Supporting creative work by women
Ashlie Atkinson is back on stage in New York. Rumor has it that the New York International Fringe Festival show she’s starring in, The Particulars by Matthew MacKenzie, is selling out. No surprise there.
Ashlie has been tearing up the silver screen lately with two films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, she’s turned in so many memorable performances on stage (Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, The Ritz) and on TV (Rescue Me, Louie). Whenever you have a chance to see her perform live and in person, go.
Ashlie spoke with Works by Women about traveling the world with Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey’s Bridge Project, why she’s excited to be in FringeNYC and what to expect from The Particulars.
WORKS BY WOMEN: You’ve worked with The Bridge Theatre Company for years. What excites you about this company?
ASHLIE ATKINSON: I’ve been involved with The Bridge gang more or less since I graduated acting school. I’ve directed a couple readings for them, and taken part in a lot of workshops, but I’ve only done one other fully staged show with them, Making Marilyn, way back in 2005. Since that time there have been major overhauls and changes in content as well as membership, but what has remained consistent is a commitment to honest acting and an emphasis on new, often tough, material. They’re unafraid. If they believe something can work, they put time and resources behind that belief in a big way. And, because they are actors themselves, Esther [Barlow] and Dustin [Olson] are very actor-focused producers. They look for dynamic, playable scripts and then give actors and directors room to stretch out and discover. So it’s been nice to re-enter that level of engagement with these guys, to feel like I’m part of it again. And I like Canadians. They’re nice.
WORKS BY WOMEN: What may audiences expect from The Particulars?
ASHLIE: Hockey references. Okay, that’s true, but that’s not all. The Particulars is comprised of two monologues that deal with big stuff — death, sin, miracles, love, God, pride — very specifically as they impact the lives of two people. My co-star, Brian Silliman, is doing a tremendous job, but I don’t want to misstep in describing all the great work he’s doing, so I’m just gonna say he’s funny and heartbreaking and completely truthful. For my half of the play, I play a Youth Minister in the United Church of Canada (for Americans, think super left-wing Presbyterian with a dash of Unitarian) who goes on a journey to Africa to find her friend who disappeared into the forest with the pygmies four years ago. My character, Lilian, has a humbling, terrifying, miraculous experience, and for me part of the fun has been processing how hard we have to work to integrate experiences like that once we return to the world. How do you explain it to other people? Or even to yourself, after a month back in your conventional surroundings? What space do we allow for the extraordinary?
WORKS BY WOMEN: What thrills you about being part of the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival?
ASHLIE: I have wanted to be in the New York International Fringe Festival for, like, ever. As a matter of fact, I auditioned for our director Jordana Williams and her husband years ago for a Fringe show that got rave reviews, called FLEET WEEK. So it’s wonderful to get another shot at not only the Fringe but at working with Jordana. To be one of the 187 shows at the Fringe this year is a big ol’ honor, and I am really lucky to be surrounded with talented people operating at a real high level with this production, from Matthew MacKenzie’s script on down. We we were lucky enough to be placed one of my absolute favorite venues, The Studio at The Cherry Lane Theatre — lucky venue number #13! — and after 8 years of hearing what an exciting experience the Fringe is, I’m stoked to be a part of it!
WBW: You also traveled the world with another Bridge theater project. What was that experience like? What did you learn from it?
ASHLIE: Yes! I was in Year Two of The Bridge Project, which was a brilliant, insane idea hatched by Sam Mendes and Kevin Spacey to do two plays in rep around the globe with a company of Americans and Brits. I spent the entire time thinking “I will never have an opportunity like this again. I better make the most of it.” I mean, these actors, man. They started out as my heroes and ended up as my friends. And we’re going all over the place, braving weird food and sketchy buses and language barriers and pretty much laughing our fool heads off most of the time. And the production team was just top freakin’ notch. It’s like Sam set the tone of excellence, and everyone was excited to step up to it. It’s funny, I was just thinking the other day that one of the things the two “Bridges” have in common is a certain confidence in atypical casting. I feel pretty sure that Sam gave me the only chance I’ll have to play Phoebe in As You Like It and the goddess Juno in The Tempest, and I am equally certain that nobody but The Bridge Theater Company would have believed in my acting ability enough to cast me as Marilyn Monroe.
WBW: You’ve got a lot of film projects out right now. Tell me more about them.
ASHLIE: Well, I have been busy. Which is awesome. I had two films premiere at Sundance this year, Compliance and My Best Day. Compliance is a movie based on a creepy real-life incident 8 years ago at a McDonald’s in Kentucky, as well as the famous Milgram experiment. It examines our tendencies to relinquish critical thinking and compassion when authority or perceived authority take control. Almost all the action takes place at a fictional chicken restaurant called a Chickwich, and I’m the Assistant Manager, a girl named Marti. I am so proud of this film, and I think it has a lot to say, but, well… it’s not an EASY film, y’know? After screenings, when you usually ask people “Did you enjoy the film?”, I find myself qualifying that question a lot. I have made a list of films that I am so glad I saw, that I think are important, but I will never be like, “hey baby, order a pizza and we’ll watch Boys Don’t Cry again.” Boys Don’t Cry, Requiem for a Dream, Dancer in the Dark… I feel like Compliance is on that list.
My Best Day, on the other hand, is like the most warm-hearted little weirdo small-town American indie a girl could hope for. I play a lesbian janitor named Meagan who just spent money she doesn’t really have in order to buy a used motorcycle to impress a girl who is not her girlfriend. Then she gets roped into helping her best friend find the father she’s never met. The characters are broke, we live in trailers if we’re lucky, most of us don’t have health insurance, and we’re afraid. Afraid of who we might be, afraid of what people will think of us, afraid of being different. Different in a small town is TOUGH. And ultimately, I think it’s a movie about little victories — about finding that one thing you stand up for, that you fight for, that might not mean a lot to everybody else.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theater?
ASHLIE: God. It makes me so sad that this question still makes sense. Well, first off, I think Lisa Kron said it best: “Men are universal; women are specific.” In other words, we as women have been taught to identify with male characters, to see them as Everyman. I am not at all sure that’s happening to men when they watch female characters in the theatre. Add that to the staggering research of the Sands study a few years back, and what we see is a consistent lack of female voices in the theater here in America, EVEN THOUGH when shows written or directed by women get to the Broadway level, they financially outperform their male counterparts. Now what is UP with that???
Here’s a story I probably shouldn’t tell, but I’m gonna: When I was in college in Arkansas, an actress from a prominent acting family came to speak to all the theatre students. And one of the first things she said was, “If you’re female, and you want to be an actress, you’d better be beautiful. And even then, you won’t work after 40.” I don’t know what else she said after that, because I walked out. I was horrified and angered that in 2001, women still felt like they were held to that reductive standard. I didn’t get into theater to try and be beautiful. I love the theater because I love transforming into something active, a seeker of something, does that make sense? Beauty is so STATIC. It’s like a museum piece.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theater?
ASHLIE: The women. The quality of woman that is making a life for herself in the theater. In the past 8 years as a New York actress, I have had the opportunity to work with women who downright REFUSE to walk into the wings and disappear. They are vibrant, ferociously intelligent, empathetic woman and they will work forever, I feel certain. I’m talking about women like Jo Bonney, Judith Ivey, Cynthia Mace, Debra Jo Rupp, Claudia Shear, Welker White, Angela Pietropinto, Carole Rothman for God’s sake… now, these are beautiful women, but they are in thrall to STORIES, to CHARACTERS, not to whether the faces those characters present are pleasing to the eye. And I work with these brilliantly talented women, and I see how what they do is making a space so that maybe the generation of female actors, writers, and directors underneath them can be even freer. Maybe, in time, there won’t be a “woman question”. Maybe all these wonderful younger women will be able to present their stories in ways that are received as universal, and Everyman can finally be a woman. OR, maybe the apocalypse is gonna happen and we’re all gonna end up back near the beginning, in candlelit rooms with 2 people acting out stories for an audience of 8 people. That’d be okay too. Solve the problem of escalating ticket prices, anyway.
The Particulars is produced by Canadian-American company, The Bridge Theatre Company. Performances are Saturday, August 11th at 2:30 pm; Sunday, August 12th at 7:00 pm; Tuesday, August 21st at 9:00 pm; Thursday, August 23rd at 4:45 and Sunday, August 26th at 4:00 pm at Venue #13 Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street at Bedford Street).