Q&A with Joe Graves of ‘An Iliad’

This year marks a lot of firsts and exciting things for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, including the launch of a new Black Box Theatre, located at 518 Main Street. The space kicks off with a dynamic one-man show, “An Iliad,” wherein a centuries-old poet tells the story of the Trojan War as a modern day man living on the streets.

The poet is played by Joe Graves, a local favorite who audiences might remember from his 12 shows at The Rep, the last being his role as Mark Rothko in the 2013 production of “Red.”

To accompany “An Iliad,” the theater is partnering with ARVets to host special sessions after a few of the shows where real Arkansas vets tell their own personal stories to audiences. 

There are over 250,000 vets in Arkansas and one of the thing that we want to do as we continue our community outreach programs, we’ve never had an organized, thoughtful alliance with Arkansas veterans, and we’re working to change that,” The Rep’s producing artistic director Bob Hupp said.

We sat down with Graves and Hupp to talk about the show and the parallels of humankind over hundreds of years. Opening night for “An Iliad” is Friday, Feb. 26. For tickets and more information, click here.


Joe, this is the third time you’ve done this production. What keeps you coming back to this character, to this story?

JG: We trace our theatrical roots in The West back to ancient Greece and the contest plays in Athens about 2,500 years ago, but actually, this play is several hundred years older. It really represents for me the first form of theater in The West, because Homer, whoever he was, this blind poet, used to go from town to town and tell his stories that way, much the same way this is. I kind of romanticise it as being the start of our theater, which is one of the reasons that I have a great affinity for this piece.

The other part is that the best of theater tells a story that makes the audience sit in their seats and want to know what happens next, just like when we were little kids and our moms and dads were reading us bedtime stories. It also demands the audience use its imagination, because it’s just me and a bunch of crap that I drug in off the street. Pieces represent different things, so you’re asked to use your imagination. That’s what’s at the very heart of theater, and this is the oldest story in The West, and it continues to be as powerful today as it was when it was first put together.


This is your first time back with this theater since “Red.” What’s it like to be back under The Rep’s umbrella and get to champion this new space that they have?

JG: It’s great. The Rep feels kind of like that home away from home. I’ve known Bob [Hupp] for years and I’ve done more plays here during his tenure than any other actor. This is the 40th anniversary of The Rep, so we wanted to do something together. My schedule is so non-stop otherwise, so we started thinking of plays we were both very passionate about that we could do within those time constraints.

BH: I’m very excited to be opening our annex space and I wanted Joe to be a part of our 40th anniversary season. We also want to create a new kind of space over there, and the audience/actor configuration will change with every performance. I thought it was very cool that we’re taking this contemporary look at the first Western story and opening a new space with this ancient tale. I thought it was fitting to go back to the origins of theater to tell this story in a new space that we hope will be wonderfully complementary to the work we do on our main stage.

We found particularly through our friends at ARVets, there’s something else that’s new about this space and we’re hoping to have a community connection. The second show we’ll have there, the one we’re doing in March, is about Bill Clinton, so there’s an obvious connection there.

Those are kind of the reasons to do the play, but what’s cool is working with Joe on this production. Just sitting and watching Joe, the physical feat of one actor holding the stage for an hour and 45 minutes is unbelievable. That’s Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic by himself. That is a really difficult thing for an actor to do. You actually get caught up and you want to know what happens next; it’s a very fundamental thing about storytelling.

You come to The Rep, you see “Little Mermaid,” we’ve got some bells, we’ve got some whistles. In the black box, we strip away all of that, and it’s just an actor and an audience in a storytelling environment. That, to me, is very cool. It’s a nice contrast to the stuff we do on our main stage.


What do you think it is about this story that has lasted for so many years?

JG: I just think it is the kind of story that the big, bad bear is coming, someone’s going to get it, you want to know what’s going to happen. But the power of it is that what is going on in the story 3,000 years ago is still going on. It’s exactly the same thing. It’s the destruction of cities, the destruction of civilizations. All you have to do is turn on the television and look at what’s going on in Syria right now. You see buildings bombed out and people leaving, and that’s exactly what this play is about…

I guess a key word in this play is the “rage” that drives us all. We get so angry over nothing. One of the points that Homer seems to keep making again and again is that it’s not great political ideas or idealism of any sort that actually creates war, it’s you and me. We don’t control our own rage, our own anger, our own sense of being stepped on by other people. When that happens, we lash out and suddenly we lose all our perspective, and wars ensue. For me, the most powerful element in it is that we as human beings can really change that only if we’re willing to try in whatever weak fashion that we can to change ourselves, to recognize these things going on in ourselves.

BH: The playwrights do a wonderful job of weaving in and out of contemporary and classic references. You can be having a conversation about a particular day of fighting in front of the gates of Troy, and suddenly Joe segues right into a story about road rage or standing in a supermarket line. It’s really quite seamless and fun to hear.

The other thing about the play, despite the fact that it is this person’s account of war, the play is not didactic. It’s not preachy. It really lets the audience come to its own conclusions about the experience. It may condemn the folly of leadership, which we can see in our own world, but it’s not a thing where you feel like you’ve been assaulted for an hour and 45 minutes. I’m not interested in those this-is-the-way-the-world-should-be kind of plays.

JG: It’s just a play about this is the way the world is and what we can do about it. The character that’s telling this story, it’s not like he’s just recounting it. He relives it and it hurts him, makes him laugh, makes him cry. It affects him as he’s telling it because he’s never that far away from it.


What’s the most interesting part of that character for you?

JG: I think the fact that he’s so hesitant to tell this anymore, that it’s just too painful to him, but he has to, whether it’s the mythical gods that are actually making him or he feels like his only purpose in life is that maybe if somebody hears it this time, maybe one person will change the way they’re approaching their life, and it will be worth me doing it. It’s not always a very pleasant experience for him to relive this over and over again. That to me is really interesting. 


This is a new space they’ve never been in, it’s a one-man show, one as dynamic as this… What do you think this experience will be like for the audience? 

JG: In the other cities, the experience was very good both for the audience and for me as an actor because we’re communicating in a way that you can’t on a proscenium stage. Though you can often see the audience, you’re separated from them. This has been responded to really, really well. People get deeply engaged. We have this aisleway that I’m playing in, and then I also go directly up into the audience and sit beside them and talk with them. Generally, it takes the audience about 10 or 15 minutes to get what’s going on.

BH: When you come to The Rep, there’s the stage, there’s the audience and there’s the proscenium that separates the two. It’s a very formal and traditional type of theater. But it’s also a style of theater, not the only type of theater, not the only type of relationship between the audience and actors. The black box gives our audience the opportunity to experience theater in different ways. I think it will be very immediate, very immersive. I think that this is theater that is a theater of ideas. I think it gives us lots to chew on and contemplate. It’s a different way of looking at this artform that we do.

JG: We were talking earlier about the early Greek plays, and those were very formal and religious. For me, the theater is almost like a church in a way that people come and sit down, they’re very quiet, and they watch, they think and then they go away. This attracted me in a way that other things don’t because when Homer was telling this story, it was just directly to people in whatever town he was in. That’s really where all of this stuff that we do with our lives in the theater began. That first burst of what the theater was about, we kind of get a little bit of it in creating a place like this.


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