IT'S a good thing Gerry Tebbutt doesn't spend all his time in England. He's a veritable threat to employment. He can put a cast, even an orchestra, out of business. Just get him talking about work. Instead of describing a dance step, the choreographer does it. When your brain searches to identify a lyric, he puts years of music lessons to the test but never loud enough to disturb coffee-shop patrons. Put him in a rehearsal hall and he knows how to jump-start a lethargic cast. ''In this business you can either be a waiter or an actor. And today, I have a room full of waiters.'' The 47-year-old dynamo with silver hair and watercolour-blue eyes revs the engines of aspiring thespians by pushing their minds. For the Cantonese production of West Side Story, beginning tomorrow at the Academy for Performing Arts, the choreographer creates a Hongkong version of Harlem's seething energy. ''It's easy. It's all up here,'' assures the British-born actor, pointing to his temple. ''You psyche the cast, make things real. Bring it home.'' In one scene from the Broadway musical, two rival street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, face off. Wanting his actors to experience emotions of rage and anger, Tebbutt had them sit in separate groups and face each other. ''I told them to think hateful thoughts.'' Hongkong lacks little in terms of inspiration for a play dealing with gangs and violence. He reminds the cast of Temple Street and triads, drugs and the deadly car races in Kowloon. ''Actors should feed off everything for inspiration. That's my premise.'' He often underestimates himself. When he did The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Budapest, he had few expectations in terms of audience for the dour-looking city. ''Then 8,000 screaming teens showed up on opening night, throwing things and dressed for the occasion. It was magic.'' Kenya is an annual three-month stint where he produces, directs and acts, takes time for a safari and gets to practise Swahili. Last year, he directed West Side Story in Nairobi then toured Kenya, appearing in An Evening with Noel Coward. ''Young audiences don't want Noel Coward or Cole Porter,'' he explained. ''They want whatever is happening now in the West.'' Tebbutt has been in Hongkong nearly five weeks, rehearsing the late Leonard Bernstein's salute to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. He says his version is more visual and violent than Jerome Robbins' original concept. This is his third project with the APA. He successfully produced Grease (1989) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1990). ''Six of this cast I had known before. It's like coming home.'' He learned acting ''just by doing it''. Raised in a household where the thought of a theatrical career was unheard of, the then 17-year-old had no choice but to leave home and join a theatre company. ''You can learn technique. But if you don't have that spark in you, you'll never make it. ''In Britain, we're supposed to learn acting from the inside out. In America, they think you learn it from the outside in. In that respect, I'm a bit more American.'' He reminds young actors here that they face an immense challenge. ''There aren't so many theatre companies in Hongkong yet. Actors have to concentrate and be better than the next person. It's a matter of the survival of the fittest. ''Acting is all energy and instilling enthusiasm.'' The interview ends with Tebbutt, sprinting off to the rehearsal hall of the APA like the 18-year-olds he directs. West Side Story, Lyric Theatre, Hongkong Academy for Performing Arts, from tomorrow until Sunday.