Jennifer Ward-Lealand: On Six Degrees of Separation and learning te reo Māori

We spoke with New Zealand actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand about her upcoming show Six Degrees of Separation, and how she’s now fluent in New Zealand’s national language, te reo Māori.

Words Lara Wyatt

With more than 35 years of theatre, film and TV experience, Jennifer Ward-Lealand is one of New Zealand’s most influential actors. As well as performing, she is also the president of Equity New Zealand (which represents performers working in New Zealand’s entertainment industries), patron of Auckland’s Q Theatre and she’s also a trust board member of the Actors Benevolent Fund. Around all of this work, Ward-Lealand has also been learning te reo Māori, in which she is now fluent.

“It was always a case of when I would learn, not a case of if I’d learn,” Ward-Lealand explains. 

What kicked Ward-Lealand’s need to learn was not knowing how to respond to a mihi that was spoken at a Jubilee she attended in 2000. She says she was born here, and with Māori being the indigenous culture of New Zealand, she wanted to be able to respond.

In 2008, she started taking weekly classes on a Monday night, and then she started part-time courses at Te Wānanga O Aotearoa. She also says having a great support network, including close friends and teachers who will talk with her in te reo Māori, was incredibly important. 

Rehearsals for Ward-Lealand’s upcoming stage appearance in Auckland Theatre Company’s season of Six Degrees of Separation will be under way from 15 July. The show was inspired after doing a reading five years ago at what was then called the Writers and Readers Festival (now the Auckland Writers Festival). 

“We all sat on chairs reading the script, and it was just marvellous. It’s not a new play, it’s from 1990, but it has held so beautifully,” Ward-Lealand explains.

Six Degrees of Separation will be performed at Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre from 14- 29 August 2019. 

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