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.

Discovering Gee’s Bend: A Place Within a Play

Gee’s Bend, Alabama is located in Wilcox County and is surrounded on three sides by a dramatic U-turn in the Alabama River. The approximately 700 residents are almost all descendants of the slaves of the original Gee’s Bend plantation.

Boykin, also known as Gee’s Bend, is an African American majority community and census-designated place in a large bend of the Alabama River in Wilcox County, Alabama.

This geographic isolation and unusual stability of community created a unique enclave for the women’s art community: quilting. The history of Gee’s Bend is the story of a tiny place altered by large social changes occurring over the years.

Before the Civil War, Gee’s Bend was primarily a working cotton plantation, first controlled by slave owner Joseph Gee and then his nephews, who sold it to Mark Pettway. After the Civil War, the emancipated slaves took the last name of Pettway, and worked the same land as tenant farmers. In the 1930s the acreage was sold to the federal government, which in turn developed a program to enable them to purchase the land that they already cultivated.

Pettway plantation, April 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

The type of quilt making found in Gee’s Bend is of the African-American style. This style is considered unique among others found elsewhere in the United States. The most obvious reason for this is the overt African influence. The use of symbols, asymmetry, bright colors, and vertical piecing are techniques that hark back to African textile creations of years ago. Many of the symbols found in these quilts have also been traced back to religious symbols native to a multitude of African tribes. So although these quilts signify their personal pasts and hopes for a future, these women still respect the culture from which they originated.

Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the quilters who inspired the play Gee’s Bend. Photo credit internationalfolkart.org.

These quilts were not originally created as pieces of art—whether for wall hangings or theatrical inspiration. In fact, the quilts were made out of necessity. The very culture that these women were raised in taught them that everything had a use.

So when the nights became cold each winter, the women would scrounge what small scraps of fabric they could find and fashion a blanket to put on the beds of their children and themselves. The inspiration for this approach to construction came from the equally as innovative approach to housing insulation—using layers of paper found in newspapers or magazines.

These wonderful pieces of art were simply thought of as creative methods of keeping a family warm until 1966. It was then that these women realized that the magic and beauty of the quilts came more from what went into them rather than what came out.

Flying Geese variation, ca. 1935 by Annie E. Pettway.

It was a common practice in these small communities of quilt makers to “air out” their quilts every spring. For members of the community, this became a time to study other’s methods or designs so that they may have inspiration the next winter. However, in 1966, another set of eyes caught a glimpse of these soon to be masterpieces.

Gee’s Bend Quilt, April 2012, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

Father Francis Walter saw something more than function in these quilts. He saw a passion and a history unique to these people. Walter, a Civil Rights worker, proposed the idea of marketing and selling these quilts to stores in larger cities in the hopes that these women would soon become self-sufficient economically doing what they loved. Working in conjunction with many volunteers, he was able to get the quilts into the Smithsonian Institution. This exposed the work of these women to the world, but also inspired stores such as Sears, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Ave. to sign contracts with them to manufacture and sell their designs.

In 2002, Houston’s noted Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of quilts created by over 30 residents of Alabama’s small community of Gee’s Bend. The exhibit, praised by The New York Times and others, brought world-wide attention to the otherwise hidden creative endeavors of the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

“The best of these designs, unusually minimalist and spare, are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them. The results, not incidentally, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” – The New York Times

Art collector William Arnett, working on a history of African-American folk art in 1998, made the discovery when he came across a photograph of Annie Mae Young’s work-clothes quilt draped over a woodpile. He was so impressed by its originality, he set out to find it. Research lead Arnett and his son Matt to Young in Gee’s Bend and then they showed up at her door late one evening.

Young had burned some quilts the week before (smoke from burning cotton drives off mosquitoes), and at first she thought the quilt in the photograph had been among them. But the next day, she found it and offered it to Arnett for free. Arnett, however, insisted on writing her a check for a few thousand dollars for that quilt and several others. Soon the word spread through Gee’s Bend that there was a white man in town paying money for raggedy old quilts.

Work-Clothes Quilt ca. 2002 by Mary Lee Bendolph.

Arnett shared his discovery with Peter Marzio of the Museum of Fine Arts. The attention to the exhibition revived what had been a dying art in Gee’s Bend. In 2006, the Smithsonian magazine reported that some of the quilters, who had given in to age and arthritis, were back quilting again. And many of their children and grandchildren, some of whom had moved away from Gee’s Bend, had taken up quilting themselves.

Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

With the help of Arnett and the Tinwood Alliance (a nonprofit organization that he and his four sons formed in 2002), fifty local women founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2003 to market their quilts, some of which had sold for more than $20,000.

The play Gee’s Bend was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project, where it received a staged reading in 2006 and premiered in January 2007. Even though the story is loosely based on the life of Mary Lee Bendolph, the play focuses on the community of Gee’s Bend as well. Like most artists, the women of Gee’s Bend looked to their surroundings to inspire their designs and were influenced by those around them.

Watch as Director Gilbert McCauley discusses discovering Gee’s Bend and the impact it has in telling this story. Woman on Pettway Plantation, Gees Bend, 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

“The story of Gee’s Bend is tied to Gee’s Bend only; it’s a special place filled with special people who may appear mundane on the surface, but beneath they are as textured as the very quilts they make,” says Rep Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke. “The costumes, the set and the props will reflect not only the people, but also the place of Gee’s Bend both literally and metaphorically.”

Watch as Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke discusses the lessons audiences will take away from this true story. Monica Parks as mother Alice, Nambi E. Kelley as Sadie and Shannon Lamb as sister Nella in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend.

Gee’s Bend opens on The Rep stage January 25 and runs through February 10, 2013, supported and sponsored by The Design Group, Philander Smith College, Arora, Delta Airlines and the Little Rock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The Rep’s production of Gee’s Bend is made possible in part by a grant from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Foundation, a component fund of the Arkansas Community Fund.

Ring of Fire: Song by Song

Read more about each song featured in The Rep’s production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, including label and release dates, sample lyrics and background information.

“Country Boy”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1957
Sample lyric: “Country boy/Ain’t got no wills/Country boy/You don’t owe no bills”
Note: “Country Boy,” an exceptionally short tune running only 1:49 on record, was on Cash’s debut, Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar. This was the first full album put out by Memphis’ Sun records. Also, Cash had the songwriting credit listed under his birth name.

“Flesh and Blood”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Sample lyric: “Mother Nature’s quite a lady/But you’re the one I need/Flesh and blood need flesh and blood/And you’re the one I need”

“While I’ve Got It On My Mind”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1974
Sample lyric: “Now boys don’t you be rambling free/And leaving your girls to cry/Cause the nights are cold and there ain’t no gold/That’ll ever satisfy”

“Five Feet High and Rising”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1959
Note: The song is based on a real event, the 1937 flood that forced the evacuation of the Dyess Colony where the Cash family lived and worked.

“In the Sweet By and By”
Songwriters: S. Fillmore Bennett and Joseph P. Webster
Label and release date: Columbia, 1975
Note: Cash’s first recording of the 1868 Christian hymn was for the gospel album, Sings Precious Memories. Cash had tried and failed to convince Sam Phillips, head of the Memphis Sun label, to let him record a gospel music. When Cash moved to Columbia (with a number of hits under his belt), his wish was granted. Sings Precious Memories was his fifth gospel album for Columbia.

“Daddy Sang Bass”
Songwriter: Carl Perkins
Label and release date: Columbia, 1968
Note: Rockabilly star Perkins wrote this song about a family united through gospel music for Cash, his friend and tour mate. Perkins credited Cash for renewing his faith and recovery from alcohol addiction.

“I Still Miss Someone”
Songwriters: Johnny Cash and brother Roy Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1958
Sample lyric: “I wonder if she’s sorry/For leavin’ what we’d begun/There’s someone for me somewhere/And I still miss somewhere”

“Tennessee Flat Top Box”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1961
Note: In 1987 Johnny’s daughter Roseanne Cash had a chart-topping hit with her cover of “Tennessee Flat Box.” Roseanne, given the song by her then husband Rodney Crowell, wasn’t aware at the time that it was written by her father.

“Straight A’s in Love”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1959
Sample lyric: “Oh, my grades are low on my card, I know/But they oughta give me one above/If they’d give me a mark for learnin’ in the dark/I’d have straight A’s in love”

“Big River”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1958
Note: “Big River” was the last song on Cash’s second album, Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous. The Tennessee Two’s insistent, thumping beat coupled with Cash’s vocals — particularly powerful with more than a hint of danger — make “Big River” a standout song.

“Tear Stained Letter”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1972
Note: Cash recorded this brooding love song twice — first for the Columbia album, A Thing Called Love and then for American IV: The Man Comes Around, the final album that would be released while Cash was alive.

“Get Rhythm”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1956
Note: The B-side to “I Walk the Line” is an uptempo piece of optimism, the rhythm produced by a “shoeshine boy” to ward off the blues. Cash demonstrates that his material can come from almost any part of life.

“Egg Suckin’ Dog”
Songwriter: Jack H. Clement
Label and release date: Columbia, 1966
Note: One of Cash’s great strengths was his enthusiasm in tackling novelty songs like this one and “A Boy Named Sue.” This tune, which debuted on Everybody Loves a Nut, was written by Clement, who started out as a producer and engineer at Sun Records. Clement wrote a number of hits for Cash including “Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“Oh Come, Angel Band”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Cachet/Columbia, 1979
Sample lyric: “My triumph is begun/Oh come, angel band/Come around me and stand/Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings”

“Flushed from the Bathroom of My Heart”
Songwriter: Jack H. Clement
Label and release date: Columbia, 1968
Note: One of a couple of novelty songs on the live At Folsom Prison album. At Folsom Prison, a critical and commercial success, marked a turning point in Cash’s career. Cash said “that’s where things got started for me again.”

“If I Were a Carpenter”
Songwriter: Tim Hardin
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Note: A duet between Johnny and June Carter that was awarded a Grammy in 1971 for Best Country Performance by Duo or Group with Vocal.

“Ring of Fire”
Songwriters: June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore
Label and release date: Columbia, 1963
Note: The biggest hit of Cash’s career was first performed by June’s sister, Anita Carter, and was titled “(Love’s) Ring of Fire.” Cash told Anita that he would give her version time to catch on and become popular but, if it didn’t, then he would record it the way he wanted. Of course, Cash did just that with the flourish of mariachi horns (which he later claimed came to him in a dream) being the most distinctive element of any Cash song and arguably any in the history of country music. Cash’s “Ring of Fire” invariably lands on lists of greatest songs — in 2003 CMT put it at number 4 in its 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.

“I’ve Been Everywhere”
Songwriter: Geoff Mack
Label and release date: American, 1996
Note: This Cash cover of  a signature song for country star Hank Snow appeared on the Unchained album. It was the second album where Cash teamed with producer Rick Rubin, who had produced the Beasties Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers among many others.

“Cry, Cry, Cry”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1955
Note: The song that Cash supposedly wrote overnight to impress Sam Phillips at Sun after “Hey Porter” did not sell. It did the trick and a number of hits for Cash at Sun followed.

“Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Songwriter: Kris Kristofferson
Label and release date: Columbia, 1970
Note: Ray Stevens released and was able to chart his version of this Kristofferson song one year before Cash. But Cash, backed by a sweeping arrangement of lush strings, made the song his, winning Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award in 1970.

“Going to Memphis”
Songwriters: Johnny Cash, Hollie Dew and Alan Lomax
Label and release date: Columbia, 1960
Sample lyric: “Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed/But when that levee’s through I am too/Let the honky tonk roll on/Come mornin’ I’ll be gone”

“Delia’s Gone”
Songwriters: Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops
Label and release date: Columbia, 1962
Note: Cash recorded this dark ballad of murder for The Sound of Johnny Cash and then for his 1994 comeback American Recordings. This and “Cocaine Blues” would be contenders for the darkest material Cash ever put to record. The song is based on the real life murder of Delia Green in 1900 and several artists have written or sung about the crime.

“Orleans Parish Prison”
Songwriter: Dick Feller
Label and release date: Columbia, 1973
Sample lyric: “Well, have you missed my brother man/He took a little money with a gun in his hand/Know the kids are hungry and the wife ain’t well/And the daddy’s locked up in a prison cell”

“Folsom Prison Blues”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date:  Sun, 1956
Note: One has to think that if Cash had done nothing else but leave this song to the world, then he would still have a noted reputation. But “Folsom Prison Blues,” one of his early songs for Sun and then a key part of his At Folsom Prison live, is where Cash stands out less as a hit maker and more as a songwriter. The details here of the man stuck in prison while the world moves around him are perfect, from the chilling “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die” to the less quoted “I know I had it comin’/I know I can’t be free.”

“Man in Black”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1971
Note: Part of Cash’s greatness comes from the fact that he recorded lots of novelty songs as well as protest numbers like this one. “Man in Black” is hardly the most artful song in Cash’s catalog but few if any country stars then or now were so vocal about social concerns. In many ways, these protest songs put Cash firmly in the folk camp and made him a significant figure transcending genre boundaries.

“All Over Again”
Songwriter: Johnny Cash
Label and release date: Columbia, 1958
Sample lyric: “I want to fall in love again beginning from the start/All over again/Show me how you stole away my heart/All over again”

“Boy Named Sue”
Songwriter: Shel Silverstein
Label and release date: Columbia, 1969
Note: The big hit off of At San Quentin, a song that Cash had only recently received and needed a cheat sheet to perform for the prisoners in San Quentin.

“Jackson”
Songwriters: Jerry Leiber and Billy Edd Wheeler
Label and release date: Columbia, 1967
Note: This duet with June Carter Cash — though not written by Johnny or June — captures the spirit and spark of the pair. It quickly became their signature duet. June, who had studied acting under noted acting guru Lee Strasberg, puts on a show in this tune.

“I Walk the Line”
Songwriter: John R. Cash,
Label and release date: Sun, 1956
Note: Cash’s first big hit and work that established the singer-songwriter’s unrivaled place in popular music. In 2004 Rolling Stone put it at number 30 in  their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time
“It was different than anything else you had ever heard,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone about the song. “A voice from the middle of the Earth.”

“The Far Side Banks of Jordan”
Songwriter: Terry Stephen Smith
Label and release date: Columbia, 1976
Sample lyric: “Through this life we’ve labored hard to earn our meager fare/It’s brought us trembling hands and failing eyes/So I’ll just rest here on this shore and turn my eyes away/Until you come, then we’ll see paradise”

“Why Me, Lord”
Songwriter: Kris Kristofferson
Label and release date: American, 1994
Note: This song about redemption was a rare country hit for Kristofferson in 1973. Cash recorded it for American Recordings, his first album with Rick Rubin as producer.

“Hey Porter”
Songwriter: John R. Cash
Label and release date: Sun, 1955
Note: It wasn’t the hit that Sam Phillips at Sun was hoping for and it wasn’t even on Cash’s debut. But it was the one of the first songs young Cash would write, which he did on his way back from being stationed in Germany. “Hey Porter” captures the great excitement of Cash returning home to Arkansas.