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The Theatre Director and Mentor On A New Edition of his Defining 2015 Book


"How can I step up to the next level to get better parts in better productions?" That's what actors are asking me lately. The question has never been more urgent than amid a pandemic that seems to be blighting careers. So, it's time to think about solutions and to be aware that, even in lockdown, your habits can determine your level of success.

That's really why I wrote The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success. I wanted to explain what top actors were doing that made them so successful. And I wanted to give a framework that any actor could follow in order to make a difference.

The book [first published in 2015] is based on my 40 years of training actors such as Ewan McGregor, Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Paapa Essiedu and Daniel Craig, to name a few. I distilled everything down to seven qualities and traits that great actors have, I explained why these were so effective and I interviewed top actors to test my ideas. I also described the proven exercises that can deliver results.

Now, in this second edition, I've been able to use the latest technology to give links to video clips of the exercises so you can have the impression of being in one of my masterclasses. I've also updated the book to show how recent developments, such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, as well as the rise of social media, can make a difference to your career. For one thing, producers and directors will be more respectful to young men and women these days. There'll also be increasing diversity in casting, bringing new energy into the industry.

And of course, Covid won't last forever. Already, productions are starting up again and theatres are soon to open. This means that you need to be match-fit, ready to go when opportunities come. My advice is: use this time to develop your skills and fill in gaps that you might not have had time to fill before. Work on your voice, your range of accents, your singing, your sight-reading, your imagination. And be your own coach by recording exercises on your phone and playing them back, so you can monitor your progress and step up. The Outstanding Actor can help in this.

Ken Rea
photo c. Danny J Peace

How exactly do you step up to that next level? Well, first ask yourself, "For me, what does the next level look like?" How would your work look different from what you're doing now? I'm not talking about the parts you're getting yet, but the way you actually work, say in rehearsals.

One of my former students, who has worked with some of Britain's greatest actors, told me recently, "They're all silly. But they're highly focussed" - in other words, silliness in the service of the story. The key quality here is playfulness - bringing an almost childlike discovery to a role and being comfortable with taking risks in your acting choices. These risks may look silly at first but, through trial and error, may lead to something brilliant.

Risk-taking and playfulness require fearlessness. We'd all love to be fearless, but things hold most of us back: fear of judgement, getting it wrong, fear of being rejected by the rest of the cast or the director, fear of being humiliated. The best actors have usually found ways to deal with this from early on.

Paradoxically, you are likely to feel most fearful at the beginning of your career when you have less to lose. So that's the time to take risks, be true to yourself and live the life you want to live. Later, when experienced actors have a track record of work behind them, they may feel they have a reputation to defend. So the stakes can feel higher: to fail is to let down all the work they've done up till now. That's a poisonous mindset, of course, because it can stop you growing.

One solution is to ask yourself, what's holding you back? What could you break free of? And what will be the cost if you don't break free?

That leads us to the question of fame. My research shows that hardly any of the best actors set out to be famous: they just try to do great work, being true to themselves. Striving for fame can lead you down the rabbit hole of social media with that craving to be popular. Do the work you believe in, fearlessly, by constantly challenging yourself and eventually your audience will find you.

The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success is available in a new edition from Bloomsbury

Photo c. Tom Edkins

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