Hey, in case you were wondering, not everybody can act. So says one of New Zealand’s most experienced and hard-working actors, Jennifer Ward-Lealand.
She’s also a director and singer, and president of Equity New Zealand – the actors’ union. She knows her stuff and at the University of Waikato today Jennifer talked to arts students about her career that’s included more than 120 stage plays, plus films and musical theatre.
She talked about how she prepares for roles and gave acting and directing tips too. “I don’t think the public really has a handle on what acting involves,” she said. “Acting is a craft that engages, moves and transports us. It is not guesswork, not a fluke and it’s not accidental. Not everyone can do it.”
Jennifer knew from the age of seven that she wanted an acting career. She steadily worked towards that, first by doing anything that would get her into a theatre, selling programmes, ushering or being a waitress, and when she graduated from theatre school she earned a place in a professional theatre company, as many young actors did in the 1980s, which meant regular work.
She said it’s a much harder grind for young actors these days and that means the development of their craft is much slower. “It’s a matter of evolve or die.”
Jennifer acts in or directs anywhere between two and five plays a year, and the rest of her work comes from other sources; web series, tv shows, speaking gigs, teaching, reading stories and plays for radio and voicing commercials. She has been touring her own cabaret-style show Falling in Love Again based on the songs of Marlene Dietrich for 15 years now, on and off.
“Versatility is the key to sustaining a career,” she said. “Anywhere in the world 85-95% of actors are unemployed at any one time. You need to have a thick skin and be able to handle rejection, and realise it’s not necessarily through lack of talent that you don’t get a part, but that you’re not right for the job.”
And there’s still gender in balance in the acting business, she said, with more men having longer and more lucrative careers than women.
Recently Jennifer was cast as the lead in a soon-to-be released film called Vermilion. It was written and directed by women and 95% of the cast and crew were women. “I’ve not had a more rewarding screen experience ever,” she said.
Jennifer was a guest of the University of Waikato Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences who are running a series of lectures to reflect the value of the arts, and according to chair of the School of Arts Di Johnson “how wonderful and rich your living can be on the back of an arts background”.
At the end of her talk, Jennifer led a musical theatre master class for students.