Brian Vaughn as The Poet in  An Iliad

Brian Vaughn as The Poet in An Iliad

Utah Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Brian Vaughn is playing the role of The Poet in this season’s largely one-person show, An Iliad. We were recently able to have a question-and-answer session with him about the challenges and rewards of such a demanding role in such a powerful play.

In An Iliad you take on many roles as The Poet. Which character that you portray is the most interesting to you?

Interestingly, I have an affinity for all of them. What is dynamic and interesting about the piece is that The Poet’s voice folds into all of them. So that is the one I identify with the most overall. Also, I think what’s fascinating about the piece is that Hector and Achilles both have these traits that are so human and admirable—and also questionable. I sort of bounce back and forth between them. And I think that’s the author’s intention, really, to see things to admire in two remarkably heroic men, who become foes and become the centerpiece for the war itself. They become the archetypes. So, it’s hard to pick just one, because both of them I feel are an amalgamation of one. These two figures embody all of us.

This is a very demanding role for you, physically, mentally, and emotionally. How do you prepare for this role? And how do you handle the enormous demands of the role?

It is really challenging. I try to get as much rest as I can. I look over my script before every performance. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a show that’s just me out there, by myself; it’s a sort of roller coaster ride that I just get on and let it take me and you where it’s going to take us. That part of it has been both rewarding and ultimately challenging, because there’s no safety net. I’m kind of free falling at times. So I really try to just pace myself and try to get as much rest and stay as focused as I can. But it’s very rewarding ultimately. That’s what I love about the piece; even though it’s a huge endeavor, a monster, and a mountain to climb, it’s extremely rewarding.

Do you think this is an anti-war play?

Yes. I do. I think this play is about the dissection of rage, and how we, as human beings, have a choice to breathe through that rage, to not go down that path toward rage, to hopefully find serenity and peace and harmony and love. And if that means this is an anti-war play, then I would say yes, it’s an anti-war play. I think what is fascinating about Homer’s The Iliad is that this is a poem that has lasted for centuries, examining conflict and all the reasons we have conflict: pride, honor, jealousy, envy. . . . We, in a modern context, can relate to a poem that’s centuries old, that is just as resonant now as it was then. And at the center of that is our appetite for rage. If you can breathe through that, to find acceptance, listening, understanding, dialogue, and ultimately peace and harmony, then I would say, yes, this is an anti-war play.

This is an adaptation of Homer’s masterpiece, The Iliad. What about this adaptation is different, and what do the differences bring to the performance? 

It’s interesting that it’s called An Iliad, versus The Iliad. A lot of people have asked me, are you just doing a recitation of the entire Iliad? And I was like, no way on earth would I do that! It would be so challenging. So daunting. What is great about An Iliad is that it really irises down to the central conflict, between the Trojans and the Greeks, and the two foes who are the centerpiece for that, who become the archetypes for each army; and that is Achilles and Hector. An Iliad takes that idea and puts it into a modern context, with a Poet as our central narrator through the course of the evening.

There is a timeless feeling to this production— it’s not just Greek and Trojan; it goes beyond that and references wars that have happened within the course of our lifetimes. What is the significance of that?

That, I think, is the purpose of it, to sort of pull the rug out from under the audience and say, “Look at this. Look at how this has endured over time. And look at the repercussions, and the loss that has become of it, which is essentially the loss of civilizations and of people and of mankind.”

We can see this conflict from both sides: the Poet helps us to understand both Achilles and Hector. Is there a “good guy” and “bad guy?” Who or what, if anything, is the real “villain” of this play?

The fascinating thing about the play is that you can admire both of the men, and they both are both honorable, and then they also both embody pride and jealousy, and that is human. Who are they? Are there things you like about each of them? Yes. Are there things you dislike about each of them? Yes. And that is what makes them ultimately human. I think the villain of the play is rage. Anger. One of my favorite moments in the entire show is when Priam goes to Achilles, and we see the actions of someone who is no longer embodying rage. It’s full of all the things that we as human beings need to be living by, which are love, and caring, and compassion, and understanding, and acceptance, and seeing both sides of the conflict and understanding the human being on the other side of that conflict, and showing love. And it’s so beautifully poetic to me, and so necessary in our world. That to me is the message of the whole thing. The Villain is Rage, and the Hero is Love.

 The only other person on the stage with you is The Muse, a concept that was very important to ancient Greek writers, artists, and philosophers. Why is The Muse present, even in this very timeless retelling of the tale?

Well, The Muse is the inspiration, you know. The muse obviously is a goddess, too, which I love the idea of that, because it’s lasting and always present. It’s something that’s unattainable. But it is beauty personified. The Muse identifies with The Poet by taking this idea of literature and art and music, and capturing emotion and human condition. It helps the listener identify with what is being heard, in other ways that are going to capture other elements of their senses. And that is through song, and lyricism— where sometimes a word might not get to you, but a strand or a string of music will hit you to the core. How they work in harmony, I think, is really beautiful.

Why is it important for us to see this play now? What about its themes and concepts makes it important today as opposed to any other time?

 I think it’s important for people to see it because it’s theatrical. It’s present. It’s about us. It’s about me, and you, and everybody else. I think some people might be afraid of it because they think it’s huge. The story is epic. But what’s really great about this piece is that it takes that epic story and puts it in your lap, and says, “How can you, as a playgoer, impact change in your own way of thinking, in your own life?” There’s a thread that runs through the course of this show: “Do you see? Do you see?” And I love that there’s a repetitive quality to it, because it allows you as an audience member to step back, and to ask your own self, “Do I see? Do I understand? Do I pause before I leap, when maybe the repercussions of leaping could hurt many people?” That, to me, is ultimately human, and worth reviewing and seeing. It gets to the foundation of what we do as theatre artists, which is storytelling. “Let me tell you a story to make you see yourself, and feel, and cry, and laugh, and reflect, and (hopefully) leave you with a little bit of impulse to impact change.”