It’s not easy to characterize Amy Walker. At first glance you might consider her a gifted performer, but a closer look reveals talent across numerous artistic disciplines. She’s a writer. An actress. A singer. A film director. A choreographer. A skilled instructor. Her ability to assume the mannerisms and vocal patterns of regions around the globe will astonish you.
I found Amy’s work on YouTube, quite by accident, and was amazed at the breadth of unique content she’s published there. In one video she pokes playful fun at certain English words. In another she films herself preparing for a date while timing her movements and singing along to a piece of instrumental music. Her sense of humor ranges from subtle to off-the-charts wacky. But one piece in particular, a tender short story about a long-married couple titled “Toast with Butter,” impressed me enough to look further into her work. I learned that one of Amy’s videos earned her a segment on NBC’s “Today,” and that she’s working on a feature film about relationships and the amazing ways humans are connected to each other.
Amy was kind enough to spend time discussing her work with me, and we also talked about the challenges artists face in a world where entertainment is increasingly commoditized. A portion of our conversation can be found below.
The way I found your work is by stumbling across one of your most popular videos on YouTube. In a few minutes I realized you’d published a whole library of entertaining content. I contacted you, you responded, and here we are conducting this interview. Is that not the best thing about the Internet?
Real life is like that as well. We don’t always notice the connections as easily, but they’re there.
There is no substitute for real life, of course. But I think what the Internet adds is an ability to meet interesting people beyond your own neighborhood.
Yes, there is no substitute for meeting in person. Being able to parse the sensory input of what someone else is feeling or showing is a far deeper interaction on many levels.
And yes, the magic of the Internet is that, geographically, I live on an island. My audience, my coworkers, my students: None of them live here. I think of it as having a very small footprint, but a wide network.
I noticed you’ve conducted some live online shows. How did that come about?
The shows stemmed from a desire to find a wider audience than the YouTube videos can reach. My first two one-woman shows were done live in the traditional way (on stage!) But clips from those are what prompted me to start my YouTube account in the first place. So when I considered broadcasting live over the Internet, it seemed like a natural progression. Crazy, maybe, but natural. And the shows have gone incredibly well. It’s a total kick to have people chatting or calling in from their bedroom in London, with tea and their dressing gown on because it’s 11:00 at night there.
That’s really cool. One-person broadcasting and the ability to interact with your audience in real time. Beats the heck out of actual television, doesn’t it?
To me, yeah. No commercials!
And it’s such an intimate experience. From my living room to yours. No flashing lights or big production. Just us.
Speaking of commercials, there are ads on some of your posted videos. When this first started occurring on YouTube, I found it off-putting. But then I realized I was enjoying content generated by someone else, and they ought to be rewarded for their time. It’s not like I give away my books for free. I assume you supplement your income with ad revenue generated by some of your videos?
Yes. That’s been a difficult one for me. I look forward to the day when I can present everything ad-free.But for now, the ads help me to do the work I love and make it available to the world at no charge. I keep my footprint very small to cut down on expenses. I’ve looked for alternative currencies to money, like house sitting and other kinds of trade, while getting established. Those online shows take hours and hours of preparation, and I didn’t want to charge admission, so initially I put up a donate button. But the first time, I think five people donated out of a couple of hundred. The second time, we had about 730 people from over 100 countries participate, and the only two people who donated were colleagues of mine. I’ve had some dark nights trying to figure out how to afford to do what I love, but I’ve always believed there must be a way for the universe to support what I’m here to give it. So far it has worked out. I also teach, using Skype, to people all over the world. But 95% of what I do is for free. For “vibes,” as I say. Because I believe doing inspired work is always energy well spent.
The reason I thought you’d be a good fit for The Nervous Breakdown is the effort you put into writing your performances. The one that stuck with me was your short story, “Toast with Butter,” which you read on camera. Did you write that with the intention of performing it?
I wrote it one morning when I’d made toast and used my flatmate’s “alternative buttery spread.” It was nothing like butter. It was like the opposite of butter. I gagged, laughed, and grabbed a pen.Morris had something to say.
A couple of years later I was looking through some old pieces and found that one and chose to share it.
You’re right about Morris. And what I like most about the story is the entertaining rapport between he and Mavis. Did any particular couple serve as inspiration for the story and its characters?
Thanks! I didn’t pattern them after anyone in particular. I suppose they’ve got bits of people I’ve met or observed, but they’re very much a part of me, too. I’m fascinated and inspired by couples who’ve been together forever and still find ways to surprise and love and tolerate and support each other.
I’m also fascinated by that. It seems to be something of a lost art these days. One of TNB’s contributors, Irene Zion, has been married for over 40 years, and occasionally she shares beautiful stories about her marriage and how she and her husband make it work.
That’s wonderful.I’m grateful to have incredible examples of long-term marriage in my parents, grandparents, and some dear family friends who were together from the age of twelve (in 1911) until he died in 1992, I think it was. Someday I’ll make a film of them.
While the “Toast with Butter” performance was written ahead of time, some of the other videos you’ve produced seem more spontaneous. How do you prepare for the content you generate specifically for YouTube? I’m thinking of the “3 Foods” video, which may be my favorite among them.
It really depends on the video.With the “3 Foods” piece, I think I had the idea the night before and practiced in front of the mirror, trying things, figuring out what it “is” and what not to include. I still don’t really know what it “is,” which is part of the fun…and a major source for self-doubt about posting it. With other pieces, like song interpretations or a monologue, I’ll work on it anywhere from a day to weeks or months, rolling it around my brain and mouth at odd moments…like in the bath. The one with the most preparation of all was “Getting Ready for a Date.” Good heavens, that took forever. Super technical. One of my favorites, “Mexi-Tots,” I only thought of that morning. Grabbed a couple of T-shirts from a thrift store, drew a burrito on the white one, cut it out and taped it onto the black one, bent a Q-tip to act as a retainer, and shot the thing.
I think I’ve watched “3 Foods” two or three hundred times. “Poulet? Poulet?”
How I found your work online is with your most-viewed video, which is you speaking English in accents from regions around the world. Your ability to mimic accents and facial expressions and capture a general sense of an archetype is extraordinary, and even earned you a spot on NBC’s “Today.” How has YouTube popularity enhanced your career?
It initially surprised me that “21 Accents” went viral worldwide. It still surprises me. But I think it resonates with people because it’s not just about sounding like I’m from different places. It’s about how we express ourselves as people, and how our community of origin influences that. And further, it asks, What is real? Is an expression more or less true than another if it adapts to a different context? At the end of the day we speak to communicate, not just to express who we are. If I want to communicate the most clearly with an Australian, they may understand and relate to me best if I’m Aussie. If they don’t hear any difference between us, we’re just people.
The accents I learned so I could be a better actor, just like I study how people move and relate to their world. But I’ve found unexpected benefits and meaning in studying accents…out of necessity, really, because it’s been my doorway into a lot of work.
So you’re working on a film project. Can you tell me a bit about that? It seems you’re taking a unique approach to funding it.
Sure! The ConnectedFilm project is uniting a global community to fund the feature film, Connected, one dollar at a time. Anyone who donates will have their name in the credits of the finished film. We want to show that each gift is equally important. We call it Micro-Giving. The idea is that there are seven or so billion people on this earth, and when only a fraction gives a dollar or an hour of time toward a unified goal, with a little coordination, it adds up! When the film is completed and released, the revenue that normally goes back to studios or corporations will instead help create The SoulFire Project—a platform to enable anyone to raise awareness and funds for their own dream project, through Micro-Giving.
Sounds like a wonderful project. Good luck! Maybe we can round up some donations for you here at TNB.
Thanks!It’s thrilling that the whole project, a film about connecting, is being funded by people connecting around the world! You can see names from all over the world scroll by at ConnectedFilm.com.