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Toward Eternity: An interview with "Dickinson" Creator Alena Smith

Artwork for Dickinson Season 3

All clips from "Dickinson" ©AppleTV+

Sarah LaDuke: On December 24, the series finale of the AppleTV+ series, "Dickinson" will be available to stream on the subscription platform. "Dickinson" stars Hailee Steinfeld in the eponymous role of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Set just before and during the American Civil War, we watch Emily Dickinson and her family and neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts experience love, loss, obligation and creativity and debate the usefulness of tradition, the abolition of slavery, gender equality, and the value of fame.

For three seasons, I have commonly found myself in the predicament of trying to convince friends that even with everything streaming, going, showing and happening in this busy world, "Dickinson" is the thing they need to watch. It's beautiful, brilliant, heartbreaking and hilarious. The series is at every turn of a piece, and unexpected.

Earlier this month, the New York Times included Dickinson on its best TV Shows of 2021 list. And this past weekend, it was announced that the program's production archives - meticulously recreated household items, clothing and furniture - will be given to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst and scripts, designs, and paper props will be given to Harvard University's Houghton library.

"Dickinson" was a series concept that dwells in possibility in the mind of creator and showrunner Alena Smith. Lucky for her -- and for us -- television and streaming television has been moving toward an auteur model over the last decade.

Alena Smith: I used to write poetry in high school, like a lot of us did -- and I definitely read some Emily Dickinson and was a fan - although I can't say I understood all of it. But I liked how they were these sort of little delicate poems that seem to pack this intense punch. And then when I was in my early 20s, I read a biography of Emily. And I found myself really relating to a lot of the information about her kind of coming of age years, which is sort of the opposite of like the "Emily," we know, as this reclusive, hidden woman in white. When she's young, she's very social, seems to be constantly like cracking jokes, and like getting in fights with her family, who she's also deeply attached to, and of course, trying to figure out what it means to be a writer in a time when that's not so easy for women to do. And I guess one of the mysteries of Emily is how she went from being that person to being the figure that we think of as "Emily Dickinson." And there's many mysteries and paradoxes kind of embedded in Emily's life, not least of which is the fact that she wrote, you know, nearly 2000 poems, some of the greatest body of work of American literature and basically shared them with almost nobody while she was alive. Then when you dig a little deeper, you also find out that another great irony of her life is that she was in love with her best friend who became her sister in law and then next door neighbor, and who she wrote hundreds of passionate letters and love poems to over the course of their sort of parallel lives with Emily as this single spinster and Su as this wife and mother and hostess in the house next door to the homestead called the evergreens.

There's a million things that are fascinating about Emily Dickinson. And she just kind of entered my pantheon of weirdo artists that I was intrigued by. And meanwhile, I went on my way being a playwright, I went to Yale Drama School and then lived in New York for a number of years and was making plays that were being done downtown or Off Broadway, and kind of cultivating my own artistic voice. So then when I moved to Los Angeles in 2012, I was trying to find a way to express myself as authentically in television as I had in theater. And lucky for me, television was changing very rapidly and radically at that point into the kind of wild streaming landscape that we see today. But you know, we weren't quite there yet in 2013, which is when I started working on this show, and I started telling people I wanted to make a surrealist-half-hour-existential-comedy about Emily Dickinson. And people said, "What are you talking about?" And I was like, I don't really know yet.

And I kept taking stabs at it and writing different versions of the pilot. And finally, in the summer of, I think 2015, I actually visited the Emily Dickinson Museum and kind of channeled her spirit in some way and wrote the pilot that became the first episode of "Dickinson." And from there, it was still another two years before I sold it to Apple. And Apple was right at the beginning of even buying shows -- they were still two years away from launching their network. "Dickinson" was one of the first shows they bought, it was definitely one of the first Apple shows to go into production to finish production. And we were actually I had written all of season two, and we had started shooting season two, before AppleTV, the platform even launched.

It's been a really unusual journey in terms of timing. And it sort of is why now we've had our second and third and final season come out within, you know, one calendar year of 2021. And it's like this huge sort of rush of releasing it, when prior to that there were years and years of kind of sitting on it and and waiting in a very dickinsonian kind of way. So that was pretty crazy to have made an entire season of television, and not really be allowed to talk about it.

It's definitely been my own idiosyncratic passion project this whole time - only I've been doing it in the milieu of streaming television as opposed to novels or films, I am using the trope of a period biopic really as a lens, or you could think of it as like an Instagram filter for looking at what our lives are like today, and specifically, what it's like to be a young, female, queer non binary artist coming of age in America today. Using not only Emily as an avatar for all of those people who feel that way, whether they might be you know, recording their songs on SoundCloud, or even writing poetry in their room today. It's bigger than just it being about Emily because it's also really about using the entire landscape of American culture and politics of the 1860s, ie the Civil War, to really hold that mirror up to where we're at today and ask questions difficult, I think challenging questions about how the past continues to haunt the present, especially for somebody who has not traditionally been put at the center of historical narratives.

In telling that story, which is really a lot of people's stories, not just Emily Dickinson's. Or really, I would say maybe not even Emily Dickinson. You know, that's, that's another thing. It's like, I'm very inspired by Dickinson's poetry by the spirit of her art, which, you know, her poetry is much more radical, perhaps than she herself was. Which is not to say that we you know, dispense with facts, because actually, every single thing that happens in "Dickinson" is somehow based on or jumping off of a real fact. I just have, you know, spent a decade sort of poring through any historical record that we have of trying to find funny stories and even down to actual lines that she says or, you know, just really small incidents that that end up being in the show like one example is just she makes fun of her mother. She a real thing that Emily said about her mother is that she couldn't relax if she knew that there was a leaf in the fireplace upstairs that needed to be swept away and Emily really does say that to Mrs. Dickinson played by Jane Krakowski in our show,

Sarah LaDuke: As you've likely realized from the clips we've been hearing, Smith's vision for "Dickinson" includes dialogue but seems initially out of place coming from the mouths of characters wearing the many layered and restrictive fashion of the 1800s. And those anachronisms bloom next to the music for the show, which is mostly contemporary.

Alena Smith: I think of "Dickinson" as being like a kind of post-modern collage and the the materials that I'm using for the collage are everything from her actual poems, her letters, the biographical record around her the historical record around her and also literary theory around her and the literary canon of the 19th century. Which is why we get to have our incredibly fun guest stars from Louisa May Alcott to Thoreau to Walt Whitman, who come into the show and engage with Emily in dramas that didn't happen in a literal sense, but they did happen -- they have been playing out -- in English departments over the last, you know, two centuries. And actually, that that probably goes to its most extreme where Emily and Lavinia time travel to the future. But the future is 1955 where they meet a senior at Smith College who's the only person who's interested in Emily Dickinson and that happens to be Sylvia Plath.

Obviously, what I'm doing there is I'm considering the relationship between Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath in the canon of American poetry, not in some literal sense where they actually met. And that's the same exact thing I'm doing with Dickinson and Alcott, Dickinson and Whitman. It's a lot of fun for people who are huge nerds and people who really loved English class.

Sarah LaDuke: I mean, it's so fun the way that you introduce the characters Billy Eichner, as well, Whitman is making a feast of every line that's been given him. Zosia Mamet as Louisa May Alcott, when she says things about herself says "that's" an actual true fact about me " -- a little fourth -all breaking. there, so funny.

Alena Smith: The idea of using contemporary music in the show is to give us a sort of direct route into Dickinson's modern consciousness that is trapped in a period that is restrictive to who she is as a person that sort of won't let her be who she wants to be. That's also the way that the contemporary dialogue works in the show.

There's there's a lot of exploration of like generational conflict in this show. Anyone who feels trapped in their period is likely speaking in a more contemporary vernacular, and anyone who's trying to uphold the standards of the period will tend to speak in a more typically period style of language. That is most hilarious to me in the character of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who we introduced in season three, who was this radical abolitionist minister, a white man who was very much on the frontlines of fighting for racial justice, but is still himself trapped in certain, you know, problematic dynamics of what it means to be like a white ally. And so you see, Higginson literally struggling in his language, to try to find the way that he can prove to these young black soldiers that he's put into the Union army without Lincoln's permission, that he is on their side, while at the same time you know, he's still waiting for Lincoln's permission to actually give them weapons and arm them.

That's an example of where we're able in the show to start painting a bigger canvas of life in the Civil War and using it as a mirror to hold up to life today. But it's also entirely rooted in fact, because in the years of the Civil War, which were Emily's most prolific years as a poet, she wrote a letter to this man, Higginson, who she didn't know, and basically asked him to be come her poetry mentor, and he did. They corresponded for 24 years, and he was instrumental in bringing her work to the public. After she died, he became her first editor. It's just been incredibly fun to like mine the historical record for what there is, but then perform this act of translation. And I always say, in the writers room and on set, I say, like, if it's not about today, it doesn't belong in the show. And I think in some ways, what I've done is just create a stylized portrait of of a coming of age in America right now.

Sarah LaDuke: Our guest is Alena Smith, creator and showrunner of Dickinson on AppleTV+. It's hard to measure the grief I feel that the show will end on December 24. Even the three seasons was always the plan.

Alena Smith: When I pitched "Dickinson," I pitched this three season arc that I knew was going to culminate in the Civil War. And I knew that because, as I said, those four years of the Civil War were Emily's wildly most prolific time as a poet. If you drew a graph of how many poems she wrote it would really spike up in those years and then come down and it never reached those heights again. And yet, you know, of course, we think of Emily as this person who's totally cloistered from the war and protected by her privilege, both as a white person and as a wealthy New Englander. Her brother Austin, for instance, paid a poor Irish man to go fight the war in his place, which is also something that we deal with on the show and kind of invent our own dramatic reasons around. But yet she writes this letter to this guy Higginson, who is this, as I say, activist who's stationed on an occupied plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he and some other white abolitionists have taken steps to liberate the population of this plantation without Lincoln's permission. And Higginson has taken this group of young men and brought them into the Union Army, but sort of only halfway.

I knew from the beginning that we would be telling this story. And then I think when we got there, the real question was, how do we tell this story without centering? Higginson? How do we tell the story with centering the experiences of these young black men who really want to fight on their own terms for their own freedom.

It was a very powerful experience in our writers room, which which was happening over zoom in the height of the pandemic and the sort of racial reckoning that was going on in our country and we had a wonderful like group of people in our in our writers room that were literally just meeting over zoom everyday to sort of process assess what was going on in the landscape around us, and hopefully transmit it into these characters who are, you know, in some sense entirely made up.

I mean, we got to in episode four of season three, we introduced like six new characters in in a half hour show that's about Emily Dickinson. So it was incredibly challenging as a way to pull it off while while keeping the show sort of on its track of telling this coming of age story about this young white person who enjoys certain types of privilege.

I think that "Dickinson" has always been about this intersecting relationship between privilege and oppression. And everyone in the show experiences that in different ways. So for example, Henry, who becomes really like our connective tissue, Henry, who was the Dickinson's groundskeeper - and we've been following his arc for three years. Henry finds his way to Higginson's troupe and becomes - enlisted by Higginson to teach them all to read. And Henry, who is a free black man has to confront his own privilege when you know, suddenly meeting with this group of people who, just a few days ago, were enslaved on this plantation, that becomes a really interesting sort of, like exploration of a specific type of identity and a specific American history that people today have. You know, I think one of the things that the show is proposing is that we are all shaped by history. And your identity is created by historical forces. And everybody has different ways of being seen and different roles that they play in different contexts.

Sarah LaDuke: The main love story of the show Dickinson is that between Emily and her best friend and sister in law, Sue. They're complicated relationship is fraught, passionate, and often really sexy.

Alena Smith: I take really seriously the idea that I want my my young female actresses to be totally empowered, and really, in many ways, like driving the ship along with me when we shoot any kind of intimate scenes. So there's a lot of conversation that goes into any of these moments. That includes our directors, many of whom have been queer, you know, Ella Hunt and Hallie Steinfeld, of course, who is also an EP of "Dickinson" as well as the star, you know, just kind of trying to film and execute everything as sensitively as possible, which of course became even harder this season when we were shooting in COVID. And literally, it was dangerous to film intimate scenes. And yet, of course, we were trying to tell the conclusion of the Emily and Sue love story this season. And so it was very important that we did get to shoot some of them.

It's one of those moments I think, for me where words aren't enough. And so it really does become a kind of total filmmaking experience because you know, we're using their bodies to tell the story we're using song. We're using Emily's poetry, which often will be floating over the screen in those moments of great passion.

I'm in love with Emily and Sue. I am so glad that the fans have found them and responded to them so much. And I'm so proud that we've told this, you know, just unapologetically queer love story at the heart of this coming of age story.

Sarah LaDuke: The cast of Dickinson is marvelous. Full stop. Every performance is pitch perfect. But we would be remiss if we didn't talk a little bit specifically about how amazing Hailee Steinfeld is in the title role.

Alena Smith: Hallie's absolutely incredible and is currently now the lead of a show on Marvel and Netflix and our show. Plus recording her own music and -- doing it all. She's an absolute force to be reckoned with and I think that's the reason why I felt she was so perfect for Emily is because this version of Emily is also a force to be reckoned with. She's not a shrinking violet, she's not timid, she's not modest, she's not shy, she shows up and and holds her space and his very commanding presence with a lot of swagger. And she's a rock star. That's why I really felt like no one could do the job better than Hallie who, despite being in her early 20s is such a powerful figure who just takes every moment she fills it with such presence and life and creativity and passion that you kind of can't take your eyes off of her.

And it's just such a joy that we got to do this together for these three seasons and really watch her grow. I mean, I think one of the things that's so striking is when you look at, you know, stills of Hallie, and Ella and Anna who plays Lavinia and Adrian who plays Austin, that group of siblings how they've all grown up so much over the course of making the show. And, you know, between each season, they take sort of leaps on the whole, I think that that's why I hope that in retrospect, people will have the opportunity as they will because the show will live on on Apple TV on the platform, but like, you know, to really watch the whole thing as one story. That's really how it was conceived and how it was executed. And I want people to a year from now or whenever a week after the finale whenever you want but um to be able to like literally just binge through the whole entire thing because I think that might be the most pleasurable way of watching it and sort of seeing all the interconnections that there are in all the ways that the the the leaps that these actors take.

Sarah LaDuke:
All of this, and we didn't even talk about how Wiz Khalifa plays Death, Ziweh destroys as Sojourner Truth, sometimes there is singing (!) and so much more. The series finale of my favorite show, Dickinson will be on Apple TV plus on December 24. Our guest has been showrunner and series creator, Alena Smith.

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Sarah has been a public radio producer for over fifteen years. She grew up in Saranac Lake, New York where she worked part-time at Pendragon Theatre all through high school and college. She graduated from UAlbany in 2006 with a BA in English and started at WAMC a few weeks later as a part-time board-op in the control room. Through a series of offered and seized opportunities she is now the Senior Contributing Producer of The Roundtable and Producer of The Book Show. During the main thrust of the Covid-19 pandemic shut-down, Sarah hosted a live Instagram interview program "A Face for Radio Video Series." On it, Sarah spoke with actors, musicians, comedians, and artists about the creative activities they were accomplishing and/or missing.
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