Meet the Alaska Native creatives in the NYC writers room for ‘Alaska Daily’

Playwright Vera Starbard listens to a question during "An Evening of Stories," an event Monday, April 23, 2018, to raise awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault, at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in Juneau. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)
T’set Kwei Vera Starbard in 2018. Starbard is one of the writers of the ‘Alaska Daily’ TV show that premiers on Oct. 6, 2022. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO).

The new TV show “Alaska Daily” premieres on Thursday. It stars Hilary Swank as a hard-charging investigative reporter, fresh from New York City – but quick to see that her new state has far too many cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The series is fiction, loosely based on the Anchorage Daily News, and at least two Alaska Native writers work on the show.

“Overall, I really hope people see in this, in some way, the Alaska that I love,” said Lingít playwright Vera Starbard, whose career took off when she was tapped to write episodes for the PBS hit children’s series, Molly from Denali.

Her writing partner, Andrew MacLean, is Inupiat, and known for his award-winning film from 2011, “On the Ice.” And even though he’s familiar with making movies, MacLean says nothing prepared him for a TV series like this.

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, who produced the award-winning film, On the Ice, is now living in New York City, where he is works on the screenplay for Alaska Daily (Photo courtesy of Andrew MacLean).

“Somebody compared it to building a train hurtling down a track and I think that’s kind of right,” he said.

Even as the show premieres, MacLean and Starbard are hard at work on upcoming episodes for the season that haven’t been filmed yet.

“It’s literally hour by hour,” Starbard said. “You don’t totally know what you’re going to be doing, so you might show up and think you’re going to work on Episode 9, and in fact, there’s an urgent thing they need you to figure out for Episode 5 that they’re shooting right now.”

For the past few months, both Starbard and MacLean have been sequestered in what they call, “The Writing Room” in New York City, where they work with producers and writers they describe as some of the best in the business. But even so, it hasn’t been easy to teach them about Alaska.

“So many different communities. So many different peoples and tribes and ethnicities. And so many different lived realities. It can be overwhelming,” said MacLean. “It probably causes us to lose the most sleep.”

MacLean says millions of people will watch this show.

“And that’s a powerful thing. A powerful way to educate and a powerful opportunity just to reach out and tell our stories in a truthful and authentic way,” he said.

“I have such a strong belief,” Starbard said. “And it’s so much of the reason that I do the work that I do – that Alaska Native people have amazing, wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary things to give the world.”

And that includes a sense of humor. Just before she left New York City to return home, the crew gave her a card with a word in Lingít.

“And it just says júk on it, which means ‘Go away’ in Lingít,” she said. “I taught them too much.”

She says she finds it ironic that to tell stories about Alaska, she had to go all the way to New York City, where she was asked to treat the state as more than just a backdrop, but a character in its own right.

Listen to the interview from Juneau Afternoon:

Vera Starbard is a member of KTOO’s board of directors.

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