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Ken Rea: ‘The best actors embrace danger’

Ken Rea. Photo: Addie Chinn

Guildhall acting teacher Ken Rea, 67, has trained the likes of Damien Lewis, Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig, Michelle Dockery, Dominic West, Hayley Atwell and Joseph Fiennes. He reckons he has also taught about 950 others, many of whom have gone on to have decent careers but who haven’t necessarily achieved worldwide acclaim.

“I’ve spent many years trying to work out what it is that the very successful handful have, or do, which the majority of actors don’t,” says Rea, who has now detailed his thoughts in a book – The Outstanding Actor – which will be published this month.

ken rea CV“I’ve come to the conclusion that it boils down to seven keys to success – warmth, generosity, enthusiasm, danger, presence, grit and charisma. I’ve talked to people at the top of their game about this and, on the whole, people such as Judi Dench and Nicholas Hytner agree with me, although they sometimes use different words for the same qualities,” Rea says.

Rea arrived in Britain from his native New Zealand in 1977 and has worked here ever since.

“The boys’ high school I attended in Rotorua was stronger on rugby than on the arts, but there were some enthusiastic teachers. I did some chorus and minor roles in Gilbert and Sullivan and school plays, but I was never good enough to get a lead role.” Nonetheless he was the only one in his year to train professionally, in a private drama college, when he left school. He then spent 10 years acting and directing in an experimental theatre company before leaving the country.

“I wanted to learn more about specific theatre forms in Japan, China, Bali, India, Britain and the rest of Europe” Rea explains “So I set off on a two year journey of discovery. I observed and worked with the phenomenal ‘presence’ of Kabuki actors and the power of Balinese mask dancers at first hand, and eventually arrived in Britain early in 1977 with a huge amount of research”.

You have to be ready for your moment – which for most won’t come until you’re in your 30s or 40s

He didn’t complete his tour, although he has worked all over the world at various times since. Instead, in the UK, he started writing on the back of his research and working as an arts journalist. Then, a few months later, he was offered a teaching post at the Guildhall. “And I’ve been there ever since” says Rea.

He adds ruefully that when he first arrived in Britain, he thought he had so much material he ought to write a book. Five years later he was glad he hadn’t because he felt he had learned much more in the interim. The same thought recurred for decades. “But now, after 30 years, it really is time to pass on the information… my secrets,” he says. “It would be wrong to let it die with me.”

Damien Lewis writes in the foreword to The Outstanding Actor that, “There isn’t a student that has been taught by Ken Rea that can’t do a passionate impression of him gesticulating and saying in a nurturing way ‘Yes, yes, warmth and generosity…’ his key words.”

Ken rea Q&ARea says he instils into students in every class at the outset the need to give to each other and to be warm in their interactions. He mentions Judi Dench in Philomena or Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything generously pulsing out concentrated energy towards the other actors they’re working with in each scene. He believes that anyone can learn to do this with practice and determination.

Rea has spent nearly half a century trying to work out what distinguishes outstanding actors from the rest. “They’re unafraid of danger,” he says, mentioning Antony Sher with whom he worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company before Sher was famous. “He was by far the bravest risk-taker in the rehearsal room,” recalls Rea. “It’s the freedom to be unpredictable and spontaneous within the form that marks out people like him. When I see actors I trained working, and when I visit them backstage afterwards, they often ask ‘Ken, was I dangerous?’ because it’s a key element.”

He also mentions enthusiasm arguing that it’s catching and can be cultivated. “Just as one negative nay-sayer in a rehearsal room can drag everyone down so, conversely, an energetic enthusiast can raise the level of everyone’s work,” observes Rea, who also believes that curiosity is essential. He reminds me that when the young Dench was playing Ophelia, her 1957 professional debut at the Old Vic, she would stand in the wings between scenes rather than go back to her dressing room because she wanted to see how everyone else in the company worked.

“You have to be ready for your moment – which for most won’t come until you’re in your 30s or 40s. Meanwhile, you need to keep working with that all important gritty resilience – another quality you can acquire at will – which means that you have to learn to bounce back from the knock-backs.”

Rea believes that there could be many more outstanding actors than there are if more were consciously to develop his seven key attributes. But he accepts that numerically there probably would not be room for them all in this crowded profession.

The Outstanding Actor – Seven Keys to Success by Ken Rea, published by Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury) is out now, ISBN: 9781472572981, £14.99

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