Bringing "Dickinson" To A Digital Generation
Alena Smith ’02 created an imaginative AppleTV+ show about the poet Emily Dickinson that is no period piece.
It’s early January, just after the finish of a long holiday break, and Alena Smith ’02 has two weeks to wrap filming on the second season of Dickinson, her AppleTV+ period dramedy about the 19th-century lyric poet, which films in upstate New York. “Everyone is disoriented,” she says of the actors trying to transition from vacation back into their waistcoats and pin-tucked lawn gowns.
Period costuming aside, Dickinson is no period piece. In the first season, Emily Dickinson, played by True Grit star Hailee Steinfeld, throws raging house parties when her parents are out of town, makes out with her brother’s fiance, and protests the obligations of women’s domestic lives. “You’re not a cat,” her mother says, scolding Dickinson for dropping a dead mouse in the lap of a suitor. “No,” Smith’s Dickinson replies. “Tragically, I am a woman.”
“I think that this is a coming-of-age story about a radical young female artist who was ahead of her time,” says Smith, who began working on her show about the famously reclusive poet seven years ago. “She has this legacy that we’re still unpacking, that has a lot to say to a contemporary audience.” Rather than tell that story in the repressed vocabulary of Victorian Amherst, Mass., Smith translated it into the diction of today. Which means that when her characters dance, choreographed minuets devolve into twerking. When “Death” stops by to visit Dickinson, he’s played by rapper Wiz Khalifa in a top hat.
Smith, who studied playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, credits her knack for building such audaciously compelling worlds to the work she did not long after leaving Haverford, when she set up an experimental theater company called Dead Genius Productions with fellow grads Alison D’Amato ’02 and Christian DuComb ’01.
“We did little shows in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. We did a lot of gathering of interesting source material and then creating very crazy worlds out of it. And I think that that s tyle of working definitely helped me create Dickinson, because it’s kind of like research meets imagination.”
Upon her graduation from Yale, Smith moved to New York City, working as a nanny by day and self-producing her plays. It was a grind. As a side project, in 2011, she set up a Twitter account, TweenHobo, where she would tweet observations from the perspective of a 12-year-old railroad tramp. That work, which later morphed into a book, caught the attention of The Office writer and cast member BJ Novak, who encouraged Smith to try Hollywood. After a move to Los Angeles, she became a writer on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom and the hit Showtime series The Affair, and developed Dickinson on her own time.
After years of tinkering, Smith only pitched the series to one network, the new streaming platform from Apple, right around the same time she learned she was pregnant with twins. They were newborns when season one was in production. “I have an incredible husband who stepped up and helped me,” Smith says of the extraordinarily complicated timing. But there’s a “bigger picture” answer, she says, to the question “How did you do it?”
“I had worked on this project for so long and dreamed about it so much, and everything I ever wanted to accomplish as a writer was in this,” says Smith. “And the timing was what it was, and I just didn’t have a choice. I had to fulfill the mission.”