When Elliot Christensen-Yule rehearses for the play Red, he doesn't just have to recall lines and stage directions. Christensen-Yule, 22, also has to remember the recipe for brewing up paint, how to stretch and size canvas and his art history.

He plays Ken, the young apprentice to Michael Hurst's character Mark Rothko in the Auckland Theatre Company's latest production, Red, by award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Logan.

Unlike a number of other plays about art and artists, where no one actually picks up a brush, this is a more visceral portrait of an artist at work. Director Oliver Driver describes it as the messiest, "prop-iest" play he's been involved with. He says that while there are only two actors in it, Red has a cast of hundreds when you include the necessary props.

"We want the audience to feel as if they have snuck into the studio and are watching the artist at work."

The action takes place in Rothko's studio, where paint bubbles away on a stove top, canvases are moved around on an elaborate pulley system and brushes, sketches, books and leftover Chinese takeaway containers litter the floor.

Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rothko, a Russian Jew who immigrated with his family to the United States in 1913 when he was 10, is among the leading abstract expressionists of his day - although it's not a label he likes.

He should be celebrating because he's landed the biggest commission in the history of modern art, a series of murals for the luxury Four Seasons restaurant in the New York headquarters of beverage company Joseph Seagram and Sons.

But as he starts to create and to paint, Rothko sees red - and it's not just the paint. He begins to question his views on art, creativity and its relationship with commerce. If his fears and doubts aren't enough, Ken is gaining the skills and smarts to challenge and provoke him further.

Red is Christensen-Yule's debut performance for ATC after a handful of scene-stealing roles in smaller productions and on television. He sees himself as learning his craft from a succession of talented teachers who have included his peers and more experienced household names. In that sense, he relates well to Ken.

"This is an amazing opportunity, but a bit intimidating all at the same time. I mean, it's Auckland Theatre Company and Oliver Driver and Michael Hurst. The company has such well-established processes. You don't feel as if you have to help with moving lights. You can just get on with the job of being an actor - not that I wouldn't move the lights if I was asked."

Christensen-Yule has worked most often with the Outfit Theatre Company, an independent group which tends to devise its own high-energy shows, but his biggest role before Red was as Posner in Jesse Peach's production of The History Boys.

He's done the almost obligatory Shortland Street stint, playing Angus Phelps, a young man living with Tourette Syndrome. He was the young Wolf in Outrageous Fortune, made a brief appearance on Go Girls and played a baby-faced freedom fighter in the TV drama This Is Not My Life.

It's an impressive resume for someone who left school with no career ideas. But at high school, the former Northcote College student won awards at the National Sheila Winn Shakespeare Festival and was awarded New Zealand's top secondary school scholarship for drama.

If it was meant to be, Christensen-Yule didn't exactly recognise it at the time. He says he felt like a break from study and didn't have "a clue" what he wanted to pursue. Then he got cast in Shortland Street.

Not that he's pinning all his hopes on acting. He has another life as a cinema projectionist and admits he's gone a bit "geeky" on the craft - which pleases Oliver Driver.

Driver says those who want to be good actors need to be well-rounded people who do more with their time than watch TV, dreaming of when they'll be on it, and reading books about drama.

"You need to be interested in the world around you; to know a little bit about art or history or science because chances are, one day, you could have to know a little about that stuff to play a part.

"With each new play, you almost have to become a mini-expert because you're dealing with a new subject. Right now we are living, breathing and eating abstract expressionism but that will change once we finish and move on to the next project."

He cast Christensen-Yule because his dark hair and slightly olive complexion contrast with Michael Hurst's look; he believes Christensen-Yule is capable of realistically portraying Ken's journey and, most importantly, he can foot it with Hurst.

"Michael is a powerful actor and I needed someone I believe can keep up with him. I also wanted someone, and I mean no disrespect to Elliot, who is starting out and just getting known. Everyone knows who Mark Rothko was and everyone knows Michael Hurst, but no one knows Ken so it seemed right we were introducing a new actor to play that role."

What: Red

Where and when: Maidment Theatre, to June 25