This article 1st appeared in Manifest Magazine Feb/March/April, The Leadership Issue read below…
Azie Dungey struck gold when you uploaded the 1st episode of her Ask A Slave web series to YouTube. The concept for the series was born out of Azie’s real life experience working at Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George Washington, a tourist site where guests are transported back to the 18th century by actors who stay in character, give guided tours, answer questions and depict life on the plantation.
After graduating college, the Tisch School of The Arts at NYU and returning home to the Washington, DC area, Azie thought the gig at Mount Vernon would be good to help her strengthen her acting chops. However, what she didn’t know is that it would be an exercise in discipline as well. Azie may have had to bite her tongue while fielding preposterous questions in character for Lizzie Mae, the personal housemaid to President and Lady Washington; but in a journal she began to keep as a way to process it all, she was able to let loose. Questions like …
“How did you get to be house maid for such a distinguishing founding father? Did you see the advertisement in a newspaper?
Her answer in her head… and in the series.
“Hmmm? Did I read the advertisement in the newspaper? Why yes. It said, Wanted. One housemaid, no pay, preferably mulatto, saucy, with breeding hips. Must be able to work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, no holidays, but you get to wear a pretty dress and if you’re lucky, you might just get to carry some White man’s bastard child!
Chronicling those experiences, proved to be one of the smartest thing she ever did.
Dismayed with the way her acting career was going and lamenting over the lack of quality roles for people like her, in a bold move to showcase her talent to the world, Azie got the bright idea to draw upon her experiences at Mount Vernon to create a show that would showcase her talent a’ la, Ask A Slave.
Demonstrating the power of the World Wide Web, the series was literally an immediate runaway hit. However, it was not only the viral nature of the web that pushed the series. First off, in order to achieve virality, the content has to be worthy and Ask A Slave hit all of the benchmarks. The production was immaculate, the writing was sublime and acting was also superb. The response to the series was overwhelmingly positive. Some comments, coming from a very diverse mix of people on the first episode read …
“Excellent series. Accurately nailed the irony of the situation in the museum and the insanity of slavery itself. Loved the show.”
“I had mixed feeling about this when I read the title, now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad I watched.”
“This is comedy and tragedy at its finest.”
“Love this series, so excited I randomly found this.”
“This is awesome!”
By the end of the first week, Azie had done several interviews with major media outlets and it didn’t stop there.
Believe it out not, in record time, this little production of Ask A Slave, took Azie from unknown obscurity to, an opportunity to audition for Saturday Night Live and ultimately a few months later a job writing for the new show appearing on Netflix in March, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, with her idol, TINA FEY!
This is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. A little over a year ago Azie was nursing a struggling career trying to break into Hollywood. This year she was Tina Fey’s guest at the Golden Globes. Her story is a true testament to the things that are possible when you get up the confidence to let go of your fears and (to use the Nike tag line) JUST DO IT!
The Come Up!
Manifest had the opportunity to catch up with Azie to talk about her ride in the fast lane to Hollywood success. Here what she has to say below…
M: How did you get interested in writing?
AZ: I guess I’ve always been a writer but I’ve never really focused on it. I’ve always had a really active imagination and as a child I wrote a lot of stories. When I got out of school and was trying to find a work as an actor, I realized the kind of roles I wanted to play either didn’t exist or didn’t exist for me as a black female, my age range, my type, and all that. They were few and far between, so writing became something that was attractive because I could create what I wanted to do. I also started taking classes at The Groundlings (an improvisation school) and that really helped me feel more confident in my writing and performing.
M: Ask A Slave became a phenomenon immediately, literally overnight. Is that something you pitched anywhere else first and couldn’t get it done?
AZ: Well with Ask A slave, I can’t say that is a character that I necessarily want to play, but it happened to be made from my life experience. It was just a way of being able to process the experience of working at Mount Vernon. There were just some crazy, infuriating and just baffling situations. What happened was, I started to write them down. I would share them with friends and people would really laugh, be appalled or they would laugh and be appalled. So I realized this is a story and I wanted to find a way of using it as a creative expression.
M: From an outsider’s point of view, right after your first upload to YouTube, it all seemed like a whirlwind of things starting happening for you really fast. Would you say that’s true?
AZ: Yeah definitely! I put it out on Labor Day of September 2013 and by the end of the week I put up the second episode. I really didn’t know what I was doing I’ll be honest with you I’m not a YouTuber in the pure sense of the word. However, by the end of the week I almost had about 500,000 views. Plus, Ask A Slave Jezebel.com and Ask A Slave MadamNoire.com posted stories about the series the same day it came out and from there it just grew. There were stories on Ask A Slave Gawker.com, Ask A Slave Slate.com and I was interview by Ask A slave NPR. The next week I was at BBC World. After that I was doing maybe two to three interviews a day for the next two or three weeks. I was also contacted about a book deal and got invited to speak at Yale. Yeah, it just became kind of insane.
M: Didn’t you also get to audition for SNL?
AZ: Yes, I did! What really put me over the edge, was all about timing and had really nothing to do with me; was the interview that Kenan Thompson did when he said that there were no black women ready to be on SNL and that’s why they hadn’t casted one for however many years. That sparked an Internet, blog and Twitter storm. Lorne Michaels responded by doing something very unusual and called for an audition specifically to cast a black female comedian and I ended up being called for that audition. Then after that – agents and a managers began to call me. I ended up with an agent for acting and separately an agent for writing with ICM (International Creative Management), one of the top three agencies, which is pretty awesome, because it’s very hard to get an agent for writing especially because I hadn’t written a pilot or done much of anything that is typically required, yet they saw my sketch writing work and liked it a lot. I am also managed by 3Arts. So Yeah! Everything happened really quickly.
M: Did you do any marketing?
AZ: No. The only thing I did was make a Facebook page about a month before. I did that because I was very concerned about my point of view being misinterpreted by people thinking that I was being frivolous with a sensitive subject. I wanted to put it in context making sure people knew it was satire. Then there was a website where people were able to go to learn about me, my background and see that this was a true experience. Oh yeah, and I sent an email to the MadameNoire blog.
M: So how long from putting out the series until you got the writing gig with Tina Fey for the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and what was the process?
AZ: I got the job around Easter, April 15th.
M: What was the process like?
AZ: To be considered for the writing job, I had to write a comedy pilot. To be honest with you Tina Faye is one of my personal idols in life, OK! When I was in college, I use to come home from school and make my Mom watch all of my favorite clips of Tina Faye and Maya Rudolph. I’ve always admired her work. When I was writing my pilot the inspiration for and type of humor and set up environment I was trying achieve was influenced heavily by 30 Rock and The Office. Those are my favorite shows. I like quirky work place fun comedies with strong female characters and odd-ball situations. I was writing with that in mind and Tina Fey was certainly on my mind when I was writing it. After you write the pilot, the agents take it and gives notes. When it’s ready they start to pitch it to people who could potentially hire you.
M: How did you get told that you got the job?
AZ: I was actuality in the middle of doing a really big party with my friends and I didn’t get anything from my agents all day because it was a Sunday. I thought, “oh nobody is really going to contact me on a Sunday,” so I kind of ignored my phone. When I finally did check, I had a messages saying that the next day I had a Skype interview with Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. At the time I didn’t think the interview would be with Tina Fey, because I thought she was just producing. I didn’t know she was also the Show Runner. So, when I looked at the messages more closely, I saw that it was going to be with Tina Fey, it was probably the most exciting moments in my life. I had this really big dinner party and really great food and then I went to the bathroom and vomited because I was so nervous. The next morning I had the Skype interview. I found out I got the job on Thursday of that same week and by Monday I was moving from LA to New York, where the show is filmed with my two suit cases.
M: What’s the biggest lesson you learned so far.
AZ: The biggest lesson so far is definitely authenticity. So many times in this business and in life in general we try to figure out what other people want and we try to get approval in order to get to the next level. In actuality what you have is who you are and that’s what you bring to the table.
To see the series check out the Youtube channel below and let us know what you think.