August Tuesday: Q&A with Dialect Coach Stacy Pendergraft

Our final show of the 2014-2015 MainStage Season is upon us!

August: Osage County, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that is finally taking The Rep stage, will open June 5. And to highlight this critically acclaimed play, we are starting a brand-new blog series throughout the run, showcasing the various aspects of the show.

In the second installment, I was able to talk with the show’s Dialect Coach Stacy Pendergraft on her approach with character dialects for a show like August: Osage County, her actual connection to the play, how she has helped provide more context to the play, plus more.

Here’s what she had to say:

Stacy Pendergraft_Headshot_ 7212

Stacy Pendergraft

Q: What is your background in theatre?

A: I am an associate professor of theatre at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I am the primary professor in the performance and directing track and have just finished my 13th year on faculty there. I came to Little Rock from American Stage in St. Petersburg Florida, where I was the Artistic Associate and Director of Education. I also acted, directed and developed new children’s works for their touring program.

Q: What piqued your interest in theatre and voice coaching?

A: Oh, I’m a lifelong theatre rat. It just so happened that my very small rural Oklahoman town had a vibrant community theatre and my high school had amazingly devoted and highly skilled theatre and music teachers. Also, even though my hometown is small, it is a college town with a strong focus on its performing arts programs. So, my exposure came early and deep both in theatre and music. I suppose my music background developed a real appreciation for diction and placement of speech and singing sounds. In my university training, I gained more specific knowledge about the vocal apparatus and this led to more specific training in voice, phonetics and dialects. So voice and dialect work became a sub-specialty in all of my subsequent professional and educational gigs.

Q: How do you approach being a dialect coach for a play like August: Osage County? Do you observe the rehearsals and work with actors individually on their character dialects?

A: What’s incredibly rewarding about this particular process is that Bob and I are defining a way of working together. It’s not always common to have a dialect coach, and so I am glad to be able to contribute to this production and this particular ensemble. When a dialect or voice coach works with actors, she has to know that any feedback has to take into account each particular actor’s way of working and be sensitive to the way an actor wants to incorporate voice work into their character development. I want to be in-tune with their rehearsal goals and not be an intrusion. So knowing the right way and right time to offer feedback is paramount. This cast has from day one, placed great trust in me, and it is not a charge that I take lightly. They are the ones in front of an audience each night and are the ones the audience will be listening to, and I want to guide them to the most authentic choices possible.

For our production, I started by giving a one-hour dramaturgical presentation the first day of rehearsal on Oklahoma and its dialect. And I should say that like any geographical region, there is not necessarily ‘one sound.’ Rural/urban influences, socioeconomic status, educational level, not to mention the psychology of the human being, all impact the way we sound and the way characters sound, too. I gave the actors a packet of listening resources and basic sound substitutions to help them begin their work. I sit in on rehearsals, tuning my ear to the actors and helping them find the music of the dialect on a day-by-day basis. I am available for individual coaching and questions as needed by the actors. It’s become a rather fluid process.

Q: What is your connection to the writer of this play in particular?

A: I am a native Oklahoman and grew up in roughly the same part of the state that Tracy Letts was raised. He was raised in Durant and I was raised in Ada. Both towns are small Oklahoma college towns. My mother actually went to college for a while at Southeast Oklahoma State University where Tracy’s mom and dad (Billie and Dennis Letts) taught. I also went to college at the University of Tulsa, which factors into the story of Bill and Barbara, characters in the play.

Q: How do you think your background in Oklahoma will help the actors as they prepare for their roles in the show?

A: Researching both the place and sound of Oklahoma, I’ve had to really rediscover my own sound and the place from where I come. I’ve discovered things about Oklahoma that relate to the play that have brought me to a new place of understanding. I think I can answer some specific questions about the play’s given circumstances and the rhythms and nuances of the language that are perhaps not as obvious if you’re not from Oklahoma.

Q: Why should patrons see this production on our stage?

A: August: Osage County is an American play that speaks to me on the same level as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. Along with Angels in America and Clybourne Park, it is, for me, one of the three most important plays written about the fabric of American life in the past 50 years. The characters are epic in scale, richly imagined and full in their powers of expression. The language of the play offers the kind of text actors spend their careers pursuing. And finally, the cast assembled for this production is one that you will remember for a long, long time. They are passionate about this play, and what they are creating with Bob and the rest of the production team at The Rep is not to be missed.

Check back every Tuesday throughout the run of the show (June 5-21) to get a glimpse into a new aspect of the show and get your tickets for the show by calling the Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or visiting TheRep.org.