Celestine Rae Talks About How Her Love of Dance Led to Her Acting Career– with Appearances on Such Iconic Television Shows as Boardwalk Empire (HBO) and Law & Order SVU (NBC) – and to Teaching Acting at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in New York City
Celestine Rae had such a visible early connection to music that her parents tried to enroll her at. a dance studio in Philadelphia at age three. She had to wait until she was four. Her dancing was so expressive that she was later encouraged to study acting, while continuing to dance. After college, she studied with Terry Knickerbocker, which in her words “changed my life.” She is now a dancer, actor, emerging director, and member of the faculty of the Terry Knickerbocker Studio.
TKS: You clearly had an early affinity for dance. How did that lead to acting?
Celestine: I studied dance at Soliloquy in Motion, a dance studio in Philadelphia, from the age of four through high school. I majored in dance at Temple University and, while at Temple, I auditioned for and joined the apprentice dance company – DANCO 2 – of the Philadelphia Dance Company. So, dance was definitely my vehicle. From my very first performance as a young child, people who saw me dance thought that they were watching someone else, because I came to life in an entirely different way on stage. Performing enabled me to express myself in ways that weren’t evident in other parts of my life, because I was a fairly shy child. When I was 14, David St. Charles, who was a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, came to teach at Soliloquy in Motion, and he began choreographing narrative ballets that were rich in storytelling. When he saw me dance, he called me “Face,” because he said I danced not just with my body but with a depth of emotion in my face. One day, he pulled me to the side and said, “You need to act.” Your performance “goes beyond dancing.” When I went to Temple University, I started taking acting electives. But it wasn’t until I moved to New York City after college that I studied acting intensively.
TKS: How did you come to study with Terry Knickerbocker?
Celestine: The Terry Knickerbocker Studio didn’t exist at the time, so I enrolled at the William Esper Studio, where Terry was then teaching. There I met Laith Nakli, the actor now starring in Ramy (Hulu), and he urged me to study with Terry Knickerbocker. I interviewed with Terry, then enrolled in the two-year conservatory program, and trained with Terry throughout that time. Studying with Terry Knickerbocker changed my life. Training with him gave me permission both creatively and artistically to explore parts of myself that I had hidden and not accepted. It enabled me to approach roles more deeply and fully and to take risks in my artistry.
TKS: Did that training influence your later decision to teach at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio?
Celestine: Absolutely. I realized that through teaching I can impart that same permission that was given to me. But I do it through my own lens – as a woman, a woman of color, and a dancer. I am grateful that I can bring all of myself to this art form and teach it in a way that follows the classic Meisner tradition, but with my own specific flavor. I’m also grateful that Terry encourages me to follow my instincts both as an actor and as a teacher. It’s exciting to see my own students emerge. It’s thrilling to see them move beyond the societal pressures to fit in – and to find the truth about who they are. It’s wonderful to see them step into their own expansiveness, especially when you know how reserved they were at the outset. The intention of the Meisner technique is to make better actors, but the byproduct is that the students become better people. They become more in touch with their humanity, their empathy, their willingness to express themselves freely.
TKS: You had a recurring role on the iconic television series Boardwalk Empire. What was that like?
Celestine: It was amazing to be on that set with such extraordinary actors. I had the privilege of working, for instance, with the late Michael K. Williams on several episodes and with Jeffrey Wright. Michael K. Williams also started out as a dancer and had a history with the National Black Theatre. I have been honored to appear in productions at the National Black Theatre as well as the Billie Holiday Theatre. Both have been especially meaningful to me because of their legacy of showcasing the multitude of stories about Black people – and not Black people as a monolith.
TKS: How does your training with Terry Knickerbocker and your teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio inform your evolution as a director?
Celestine: They are all closely related. My training taught me, for instance, how to read a script – how to read it initially without distraction and then how to break it down: Who is my character? What do I bring to the role? How can I illuminate that character’s humanity? How do I approach each scene? What am I doing in every moment? My training gives me a road map. That same road map informs me as a director. It enables me to see the production as a whole, while considering separately each of the characters in the production. Teaching and directing are much more closely connected than it might seem. Both involve helping individual performers appreciate their specific roles in a broader production. Both involve helping those performers reach new heights of achievement and discovery in the roles. As a dancer, actor, teacher, and director, I continue to seek those same heights of achievement and discovery. The process of creativity and artistry is never stagnant. We learn from every experience. It is a journey of constant evolution and discovery. Art has the power to transform the artist and those who bear witness. It is the potential for transformation that is so compelling. It is that prospect that offers so much hope and optimism.
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