Thursday, January 26, 2012

Y&R's Tonya Lee Williams Receives Martin Luther King Jr. Award

The World According to Tonya Lee Williams

Young and The Restless star Tonya Lee Williams heads to Montreal this week as recipient of Black Theatre Workshop's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award.
by David King

reprinted from The Charlebois Post
From her early days on TV's Polka Dot Door to producing and directing shows like Da Kink In My Hair and CBC's Gospel Jubilee, actress Tonya Lee Williams is one of Canada's few artists of colour who has successfully held down a career in Canada while keeping things real amidst the trappings of L.A.
The founder of Toronto's ReelWorld Film Festival, which provides opportunities for artists of colour to create film and television, Williams has kept the festival going strong for over a decade. Having dedicated her life to stage and screen since graduating from Ryerson in the late 1970s, she's showing us how positive focus, hard work and devotion to one's craft can truly pave the way to change.

So what's it like to receive two Emmy nominations as Dr. Olivia Barber Winters on TV's The Young and The Restless, you may ask?
"All you can hope for," says Williams, "is that the storyline is going to be good going into the show, that you get to work with so-and-so, et cetera. And then you get a call that you're nominated for an Emmy. And then up until the awards, it becomes this huge process - parties, lunches - it's great."
Williams heads to Montreal this week as recipient of yet another big honour: Black Theatre Workshop's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award. The prize honours artists' contributions to African-Canadian artistic and cultural expression and development. Oscar Peterson, Djanet Sears and George Elliot Clarke are just a few of the previous inductees. Two young artists will also be presented with awards at BTW's 26th Vision Gala, which in turn launches Black History Month. 

While one might expect Williams to have overcome some major obstacles to garner awards of such distinction, she admits none of it was done consciously. Au contraire, there is an uplifting optimism to Williams' approach towards acting that has always bypassed the nay saying and frustrations of trying to make it in a white world, and it's a core value she maintains today.
"I started out carefree-go-lucky, then became driven 24/7," says Williams. "I came from a time when working was simply enough. And because I was only 16 years old or so when I started, I wasn't aware of how few roles were actually out there. Yes, I saw people grieve about the things they didn't get and become negative about it, but it never seemed valuable to me to create that mindset that stuck you in a world where everyone was against you. To me, when you get stuck there, it's almost impossible to get to where you need to be".

Like many black actors, Williams can trace her childhood acting inspirations  back to legends like Sydney Poitier. But it was actress Dihann Carroll, she says, who she most fell in love with onscreen. Carroll, a stage and screen star, broke new ground in 1968 in Julia, one of the first series on American television to star a black woman in a non-stereotypical role. Eventually getting the chance to meet Carroll, it was an unforgettable day for Williams. 
"I didn't meet her until I was in my 50s," says Williams, "but it was one of those amazing moments where you get to tell someone how much they impacted your life. The landscape was different when I started out, it was all about drugs and hardships. I remember watching her [Carroll] play this nurse, a single widow in a private clinic, and the whole set. At that time, women were maids sitting around rolling their eyes. She was stunning, and it made me so proud to be a black woman and see how powerful the [television] medium can be."
In Hollywood, Williams has done stints on some of TV's 'honkiest' shows like Hill Street Blues, Matlock and Falcon Crest. Why, she even played Cindy Brady's roommate in A Very Brady Christmas. For her most known role on Young and the Restless from 1990 to 2005, (returning stints since 2008), she accredits her Daytime Emmy nods to the visionary magic of Y&R and Bold and the Beautiful creator William Bell, who passed away in 2005. Bell, explains Williams, is a great example of how one person can change everything for artists of colour.
"There was one other black character in my early days on Y&R named Bill Nathan," Williams comments, "but Bill Bell decided to bring in an entire family that would eventually parallel with the Newman family. So I was part of this huge group - an aunt, a sister, myself,  things just kept evolving. It wouldn't have happened with only one or two actors, and when Bill brought in that entire family from 1990 to 2005, it made a major impact on the show that has never been the same since."

Y&R gave Williams an opportunity to breathe a little easier financially, along with the chance to re-evaluate Canada's brain drain of artistry moving to the U.S. Although Williams knew she couldn't get people jobs in L.A., she did know how film festivals could be a terrific launching pad for the artists who kept asking her how they too could make it happen in the City of Angels. In the late 1990s, Williams also became more aware of L.A.'s own segregated climate when her own soirĂ©es became fantastic melting pots of houseguests. 
Toronto's ReelWorld, born in 2001, developed from that reawakening of sorts, and Williams is thrilled to have godmothered some of Canada's burgeoning artists of colour ever since.
Ironically, the pragmatic Williams observes, she doubts she would  pursue acting if she was just starting out today. As she explains, the 'business' of television has become all about ambition and money, something she sees too often behind the rose-coloured glasses of emerging artists."

"I try to ask artists how they are going to get from where they are standing to where they think they want to be," says Williams, "and where in the world they can make that happen, whether it's in Canada or elsewhere. It truly is about navigating your career in what is sellable. We all have a person inside us that is different when you look in the mirror, and I think it's about wearing the same pair of eyes as how other people see you.
"It's also about likeability," concludes Williams. "I see it when I audition people now. You can feel an energy when someone walks in a room and they just exude this joy, and it's those people I can't get out of my head. I'm drawn to them. When it's your job, as prepared as you can be, there's just a magical element that releases you when you are likeable and charismatic. And if they really want you, they'll really want you."

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Just starting yodelling lessons online this past few months. There's a great online course I can tell you about and totally free. My goal is to hang out with my friend Douglas in Geneva for a day next year wearing leiderhausen and belting out a few tunes as a tribute to the Alps for ludicrous fun!
a truly GREAT read!

As I'm discovering, believe it or not this is a fantastic genre with a beautifully rich history, and more connected to pop music than most people even know. We're all listening to those notes already!

Only a few people knew about my closet yodelling until now. There are a ton of great resources I'll be sharing, but how about a yodel emergency button my colleague in Paris was just showing me to start - you'll never know when you're going to need it! Already it's on my Facebook page and people love it! From Prince and Bette Midler to Mr. Whitman, this one's for you, kids!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Saddling up for the night with Airbnb

David King

If life is anything like in the movies, there was a day in that life when a countryman could trot up to a stranger's house on his horse, saddle up for the night, enjoy a hot meal and get some rest out in the back barn, all for less than a sixpence. Their hosts, of course (often damsels in distress) opened their doors freely to those in their community, and let me tell you, those coming and going were on a budget that had to last longer than sunrise.

Okay, so life is no movie, but in our era of now going beyond social networking, is one of those companies who's bringing back those good ole' days. At first, the founders' ideas were dismissed as ridiculous. After all who would suddenly start renting out a room in their house to a short-term traveller they've never met?

Of course, anything before its time is usually met with resistance. Now rumoured to be a billion dollar venture (it's an unconfirmed rumour folks), Airbnb is a modern day "how did they do that?" outfit that's set the standard for not only connecting travellers with hosts online, but in in the live flesh. Expanding to almost 10, 000 cities around the world in only a couple of years, Airbnb is already the industry leader in creating a community that goes well and beyond couchsurfing-style accommodations, and it's unlocked the door to some of the most unique accommodations on the planet, including B&B,s, flats, rooms, and unusual rentals like boats, treehouses, castles and event venues. Where else can you rent an entire apartment in NY's Hell's Kitchen or a studio overlooking the Eiffel Tower for less than a hundred bucks?

Fact is, travellers today have a harder time meeting their dietary restrictions in restaurants, trapping themselves in stuffy hotel rooms, or not getting the full benefits of their more sophisticated tastes in unique travel excursions. With a company like Airbnb, all those needs are met - access to kitchens and cooking and more, without paying for luxury suites or apartment-hotels, and great advice from hosts without the droning, endless speech of a tour guide. There is full range of options well-suited for today's travellers, all while helping the coffers of individuals ourselves. And unlike Couchsurfing, the market caters to older folks just as much as backpackers hitting the road before they start university in the Fall.

Airbnb Crewbie-Newbies / Vayia Geromoschos 
Having been a host myself at Airbnb for a year, I've connected with people from around the world and look forward to visiting them when I go abroad. Noticing Airbnb was hiring to fill its demand, I recently jumped aboard Airbnb's Aircrew, an international, customer support system for Airbnb-ers that has played a big part in Airbnb's success. It's not your typical CS role, and what's most exciting about it is the huge range of responsibilities the Aircrew tackle in one day, from live chat and direct phone support to problem-solving and shout-outs to new hosts.

Back at headquarters in San Francisco, Airbnb staff have been busy moving into a huge new office recently, and continue to import more Aircrew members and staff to keep up with the insane demand. After Ashton Kutcher recently announced his investment alongside founding partners Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia, things are "onwards and upwards", to coin a well-known Airbnb phrase. The multi-lingual staff have a terrific joie-de-vivre that mirrors the Airbnb community itself, and coming from all kinds of backgrounds during this transition time, it's a diversity that should make for a lot of longevity in Airbnb's future, one possibly to the extent of the rags-to-riches story that we now call Facebook.

With exceptional programs for guests and hosts such as Airbnb's Social Connections, Superhosting and Night Writing, Airbnb seems to be going the extra mile for its travellers and those accommodating them. Depending on the location, the team's international photographers visit hosts' homes regularly for free-of-charge professional photography of each listing, while less remote locations can be set up with the help of Aircrew and some simple latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. Hosts have options for cleaning fees and deposits along with their listings, and all transactions are carried out through Airbnb by holding the payment until 24 hours after the guest has checked in, creating less worry for the traveller and for the host in not having to make that awkward transaction in person.

The "Collections" listing on Airbnb for luxury travel is particularly impressive. By having options to auto list a space on Craigslist or Facebook, and to review each guest and host at the end of each stay, visitors to the site have all the information they need with one click, proving Airbnb is not only providing a cut above the rest in service, but a world-class system that's constantly being tweaked with feedback from the community itself.

With this Aircrew, who wouldn't jump on a plane today? / Jessi Whitby Wright
It's easy to be a skeptic after experiencing the bubble burst in the 90s and the descent of the U.S. economy in recent years. Wherever success lies, a skeptic and a clone looking to cash in on that success are right around the corner. As companies like Wimdu attempt to rip off Airbnb's platform for growth, Airbnb is already the little engine-that-could in the tech industry these days, through not only strong leadership and investment, but a superior community of Airbnb-ers themselves. Airbnb may not have a horse to lend out yet, but considering it's  touted  as the "E-bay of space", you're sure to find more than a back barn within its listings (and then some!) for a fantastic trip, all at the fraction of a hotel price.

Get along, little doggie.

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