Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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I had a meeting today with a professor/administrator because I needed permission to postpone completion of one of our department’s requirements.  Within a year after completing 60 credits, we are supposed to take our written and oral field exams (our department has two sets of exams: generalist comp exams early on and book-list based field exams later). But another regulation says I can’t take these “second exams” yet because I have not yet passed two foreign-language translation exams. So I was stuck, the only solution being to promise to take my language exam in the spring and get a waiver postponing my second exams until August.

The professor, who is also on my exam committee, agreed to the postponement but understandably wanted to get a bit of a scolding lecture in first, and to make sure I would follow through and make myself learn Spanish. We talked about the probable need to hire a tutor, approaches to scheduling, etc. Most importantly, she reminded me of the need for a certain kind of selfishness.

She told me about a mentor of hers when she was in graduate school, who had reminded her to remember that she was a student first, and a teacher second (and everything else, presumably, a distant third.) She pointed out that, as I already knew, my job at Cinema Journal and my teaching will both take up as much time and energy as I allow them to. There is no limit to how much you can prepare, how carefully you can grade, etc.  She told me to write into my calendar that from 9-11, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, for example, I would work on Spanish, and nothing/no one could take that time. “You have to be selfish,” she said.

Of course, “selfish” isn’t exactly the right word. I spend more time and energy on teaching and editing because I care more about teaching and editing. The PhD process is, frankly, a pain in the ass: Hoops to jump through, obstacles to navigate, that only occasionally further your own research.  I like teaching; I like the editing gig. These are the ends; the PhD is the means. But she’s right for the most part because, if I want to be paid a living wage for teaching I’m going to need that fucking degree. And if I want to write the dissertation, I’m going to have to learn another language.

She’s also right that the teaching stuff takes as much time and energy as you’re willing to give it. As does the editing. As does the PhD. And I need to readjust the balance of all of them, along with my social life, my home life, my physical life. My room is a mess most of the time, I’ve (re)gained an alarming amount of weight, and I don’t see my friends nearly enough. It’s great that I like my students; it’s great that I am doing so many things that will look good on my CV (conferences, publications, editing, teaching advanced classes, etc.); but it’s also true that I need to take care of myself or the other stuff doesn’t matter.

And if that’s what “selfish” means, in this case, that I need to insist on taking care of myself, then yes: I need to be more selfish.


Public Failures

[Note: The following article appeared in the September 2009 issue of the CUNY Graduate Center's Advocate.  I would not normally post the full text of an article published elsewhere, but the Advocate site is having troubles for the moment and I am unable to link to the article.]

A great text, a major director, an accomplished design team, and a skilled cast performing in a beautiful outdoor theatre on a summer night in North America’s cultural capital: By all rights, this should have been one of my favorite evenings in the theatre.

It wasn’t.

JoAnne Akalaitis’s baffling and deeply unsatisfying production of The Bacchae in Central Park's Delacorte Theater this summer misfired in almost every possible way. For weeks, I watched the Facebook status updates of friend after friend change from excitement and anticipation when they landed tickets to confusion and disappointment once they had seen the show. As word spread that the production was a clunker, tickets became easier to come by, and more and more of my friends and colleagues twittered their enthusiasm in the morning and their frustration in the evening. Instead of debating whether the production was any good, Graduate Center theatre students and faculty argued over what aspect of the production had failed most profoundly, and what the fundamental cause of the failure might have been.


Arguably the greatest theoretical and practical debate surrounding Western theatre in the second half of the twentieth century centered on the clash between the ideas of Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and those of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). The two serve up a lot of convenient binaries: a surrealist from France and an expressionist from Germany both broke from the movements that nurtured their early careers, but for rather different reasons. Brecht’s work became more and more aggressively political as he embraced Marxism, while Artaud was alienated from the Surrealists, in part, because of his refusal to join the Communist party.

These biographical contrasts between the Artaud and Brecht hint at the more central reasons for their place in theatre history, and the way in which they have come to represent two seemingly opposed points of view regarding what theatre is, what it should be, and what role it should play in the larger culture. As Brecht’s political views came more and more into focus, his ideas about aesthetics and emotions developed in tandem, leading to his notion of a dialectical “Epic Theatre,” and his trademark “alienation effect.” Artaud's work, on the other hand, remained aggressively, defiantly, apolitical. While Brecht sought to separate the elements of theatre, to disrupt emotional involvement, and to encourage the audience to be aware of themselves and their capacity to change the course of events, Artaud wanted the audience to lose themselves completely in a multi-sensory spectacle that would cleanse and even obliterate them.

These seemingly opposing poles of theatre aesthetics echo theories and practices from throughout theatre history, recalling rituals of possession and exercises of civic engagement in a variety of cultures. Nietzsche famously asserted that both of these aspects of theatre, which he termed the Apollonian and the Dionysian, are essential to tragedy, claiming that the latter is too often overshadowed in a theatre that has become overly rational.

If ever a play demanded the presence of the Dionysian, it's Euripides's tragedy about Dionysus himself. Indeed, The Bacchae can be read as a warning against denying and suppressing Dionysian impulses. Unfortunately, JoAnne Akalaitis did not heed this warning. Nor did composer Philip Glass, who has been collaborating with the director (the two were also married at one point) since before either of them was famous. Oddly enough, in a publicity interview given to the New York Times before the show opened, Akalaitis and Glass both seem to understand what the show requires. They talk about the show needing to make sense “in your body” more than “in your head,” that the play “defies rationality and defies explanation.”

Jonathan Groff in THE BACCHAE. Photo: Joan Marcus.And yet this blood-soaked play of lust and drunkenness received a chaste and bloodless production that somehow felt too rational even as it made very little sense. Glass’s music is a major component of this failure, his famously Buddhist brand of postmodern minimalism at stark odds with choral lyrics about ecstasy and abandon. The formidable Karen Kandel (Chorus Leader) struggled valiantly to bring some fire to the chorus but she and her compatriots were unable to break out of the stupor-inducing pulse of Glass’s music. Choreographer David Neumann clearly tried to infuse the dance sequences with a sense of ritual, but was hampered both by the music and by costume designer Kate Voice’s orange-pink jumpsuits that looked like something MC Hammer might have worn on a trip to Indonesia, or to a screening of Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon (Michael Schultz, 1985).

Jonathan Groff, both miscast and misdirected as Dionysus, was less wine than wine cooler. Akalaitis’s decision to direct her young star to play a petulant adolescent plotting revenge for a perceived slight may have seemed clever at first, but the pouty teen never gave way to the vengeful god. Groff, who exploded onto the theatre scene in back-to-back roles in Spring Awakening and Hair, is a charming and heart-throb pretty performer, but was out of his depth here. The audience was never given a glimpse of Dionysus’s power, the presence and influence that had supposedly driven all of the city’s women into a days-long fit of drunken passion. Groff was not alone in his struggle. Accomplished actors from André de Shields (Teiresias), to Anthony Mackie (Pentheus), to Joan Mackintosh (Agave) all turned in lackluster performances in roles that should have allowed them to shine.

One actor did manage to escape the shackles of the failed production. As the messenger who has to deliver the news of Pentheus’s horrific death, Rocco Sisto gave the evening’s only memorable performance, a precisely calibrated monologue that communicated both the character’s anguish and the actor’s prowess. It is not coincidental that there was no music underscoring this scene. After Sisto’s monologue, the show had to pause to allow for enthusiastic applause. The audience was grateful that, for a few minutes, the director and her design team had gotten out of the way and let the actor and the text do their job.


To Akalaitis’s credit, The Bacchae was not overlong. At about ninety minutes, the production was only slightly longer than it would take to read the text of the play aloud. The same cannot be said for Peter Sellars’s four-plus hour Othello now playing at NYU’s Skirball Center. I was fortunate enough to receive free tickets to the show’s dress rehearsal so I can’t write a full review (the press opening isn’t until well after the deadline for this article) but because the show has been in development for so long (it enjoyed a brief run in Vienna this past June) I doubt it will change much before the review embargo is lifted.

Ponderous, self-indulgent, and too long by half, this production unfortunately obscures its several good ideas by drowning the action in lethargic, navel-gazing pauses that simply don’t work for an uncut Shakespeare text. Elizabethan plays had lots of words. A pause, a silence, should be a big deal, and carry a great deal of weight. In this production, however, there are so many weighty sighs and silences between and within lines that the genuinely important pauses, those that might shed some light on Sellars’s take on the play, are lost in the shuffle.

Jessica Chastain, John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman in OTHELLO. Photo: Sara Krulwich.Philip Seymour Hoffman, who almost always brings a little too much Eeyore to his stage roles, is particularly lethargic as a depressive and insecure Iago (a vision of the character that could have been interesting but is mostly boring here). John Ortiz is a strong and intriguing Othello, but too often feels like he is trying to carry the show by himself, spurring his scene partners to pick up the pace. This is too bad, because Sellars successfully complicates the race and gender issues of the play in a way that could have been genuinely provocative if there were some sustained energy at work. Often accused of over-conceptualizing and politicizing his productions, Sellars is relatively subtle here, perhaps too much so. The hinted-at connections between geopolitics and identity politics, between sexual jealousy and professional jealousy, are intriguing but underdeveloped. The couple of scenes that do sparkle stand in stark contrast to those that drag unnecessarily.

The Public Theater, which coproduced Othello with LABrynth Theater Company (the Public also produced The Bacchae) normally has a generous student ticket policy. Student discounts for Othello, however, are only available to NYU students.  If you have a friend at NYU who can get you a reasonably priced seat, that’s great. If you’re going to have to pay full price, don’t bother.

The Bacchae (closed) by Euripides, translated by Nicholas Rudall. directed by JoAnne Akalaitis; original music by Philip Glass; sets by John Conklin; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Jennifer Tipton; sound by Acme Sound Partners; soundscape by Darron L. West; dramaturg, James Leverett. With: George Bartenieff,  Sullivan Corey, André de Shields, Jonathan Groff, Karen Kandel, Joan MacIntosh, Anthony Mackie, Steven Rishard, and Rocco Sisto.

Othello by William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter Sellars; set by Gregor Holzinger; costumes y Mimi O’Donnel; lighting by James F. Ingalls; music and sound by Robert J. Castro. With: Julian Acosta, Gaius Charles, Jessica Chastain, Liza Colon-Zayas, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leroy McClain, and John Ortiz. September 12–October 4, 2009. NYU Skirball Center (586 LaGuardia Place). Call 212-352-3101 or visit


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