Drama Professor and Vocal Coach Gigi Buffington On Unlocking the Actor’s Voice

Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

Group of actors posed together in a hallway

Gigi Buffington (back row, fifth from left) with the cast of "Stereophonic."

Gigi Buffington knows the unrivaled power of finding one’s voice. In her line of work, the process is considered an act of liberation—an untangling of inhibitions on the way to a freer form of expression. Formally trained as a modern dancer and actor, Buffington used her early career experiences to carve out a niche as a vocal and text coach and today guides actors toward more authentic portrayals of the characters they play. Working alongside playwrights and stage directors, her training targets a deeper understanding of the text at hand, whether that be the work of Shakespeare or frequent collaborators like writers Will Arbery and Tracy Letts. 

Buffington herself speaks in rich, animated tones, hinting at the type of fluency she explores in her training. She splits her time between Tisch’s Department of Drama, where she serves as an Arts Professor, and coaching actors on productions both on and Off-Broadway. Since the early part of 2024, much of her time has been spent navigating the corridor between The Golden Theatre and The Jacobs Theatre, where the adjacent Broadway stages have housed a pair of booming theatrical successes: the most Tony-nominated play ever, Stereophonic, and this year’s Tony winner for Best Musical, The Outsiders. As a coach on both productions, Buffington is the rare contributor to slide through the hallowed passageway and work with actors on either side.

We recently checked in with Gigi Buffington to learn more about her highly specialized craft, the recent successes of Stereophonic and The Outsiders, and opening the door for a younger generation of artists. 

Your life and career has been one deeply committed to the arts. After spending your early years as a dancer, what led you to the training you do today?

I was a modern dancer and the thing that was so exciting were the rare opportunities where I would get a line—somebody would give me something to say. I did this production with a beautiful dancer and choreographer named Poonie Dodson, who went on to dance with Bill T. Jones, and he passed away many years ago when so many dancers in our community lost their lives to AIDS. Poonie and I choreographed a piece based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. We were commissioned by a composer, and there was a script, so I played Eurydice and Poonie played Orpheus—it was like a dance opera. But the thrill of getting to speak a few lines of text really was not lost on me. I really enjoyed the expression coming through the mouth, and as I started choreographing for theatre companies in Chicago, I thought, God! This is so great.

My mother was a singer, and when I was growing up I sang, but the spoken voice is quite different. I was really attracted to it when I was working in the theatre, and one thing led to the next, and I started to train to become an actor. I did that here in New York at the William Esper studio with Maggie Flanigan. I knew I needed vocal training—my voice was very soft, very subdued, very withdrawn. So I did a two-year program to try to not only unlock but open doors to the creative potential in my vocal range dynamics. I studied with Robert Neff Williams, who was “the guy” at Juilliard. My acting training, coupled with this voice, speech, and text training… It was like everything opened up for me. I was completely in my element. 

Was there a prevailing model for vocal coaching at the time? How did you come to discover and advance the idea of this kind of training?

A few years later, I [began] working with a casting director that allowed me to work out every day as a reader with wonderful actors cast primarily for the Roundabout Theatre Company. There were amazing people coming through that office, and I started to realize I loved being on the other side of the table. I loved knowing that I could help an actor do their best work by listening and responding and using all of my training to be their scene partner.

I moved back to Chicago for a period of time and I was asked to teach at Columbia College Chicago. There was a real shortage of voice training in Chicago at this time, and there is something to the fact that I think what we need personally in our lives—what we lack—is what we're attracted to. For me, the power and the freedom to have access to one's voice versus having been cut off from one's voice—there's nothing like it. I know what it's like to be cut off. I know what it's like to literally not be able to get sound out, and I [also] know what it's like to feel a bird soar from my body out into the world.

Buffington poses with the casts of "Stereophonic" and "The Outsiders."

Buffington with the casts of "Stereophonic" and "The Outsiders," convened in the passageway between the Golden and Jacobs Theatres.

There is a specificity to your work that eludes a one-size-fits-all method. When stepping into a new project, how do you identify the needs of a particular production?

In a really ideal situation the playwright is in the room. So we get the job of, let's say, being midwives to birthing this extraordinary thing. Will Arbery is a playwright that I've worked with repeatedly; Tracy Letts is another one. There's just so many brilliant playwrights out there. [For example], how do we take what David Adjmi channeled in the way of characters and text that have a breathing system that is very unique? They have a phrasing system that is quirky to themselves. They punctuate the way they speak in very unique ways. How do we honor that absolutely and take it as sacred? You know what is on that page. If we can yield the body, the breath, the sound, and have the articulators be nimble enough to do the dance that's in the mouth without getting precious about it, we then have a visitation of this character that that playwright channeled.

So how do we do that? Well, in a room with Will Arbery, he makes space for me. He’s amazing. He loves this work. When we worked on Evanston Salt Costs Climbing there were oftentimes he and I and one of the actors would do sessions together. Or the director will say, “I'm going to work on this scene, you can take so and so,” and I go somewhere else. I've heard what the director's asking, I've heard what the playwright is asking, and I fold all of that into the work that I'm doing with the actor. So it's not a Band-Aid. I think a lot of people think of my role as somebody who comes in and puts a Band-Aid on a problem. But ideally you're nurturing from the ground up, which was the case with both Stereophonic and The Outsiders.

In the case of both of those plays, you’re collaborating with young actors, not unlike in the classroom at Tisch. What excites you about shepherding the next generation of artists?

To nurture students through a body of work that I have created—the syllabus—is deeply meaningful. Young students arrive thinking, “I know what this class is,” and they are always completely surprised because it's never what they think it's going to be. Similarly, the way I introduce them to, dare I say it, William Shakespeare. They know that they don't like Shakespeare, and they've got all their reasons why. I love that because I just listen. And then at the end of that one year of this exploration they're all applying to RADA and The Classical Studio because they have fallen in love.

I said this pre-pandemic and I say it post-pandemic. The sensitivity to the world is a real thing and we have to be very careful. It's like the shell broke and the egg yolk and the egg white has been exposed, and we have to be careful not to break the yolk. I feel that it's very easy to discard this kind of sensitivity. People who have no patience for people who are young, who went through the pandemic when they were freshmen in high school and sophomores in high school… But when you've taught and you've been in a shared space deeply with people who've been through it at the age that they were at—it’s very real.

To be able to open a door for somebody is so meaningful. Helping free somebody's voice up to express themselves in ways they were too frightened to express themselves before… To help a student not get in the way of their creativity, but to support their journey so that they can fly free and make their way out there in the professional world is a beautiful experience to be a part of. I find that teaching is an honorable thing to do. It's an act of service, but I learn tremendously from my students.