When I was a young woman I went to study method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York City. There, I had a wonderful acting teacher named Hope. The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute at that time was on a sketchy block right above the East Village. There was a colorful banner waving in front but the building itself was worn and tired. It had the feel of the borrowed fame of the younger, less beautiful and less popular sister of The Actor’s Studio . Our classrooms were reached by climbing creaky wooden steps that were generally dark and uninviting and smelled of rat poison and actor desperation. The classrooms themselves were similarly dilapidated and bleak. Our teacher, Hope, on the other hand, was worldly and glamorous. She gestured dramatically and smoked long thin brown cigarettes through all four hours of our acting class. (Looking back I’m amazed at both the smoking and the length of this class). Hope was a marvelous woman and teacher. Her recent obituary in the New York Times referred to her as a “Dame”. Hope was able to infuse us with passion and purpose. She would make dramatic declarations like “Don’t wipe those tears away. Tears are worth a hundred dollars each!” Or “Without the Method’s use of relaxation, I’d be a cripple. A cripple!” Another thing she was fond of exclaiming “ “Your JOB,” she would say, “is to illuminate the human soul”. She would say this with her arms raised, brandishing the ubiquitous cigarette and drawing swirls of smoke and ash in the air and my young self would feel absolutely giddy with purpose. My body, mind, soul would synthesize in an infusion of clarity. All my stupid little dramas, petty yet relentless pseudo self-examination that make up the life of a student actor would momentarily dissipate. We actors were not narcissistic, disconnected, too numerous to count, and mundane. We were light! We were luminous!
This phrase, “To illuminate the human soul” came back to me many years later when I began my Reiki training. Learning about the “one great Reiki” that Mikao Usui experienced on Mount Kurama brought me back to the idea of illumination. The Latin definition of the word llluminare is “to throw into light, make bright, light up”. It seemed that both Reiki and acting had this in common, each encompassing the concept of illumination as an intrinsic element of creativity and healing.
The author Sharon Marie Carnicke writes in her book “Stanislavsky in Focus” of the more spiritual aspects of Stanislavsky’s writing and teaching, based on Eastern philosophy, specifically Yoga. The idea of prana (also known in China as Chi and in Japan as Ki) was something Stanislavsky mentioned extensively. However, this aspect of his writing has mostly vanished as it was expunged in Soviet appropriation of his material and simply dropped in English translations. Carnicke writes, “We lost what he considered the line “that sends forth rays of energy (a concept he derived from Yoga) which posits that invisible energy emanates from and between people”.
When Lee Strasberg adapted the work of Stanislavsky he also, like the Soviet censors, did so at the expense of anything spiritual. One, because the English translation of Stanislavsky’s original 575-page “An Actor’s Work on Himself Part 1” was severely edited and cut down to 275 pages when published in America as “An Actor Prepares”, but mainly because Strasberg was relentlessly invested in his own psychological adaptation of Stanislavsky’s theories. Strasberg’s stance on the exploration of Eastern philosophies was that while it sometimes made someone’s life better “it didn’t translate into good acting.” To my mind his statement seems based on a couple of widespread and popular misconceptions; that you must suffer and be in pain to create and that Eastern philosophical practices are passive and palliative rather than active and holistic.
Despite all this, I can’t help but feel that something of those abandoned concepts of energy “rays” embedded in Stanislavsky’s original system still existed in those dark halls and dim classrooms of the LSTI. How could it not? Something felt illuminated. Especially around Hope. And any actor, no matter where they studied, can tell you what the energy of another person is, what the energy of the room is, and what the energy of tonight’s audience is compared to yesterday’s matinee.
The study and practice of Reiki is ultimately about recognizing the light that each of us has as a powerful force for healing for ourselves and others. We are connected by this energy, this light. For actors, that light is a metaphor for creativity and communion with the audience. In Reiki, that light is the communion between healer and healed. In both disciplines, it is about “illuminating the human soul”.
photo courtesy Brook Temple