On Stage in New York, At Home in Arkansas

Hendrix alumna knows who she is and what she wants

By Rachel Thomas '14

Ashlie Atkinson '01 still remembers the day she changed her major from English to theater.

"I remember I had gotten an A, my first A on a paper in Alice Hines' class ... and I remember she walked past me and dropped the paper on my desk and said ‘we'll make an English major out of you yet, Miss Atkinson,' and I thought, I just changed my major," Atkinson said. "I had done it right before I went to her class. And then I thought, ‘Oh, I will miss you Dr. Hines, but I've got somewhere to be'."

Now a stage and screen actor who played major roles in two films that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, when Atkinson started at Hendrix she was an English major with serious doubts about a career in acting.

A Little Rock native, Atkinson knew from a young age that she wanted to act. After graduating high school, she briefly went away to college in New York but decided to come home and enroll at Hendrix, where she had attended Arkansas Governor's School for drama.

"I'm so glad I didn't go anywhere else. The friends I made at Hendrix are my friends still, to this day. And I don't mean like three or four of them. I have probably still 40 friends from Hendrix that I talk to ... Isn't that crazy? The school was only like 1,200 people, how do I still have 40 friends that I talk to? We graduated 11 years ago. That's insane. It's wonderful." Atkinson said.

However, in New York, Atkinson had gotten a "reductive view" of acting, that it "fed the ego."

"I felt like it wasn't the right thing to do, and somehow I lost the thread of what I wanted to do as an actor," Atkinson said.

So she majored in English, but she quickly found herself drawn back to theater.

She made many of her closest friends in the theater department, including Lesley Dancer '01, who is now Atkinson's playwriting partner. She and Dancer have won and placed in the alumni category of the Hendrix Playwright Theatre playwriting competition several times.

Atkinson was struck by the difference between her coursework and that of her friends. She remembered watching her friend practice lines and build sets and thinking "This doesn't even look like work to me, this looks like fun."

However, Atkinson couldn't reconcile changing her major until working with Dr. Rosemary Henenberg and Professor Danny Grace '77 convinced her.

"I really have to give credit to Dr. Henenberg and to Danny Grace because they instilled in me, in that little chunk of time that they had me in those classes or doing a play, they instilled in me that it wasn't about the ego," Atkinson said. "That a life in the pursuit of art is a life well spent, and that there's something about art and the performing arts that can nurture and that can soothe and can heal and can teach. And that there is nothing to be ashamed of to be enthralled by the creation of art. And that was huge. That changed everything."

Now an established actor, Atkinson recently attended the premieres of Compliance and My Best Day at Sundance.

Atkinson said she had fallen in love with a phrase she learned at Sundance, "the heart project," and that both her films were real heart projects.

"I feel like both film makers, Erin Greenwell and Craig Zobel, who directed My Best Day and Compliance respectively, came to the project with so much passion and there was a distinct feeling that everybody on both of those sets was playing at the top of their game," Atkinson said.

She said filming My Best Day felt like "adult summer camp," since they filmed in rural Pennsylvania, and all the actors stayed together for the 18 days of filming.

Compliance, in contrast, felt like being in a gang of thieves. The film was shot in a real Kentucky Fried Chicken. For two weeks, filming began after the restaurant closed, and ended when the employees came in the following morning.

Compliance, which is based on true events, contains scenes of sexual assault. Atkinson described the first screening at Sundance as "intense," with people walking out or shouting at the screen. During the post-screening Q&A, a man shouted at Dreama Walker, the actor playing the lead character, "your body's pretty appealing." That was the last straw for Atkinson.

"I'm mad. And one of the things that I think Hendrix and my mother taught me is to be very articulate when angry. Instead of retreating, I tend to want to make my point very clearly," Atkinson said. "So I get mad and I take the microphone and I say something along the lines of ‘are you saying that because Dreama's pretty she can't portray the victim of sexual abuse?' ... that cleared the air a little bit, in a weird way."

After that, people stopped Atkinson in the street to say they had agreed with her or that they weren't sure and wanted to discuss the film further.

Atkinson, who had seen the culture of Park City as unsettlingly focused on prettiness when she first arrived at Sundance, found that this experience helped her realize what her role was. It was the role she wanted.

"I realized that what I was there to do was talk about my film, to have opinions about it, to try to express them the best way that I could and create a conversation, and to engage with people, not to get my picture taken," she said. "And it sort of solidified for me why I wanted and needed to be there, and made me feel far more confident in my role in this particular little corner of the industry."