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Give it a rest, Emily! New play looks at famed Amherst poet through a sharper lens 

  • Actor and playwright Tanya O’Debra stars as Emily Dickinson, a woman she calls “America’s most brilliant and annoying poetess,” in her play “Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” at Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre Jan. 19.  Photo by Molly Broxton 

  • O’Debra’s “Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” is an adult comedic play that presents Emily Dickinson not just as a celebrated poet but as the sometimes difficult recluse she could be.  Photo by Molly Broxton

  • At far left a portrait of Emily Dickinson, believed to be dated from 1846-1847. 

  • Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s co-editor, was one a number of people who may have found the poet’s personality a bit “extreme,” says Tanya O’Debra.



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Emily Dickinson is revered for her innovative and prolific poems, 1,800 of which were amassed during her lifetime and published four years after her death in 1886. But despite her literary accomplishments, the beloved Amherst poet wasn’t perfect.

A new play called “Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” aims to ground the famous wordsmith as the imperfect and oftentimes difficult, reclusive person she was during her lifetime. Part comedy roast, and part celebration of Dickinson and her work, the comedic play is heading to Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre on Saturday, Jan. 19.

“Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” is the brainchild of actor and playwright Tanya O’Debra, who stars as Dickinson in the production. During a recent interview at the Emily Dickinson Museum at the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, O’Debra said that though she loves Dickinson, she wouldn’t want to spend a day with her because of her probably “annoying” personality.

“There are parts [of the play] that are filthy,” she said. “We’re taking it to some places where she would never say any of that stuff. There’s just something so fun about making Emily Dickinson say the worst words I can think of. It’s so delightful.”

O’Debra, an actor, writer and comedian who previously lived in New York City — she’s currently an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College — isn’t alone in thinking that Dickinson must have been a difficult person to deal with. While doing research during her writing process, O’Debra found a quote from Dickinson’s co-editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

“It was something like, ‘Without touching me, she drew from me,’ ” O’Debra said. “He was really alluding to [Dickinson] being a really extreme personality, and so I just went into a crazy deep dive of her life. Yes, I do feel that she would have been totally annoying, but I also fell in love with her.”

To this day, Dickinson’s life is shrouded in some mystery due to her reclusive lifestyle, O’Debra said. The play draws part of its inspiration from the “Master Letters” — an enduring question in American literature centered around three letters drafted by Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” The romantic letters were written between 1858 and 1862, and there’s no evidence they were ever sent, or for whom they were intended.

The two-person play is “a day in the life of Emily Dickinson,” O’Debra said. The entire production, which lasts one hour and 15 minutes, takes place in the poet’s bedroom.

“What is she doing there? And people are so curious about her sex life. What happened? I just wanted to put it all out there,” she said. “I was really thinking about the Master Letters … She’s basically in her bedroom having a correspondence with the ‘Master.’ ” 

“We just get to see all the facets of her,” O’Debra added. “You have to be really independent to decide that you’re not going to ever see people. But at the same time, she wrote so many letters constantly to so many people. There’s this weird push and pull of ‘Don’t look at me, but look at me.’ ”

The play’s second actor is Gregg Bellón, who performs as more than half a dozen male and female characters in Dickinson’s life, including her co-editor, Higginson, her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, and her friend Elizabeth Holland. Bellón also uses a voice changer as a tool to help him transform into the many people in Dickinson’s life.

Drawing on real life experience

O’Debra said the play has elements of audience participation and is built around a central mystery: whether or not the other characters are actually in the room with Dickinson, or if she’s just imagining them being there.

“She’s just sort of spinning out,” she added. “She’s writing letters to people. She’s in her room alone, yet she’s not alone because in her mind there’s just a wealth of people interacting with her. One of the challenges of this play is, how do you write a play about somebody who sits in their bedroom all day long?”

When it came to embodying the role of the reclusive poet, O’Debra drew inspiration from her own life, when she was recovering from a car crash and couldn’t leave her second-floor, walk-up apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. for several months because she was in a wheelchair.  

“I did think about her a lot during that time,” O’Debra said. “You just never leave? It just felt like one endless day.”

O’Debra and Bellón also created the sound design together, and Bellón designed the play’s set. O’Debra’s brother-in-law Andrew Moreyellow composed the music for the production. The play will be directed by film and theater director Sara Wolkowitz, co-director and producer of “Lightning Bugs in a Jar,” a short film that premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. 

Emily Curro, marketing and development manager for the Academy of Music, said “Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” is part of the theater’s “Season Series,” productions that the venue stages itself. 

“We’re excited about it because Tanya has been here in the past,” she said. “In 2014, she produced a piece called ‘Radio Star.’ She’s worked with us in the past and we love her work. She is a very dedicated artist. It’s also part of our mission to produce work by women about women.” 

O’Debra said she finished the first draft of the semi-autobiographical comedy in 2013 but wasn’t initially satisfied with the result. After taking an Emily Dickinson course at Amherst College, she thought she was doing a disservice to the poet by presenting the play as a pure comedy.

“Why would it be important to talk about Emily Dickinson now?” she asked. “I was sort of paying attention to news stories and thinking about how Emily Dickinson would have been like in the world we have now. She was obviously intensely private. I think in the world now, so much is expected of women in terms of what they’re supposed to divulge.

“How would that have gone for her?” O’Debra added. “And it’s still going on. This woman has been dead forever, and yet people are peering into places in her life where she was trying with all her might to keep private … Here I am guilty, too.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

“Shut UP, Emily Dickinson!” will be staged at Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre Jan. 19 at 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $16. For more information about the play and to purchase tickets visit https://aomtheatre.ticketfly.com/event/1719974-shut-up-emily-dickinson-northampton/