Many thanks to Sharon for the transcript

NZ Herald
13 November 2000

Jennifer Ward-Lealand's pivotal character in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods has a mother of a curse to overcome. see attached picture

Jennifer Ward-Lealand back in good company

If she was a rising star as long ago as 1987, then by now Jennifer Ward-Lealand is well and truly part of the country's acting firmament. In 1998 she became pregnant with her second son, Cameron. Motherhood beckoned again. So she largely disappeared from screen and stage, spending her time reading bedtime stories rather than scripts. As for her performances, the only real critics have been the harshest, her children.

That changes this week, with her appearance in the Auckland Theatre Company's finale for the year, Into Woods by Stephen Sondheim, in which she appears as the pivotal character, the Witch. It is her first theatre appearance in two years.

At 38, she has changed little - a model's cheekbones, a warm, contralto voice and intelligent blue eyes. "No, I didn't miss acting. I wanted to be focused on the children. They're only babies for a short time and I guess I was at a stage where it's okay to stop for a bit and focus on other priorities."

Still there was that time when she had to arrive at the company's premises, ready for rehearsal. That moment when it all was to begin again.

"I thought it might be strange to go back. But when I got back it was like putting on my favourite cardy. I've worked with so many people there and there are years of history. It was wonderfully familiar and to be able to trust your colleagues is very liberating. It means everyone can do their thing and you can just sit back and enjoy what's happening."

When women return to work from child-rearing, their perspectives can change, they can find doubts that they never thought they might have, but for Ward-Lealand it has been like slipping into a warm bath - easy, relaxed. "My confidence? No that hasn't dimmed at all," she says, in a way that is impossible to disbelieve.

And there is the faint confession that only parents can make. "Even though these rehearsals are full on, it is sometimes easier than being at home. It's relent there. If the rehearsal is late you miss 'zoo' hour." She smiles, wry as you must be about that time in the lat afternoon when households with little people can suffer minor meltdown before bedtime blissfully arrives.

Sondheim, whose work earned him a Tony Award in 1988, about the time Ward-Lealand was making her name, was a major part of the attraction that lured her back.

"I'm a big Sondheim fan. This is the fifth I've done. I like the heightened nature of them; with Sondheim you get to explore so much. And he gives actors so much to work with."

Her Witch character inhabits a production peopled with fairytale characters - Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and others. Into the Woods is also the tale of a baker and his wife, whose longing for a child is thwarted by the Witch.

"The Witch is big in so many ways. She needs other people to get things for her to have this curse lifted. So there are agendas and she has to force people, to get them to do what she wants. But there's more besides. She was also punished by her own mother, so there's this great well of stuff underneath. It plays on so man levels."

Ward-Lealand has always been a rounded performer, singing as a onetime member of the Front Lawn with Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan.

She found, as always, that Sondheim, who turns 70 this year, was a challenge. "I had to be on top of the music, it's quite fiendishly difficult, so as a company we have to be very adept. Sondheim requires exactitude and concentration to the nth degree. I love that. It makes me feel like I'm really practising my craft."

For Ward-Lealand and husband Michael Hurst, life remains full. Hurst is about to direct one of the final episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess for Pacific Renaissance and is beginning work on a one-hour television drama.

As for Ward-Lealand, more than two decades on stage have changed little about the life. "I couldn't tell you what I will be doing in six months. That's always how it's been."

That has never worried her. She's always been kept busy. And talking of that, the interview must end. She has two young males whom she must get home to see to.

* Into the Woods directed by Raymond Hawthorne, Auckland Theatre Company, Sky City Theatre, opens Friday.

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