Alison McDonald Is Changing Hollywood

6 years ago

Game Changers is a series of interviews with awesome women who are changing the landscape of the web.

Alison McDonald is many things: Comedienne. Writer. Sister. Single.

Very Single.

Using her skills as a director and comedy writer (Everybody Hates Chris, Nurse Jackie), Alison chronicles her life as a singleton in series of web trailers called She Got Problems. The trailers, which are Ally McBeal meets Bridesmaids answers the question "Why Are Black Women Are Single?" from a black woman's point of view (finally!).

Alison McDonald clowns around as she pisses off the fountain.

Alison is part of a new wave of black women creatives, like Awkward Black Girl's Issa Rae, who are using the power of the web to change Hollywood. They're creating mufti-dimensional, fully developed roles that are, in the words of Alison, “neither a humble maid, nor an emasculating judge, nor a sassy, streetwise and illiterate fill-in-the-blank.”

And they're funny.

I sat down with Alison, to chat about the challenges of being a creative woman of color in Hollywood and how she used those challenges to become a Game Changer.

How did you become a Game Changer?

I was unemployed for a couple of months, which happens when you're a television writer, and really depressed about my situation, when a friend invited me to lunch. Over lunch she sweetly expressed her concern and offered me her shoulder to cry on. It was a transformative moment, because as I was crying, I thought, I can continue to wallow, or I can take action. And then the words just flew out of my mouth: "I'm going to write, direct and produce my own series." And that's exactly what I did.

What's the story behind She Got Problems?

It's a musical-comedy "mockumentary" series about my absurd and anemic love life.

It combines my love of comedy with my love of musicals, because who doesn’t love a good musical?

Lately there's been quite a bit of discussion regarding the role (or lack thereof) of black women in Hollywood. Is the gender-racial barrier real? And if so, how does it impact the creative process?

The Directors Guild of America released a stupefying report late last year that revealed that in the 2010-2011 season of scripted television, women of color directed only 1% of all episodes. Those statistics speak volumes.

Lamentably, the gender-racial barrier is very real and, taking into account the stalled careers of so many highly regarded African-American actresses, the barrier appears nearly impossible to topple.

Nevertheless, you have to persevere and pretend that it doesn’t exist, or else you will go crazy. And whenever you crash into it, you have to pick yourself up and devise a way around it.

I'm heading back to Los Angeles in less than two weeks to try and sell She Got Problems. I'm well aware that it won't be an easy sell, and I’m prepared to hear the word "no" a lot, along with countless intonations of the Hollywood axiom that "White audiences won't care about a black protagonist." But I take great comfort in another oft-quoted Hollywood axiom: "Nobody knows anything." Proof of which is the fact that a black and white silent film with no stars not only got made, but also just won the Best Picture Oscar. That couldn't have been an easy sell either.

Alison McDonald close-up

While you're a television comedy writer, your sister, actress/performer Audra McDonald, is mostly known for her dramatic roles on TV and on Broadway. Was it a conscious decision to be a comedy queen versus a drama queen?

It's odd. Most comediennes and comedians were class clowns, or told jokes as a way to gain social acceptance -- or to avoid a beat-down! But that wasn’t the case with me. I never craved attention. That's not to say that I'm shy, in fact, I can be quite gregarious. I simply chose my moments cautiously. That's my five-cent philosophy of comedy: Always proceed with caution, and then zing them when they least expect it!

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned on your path to becoming a Game Changer?

The most important lesson I've learned is to build up an immunity to the word "no," because that's what you're going to hear 99% of the time. And you absolutely MUST shove your pride off a cliff; there's zero shame in asking for help. Once I started asking, I found a production assistant who leapt at the opportunity to be my production coordinator; a props person who leapt at the opportunity to be my production designer; an out-of-work Broadway dancer who leapt at the opportunity to be my choreographer; and an editorial assistant who leapt at the opportunity to be my editor.

Step by step, I eventually assembled a team of people who were as invested in my dream as I was.

You can watch Alison's series, She Got Problems, on YouTube, You can also follow her on Twitter at @shegotproblems and enjoy a hilarious series of fictional exchanges between Alison and her imagined comic foil, Blue Ivy Carter -- that's right, Beyonce and Jay-Z's baby.

For more thoughts on women, technology and business, please follow Kathryn on Twitter at @KathrynFinney

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