Witches in the family

Jean Sergent is a witch, but not as you know it. No bubbling cauldrons, no broomsticks, no evil spells.

There are many definitions of the word witch. An article published on Gaia, an online source of “consciousness-expanding” videos and other such content, calls a witch “someone who actively practices magical rituals or spells, someone who has a spiritual connection such as a psychic medium or a tarot reader. Modern-day witchcraft often includes the lighting of candles, meditation, yoga, incense, the smudging of sage, crystals, dream analysis, and other rituals connected to Pagan roots”. Another definition, from the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “a woman who is believed to have magical powers and who uses them to harm or help other people”. In other words, you can be a good witch.

Jean, a theatre producer, actor and director who also identifies as queer, describes herself not just as a witch but also a “hereditary witch – there are witches in my line, and some of my practices come from them. I’m a descendant of Cornish Romanichals – often called gypsies. And my great-grandmother was ‘the palm reader of Naenae’.”

Jean, 37, casts spells, performs healing rituals and does tarot readings for others, and uses astrology personally. “Tarot is the art form I use the most. I have an Instagram account for that. I do it mostly through email so people can refer back to what I say. It’s quite emotionally-taxing work, so I do it on and off.” She charges $30 an hour. 

“I’m opening a channel, basically. I shuffle the cards, think about the person. If they’re in front of me, I get them totouch the cards. If they’re not in front of me, I might look at a picture of them, or place their picture on top of the deck before I shuffle. Then I turn over the cards, and start to get the story.”

Yes, she agrees people unfamiliar with tarot are sometimes afraid of cards like the devil, death or the eight of swords. “But a reader sees those cards differently.” For instance, the death card can be about cycles and new beginnings. “You interpret the relationships between the cards with emotional awareness, listening to your instinct.” If possible, she uses birth dates and times to look up someone’s natal chart.

And spells? “I offer healing rituals and spellwork: mainly to friends; not often to strangers. For example, I do space clearing, to disrupt the energy in a space and allow new energy to build. She uses tools such as knives to make stabbing motions, herbs boiled into a tincture to be sprayed or diffused, and sounds such as song, instruments and bells.

“Spellwork and healing-rituals work are kind of the same thing because a ritual is the most powerful spell a person can do for themselves. Where a witch comes into it, is helping somebody design a ritual. Say, for someone who has experienced a break-up or job loss, I might design a bath ritual that uses different elements – scents, crystals, flowers.”

She’s identified as a witch since childhood. “My aunt and cousin did astrology and my aunt did clearing [of negative energy] work. Our family saw the mysticism of Catholicism and witchcraft living in harmony. It wasn’t strange or an issue. We went to mass and also had our charts read and went to psychics.”

“With any spiritual experience or identification, it’s similar to queerness in that you kind of have to ‘come out’. I consider being a witch my spiritual practice, not a religious practice. When aspects of it  are disrespected or seen as frivolous, I’m in some way let down. However, I don’t give a shit about re-educating people to not use the word ‘witch’ in a negative or derogatory way, because that shows more about the person who said that.”

If asked, she’d introduce herself as a theatre-maker. “I write, produce, direct, act, and do my own design and publicity. I’ve been involved in film, theatre, television all my life. I went to kindergarten at Avalon TV studios in the Hutt, because my parents worked in TV there. I was occasionally co-opted if the studios needed a kid. My brother and I jumped between dressing rooms, green rooms, rehearsal rooms. My parents split up when we were young so it was weekdays in Newtown, weekends in Naenae.” She became an extra in TV and short films, “then I started acting in high school and have never stopped”.

Her production company is called School for Gifted Children. “All theatre companies have weird names!” It’s important to her to pay everyone working on a production decently. So, once, she personally made just $1 an hour. She’s always had other jobs to pay the bills. With a Master’s degree in sociology, she’s lectured in psychology and sociology at Victoria University, worked in admin for the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and written for NZhistory.net. Currently she teaches human skills (empathy, feedback, etc) for Dev Academy Aotearoa, which runs web-development/coding bootcamps. 

Earlier this year, Jean co-created queer ballet Sapphic Lake, which combines Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score with a lesbian tale inspired by the Classical Roman poet Ovid. They hired an entirely LGBTQIA+ team. The 2021 Lockdown meant they only got an opening night, but Jean hopes to stage it again. And cinematographer Ed Davies has filmed an especially staged performance, so you will soon be able to buy a ticket to this virtual show, via the BATS website.

Live Through This, a show with Jean’s longtime collaborator Jonny Potts, runs 23 October to 13 November at Circa. It consists of tragicomedies that are performed solo but linked thematically. Jean’s is called “Change Your Own Life” and Jonny’s is “The Best Show In Town Is At Your Place Every Night.” Each reflects on living in Wellington through times of upheaval. “My show has a lot of tarot in it. I’ll talk about my experiences of spiritual significance. I’ve had colour therapy from a Buddhist nun in Korea. I went to a native-American shaman in Mexico.” Does she seek these experiences out? “No. I’d say wherever I am, they find me.”

By Sarah Lang

Sarah Lang is Capital’s books’ and culture writer. She’s involved in LitCrawl, part of Verb Wellington which this year is dedicated to witches. LitCrawl sees multiple sessions taking place across three time slots in unlikely venues. Sessions about aspects of witch-craft or “witchiness”, include tarot-reading event Draw My Card, and Why Does Magic Matter (about the renaissance of witchy writing). Sarah will chair a session about the brilliance and the tragic life of writer Robin Hyde (not a witch, but treated as transgressing) on Saturday 6 November, at Naumi Hotel.

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