When Auckland actress Cassandra Woodhouse decided to dive headfirst into the world of theatre production without much experience – and to do it while also starring in a one-woman play – she went straight to the top for help.
"I knew I needed an experienced director who could be an acting mentor," Cassandra laughs as she recalls the day she picked up the phone and cold-called New Zealand acting legend Jennifer Ward-Lealand.
"She was the only person I felt could do the job. I had never met her, but she was so gracious. She gave me an hour of her time on the phone to give me advice."
Cassandra had to pinch herself when Jennifer – president of actor's union Equity New Zealand and 2020 New Zealander of the Year – later committed to directing the play and agreed to be her mentor.
On April 28 that play, Hanna, begins at Auckland's Dolphin Theatre. It tells the story of a mother who discovers she was given the wrong child at the maternity ward and for Cassandra, 38, it's a dream come true.
The Auckland-raised mum-of-one began her entertainment career working as a model and then added acting to her resumé, scoring roles on Shortland Street and Outrageous Fortune.
A few years ago, however, she felt it was becoming "a necessity" to produce and star in her own play.
"I'd been acting in theatre and was getting frustrated at the lack of jobs," she explains.
When she discovered the script to Hanna, written by UK playwright Sam Potter, she felt it was a perfect opportunity to get both production experience and flex her acting muscles – the play requires her to be onstage by herself for the entire 90 minutes.
And as a mother, she says, the story resonated strongly with her. "My heart was pulled into it," she confides. Cassandra has a young daughter, Jolie, with husband Tony Webster, who is the father of former Breakers basketballers Corey and Tai Webster.
Cassandra's husband is African-American and originally came to Aotearoa in the '80s to play basketball. Their daughter is biracial and Cassandra says she's a protective mother.
"As a mum, you don't see your child's race, but you are aware of it," she muses. "She's 12 now and starting to shape her own identity. I can't relate to it because I'm not of mixed race. All I can do is encourage her to be in all of her uniqueness."
She and Jennifer began working on Hanna in July last year and were constantly thrown curveballs by the pandemic. Then, two months ago, just a day before rehearsals began, Cassandra contracted Covid-19. The virus left her with asthma-like symptoms and she returned to rehearsals feeling nervous.
"I had a lot of anxiety because I was worried about whether or not I could sustain myself," she shares.
Surprisingly, she found that putting all of her energy into the project, and being around Jennifer, aided her recovery.
"The play has helped me rebuild myself. To be in this space with Jennifer and to focus on the work has been healing. It's been a beautiful, intimate journey with Jennifer, to sit in the hall, talking about acting, drinking tea and chatting about life."
Meanwhile, Kiwi icon Jennifer – mum to Jack, 25, and Cameron, 22 – says directing the play has made her reflect on the sacrifices every parent makes for their children.
"Losing a child for any parent is horrifying," she says. "The mother lion thing really attracted me to this project. Being a mother is such a primal role. It's brought up questions of what would you do and how far would you go to save your child?"
And working with people like Cassandra, she shares, is exactly where she wants to be.
"My longtime desire is to give back," enthuses Jennifer, who was gifted the name Te Atamira (The Stage) by Sir TĪmoti Kāretu and the late Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy in 2017.
"It's a beautiful thing to encourage somebody when you see talent. You're saying, 'You should pursue this, I see something in you. Keep going because you're worth it.'"
She says she was drawn to Cassandra's tenacity.
"She's created this opportunity for herself. In many ways, she's getting a one-person masterclass over nine months, and I get the thrill of seeing someone develop as an actor."
Being an actor, adds Cassandra, is a difficult job that comes with many insecurities and self-doubt.
But she adds, "Jennifer once told me that I'm enough just as I am. That is healing to hear not only as an artist but as a woman. She's a beautiful example of someone who embodies self-respect and as women, we need more role models like Jennifer."