”

At a te reo conference in 2017, Sir Timoti Karetu and Professor Te Wharehuia gave the actor/director her Maori name, Te Atamira (the stage), a title that carried great responsibility, she said.

“The challenge for me is to use my time on the stage to champion te reo Maori.”

Star of the show: Bestowed in 2017 with the name Te Atamira — which means 'the stage' — New Zealander of the Year, Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira (left) spoke at a Gisborne Business and Professional Women event at Lawson Field Theatre this week. She is pictured with New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women national president Christine Berridge (right) and Gisborne BPW president Catherine Chrisp. Picture by Paul Rickard