Before I started rehearsals for Richard III, I was very nervous about the Skype plan. I talked about it with everyone I could think of, hoping someone would say, “Oh, I always rehearse that way, it’s not a big deal at all.” Nobody quite said that, but I did get a few helpful hints.

I had an interesting conversation with Annmarie Early, who does energy work and Reiki via video conference. I told her I was concerned about feeling like I was missing a sense, being deaf to the chi in the room. She told me that I would feel connected to the actors, even across all of the distance, because of my intention and focus, and our past connection. “Distance is basically a metaphor,” she said. I found this to be more true than I expected–I definitely felt more connected to the actors than I had anticipated; the distance didn’t feel as intense as I thought it would. She also said something in passing about my throat chakra being muddled, and I wondered What does that mean? Why did she say that? Is that something I should do something about? I didn’t know what I thought of any of what she was saying, but some of it felt true. I’m a natural skeptic, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this conversation (for some reportage by someone else who had a very similar response to Annmarie, check out this article from Shen Valley Mag). I wanted to learn more, but when I started to dig in on resources about some of what she said, it got Very Hippie very quickly.

Shortly after that, the day before rehearsals began, I saw Holly and told her all about this crazy experiment, as well as my conversation with Annmarie. She said, “Oh, you have to read The Lucid Body by Fay Simpson. It’s all about that sort of thing, but the best part is that right at the beginning, she says, ‘I don’t care if you think of the chakras as a very literal focusing of actual energy in your body, or the locations of nerve ganglia, or just a metaphor. Take what works for you, and invest in it.’ It’s not like, ‘Join my cult.'” I was so intrigued by what Holly said, and so eager to access any information that might help with rehearsals before they started, that I violated my own rule about never spending more than $3 on an eBook and downloaded it that night. It was so good, I decided I needed to get the print version.

Simpson, like so many of my favorite actors, began her career as a dancer, so she brings that deeply embodied sensibility to the work. The book is largely about her own journey through which she discovered her particular framing as an actor–a way of working that integrates the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of the actor’s work.

The chapters are short, and each contain a blend of theoretical and actionable counsel, as well as exercises at the end of each chapter. Although I read the whole thing in a rushed gulp, I think it’s better to work through it more slowly.

The first section of the book focuses on finding neutrality, something that most acting classes include–work on finding a neutral, balanced, centered physical and vocal position to work from, as well as a neutral mental/emotional position. One thing I thought was interesting is that the first chapter is called “The Non-Judgemental Mind,” and in it, she talks about freeing oneself from the habits of judging others and judging ourselves. I frequently notice this latter habit in actors, and I wish I were better at helping them release it. Simpson writes: “We think we know ourselves, but until the self-judgement stops, our inner body will stay in hiding.” I might not have used those words, but I’m sure I’ve tried to express this exact idea in countless classes and rehearsals.

This first section felt a bit familiar–although phrased in new ways, it’s all concepts I had worked with before, beginning in high school. A little Linklater, a little Thich Nhat Hanh. Where things got mind-bending and fascinating was in the second section, which is a deep dive on chakra energy centers.

Simpson explores each chakra in sequence, explaining where it is located in the body, how it manifests when it is imploded (sucking energy), exploded (like a burst pipe), or balanced (ideal, not too much or too little). She also gives examples of specific characters who are exploded or imploded in each chakra. As an example, the solar plexus chakra is associated with ego, decisive action, machismo. She identifies Julius Caesar as described by Cassius (“Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus”) as having an exploded solar plexus chakra, and Hamlet as being imploded. What I love about this is that it ties an emotional state or way of being in the world to a way of being physically. I’m curious about applying this to movement work–what does it mean to be physically exploded or imploded in each of these areas of the body? How does the development in the story–freeing or binding the chakra centers–affect the actor’s movement? She uses a lot of different vocabulary for this idea, so even if one way of describing it didn’t speak to me, another was coming along. The one that fit the best for me was overflowing/draining. Water metaphors speak to me.

We did a little experimenting with chakras in Richard, although I didn’t use this language. He’s constantly balancing his imploded heart with his exploded solar plexus–as the play went on, and his depravity increased, we experimented with his movement becoming more constrained, and his cursed arm got extra cursed–collapsing his shoulders in around his chest–whenever he did something particularly heartless.

One thing that was interesting is that, much like finding a physically neutral position, chakra character work requires first analyzing one’s own energy and where one is centered. I found this exercise terrifically illuminating; I’ve been describing myself as an “overflowing heart” for the past couple of years, which can be an embarrassing way to live in this world. Having that named helps. To see in a book, some authority saying, “This is a legitimate way of being in the world” was reassuring. I also loved her list of characters who are “exploding heart” people. They’re all people who are a bit too much, but whom I adore.

This chakra section was terrifically useful and interesting, and it makes up the bulk of the book. I want the actors I work with most to read it, just for this bit, so that it can become part of our collective vocabulary without my stumbling attempts to summarize it.

The rest of the book wasn’t quite as compelling for me, but I think it’s because the metaphors in it didn’t speak to me as clearly. She has a long section on identifying three layers of consciousness–a persona, a shadow, and a child-need–that just didn’t feel as rich or clear to me as the chakra work.

The final section has to do with taking all of this work and pulling it together to physically map a character–their state at the beginning of the journey, through to the end–and placing discoveries in the actor’s physical body. I love this, because in Shakespeare World we tend to be too much in our heads. Maybe this is why I love working with people who have dance training; they have the instincts that keep them from the trap the rest of us tend to fall into with Shakespeare.

I want to learn more about this, to dig deeper especially on the sections that didn’t resonate as clearly with me. I’m hoping to do some work with actors who have spent time with this text as well, to see how it feels on its feet. I don’t trust anything until we try it in rehearsal.

Highly recommend–and let me know if you read it! I’m eager to discuss this work with people.

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