She is currently starring in Karen Zacarias' The Book Club Play at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington D.C. Atkinson spoke with TheaterMania about the quirky comedy, how her own history with books has shaped her present, and her ideal guests for her own book club.
THEATERMANIA: What can you tell us about this play?
ASHLIE ATKINSON: It's a play that is a documentary about a book club. We are playing characters that are in a book club that is being filmed by a documentarian. It's a realistic play, but it's almost farcical in its stakes.
TM:.What has it been like working with your director, Molly Smith?
AA: Molly has such a cool way of directing. She describes it as painting, like when you paint a canvas you do the base coat first, and then you fill in the bigger shapes, and she said the last step is the glint in the eye. It frees you to make big choices, and then leads you to the life spirit of that character. There are so many funny moments in this play that come out of characters being uncomfortable or angry, or hiding or revealing themselves. The funniest things come out of a recognition of ourselves in someone. That's where the best laughs come from, in my opinion.
TM: Why is a book club a good setting for a play?
AA: Apparently, everything gets heightened in situations involving book clubs. Things get very heated. We've heard lots of stories about book clubs, and several people have talked about their book clubs basically imploding because of the addition of a person, or a relationship gone wrong, or misspoken words. They're very intimate settings because we use books as a way of relating, and that's what the clubs are about. My character is using books to illuminate her journey and is hoping it's not being filmed. There's a lot of layers happening there.
AA: One of the great things about our team is that we're all into books. The very first day we all went around and talked about the books that affected us when we were young.
TM: So have you ever been a member of a book club?
AA: I was in a great program when I was in high school called Great Books. We would read amazing things and we would get together and discuss them. I remember reading my first Kurt Vonnegut story, "Harrison Bergeron," in Great Books. I remember the name of the villain in it which was Diana Moon Glampers, which was one of the best names ever written! It was exhilarating not only to find books that I loved, but to be able to discuss books that I didn't like.
TM: Which books that you've read have most affected you?
AA: There were so many because there are heroines that I loved so much that were very personal to me, like Ramona Quimby, Pippi Longstocking, and of course Jo from Little Women. I think Behind the Attic Wall was the first book to strike me because it was the first I bought with my own money from the Scholastic book sale. Wasn't it the best day when those books finally showed up? Oh my god! And I Am the Cheese was the first book I got to check out from the older kids' shelves after repeated fights between my parents and the school. I read constantly when I was a kid. One of my teachers said to my parents, "Ashlie has friends, she just ignores them." Apparently, I would sit with my friends and just read.
TM: Who would be your ideal guests at a book club meeting?
AA: I would want my paternal grandmother, Mimi, who was an English teacher and was totally a sassy pants. I'd also like to have Bill Clinton, he just seems really well-read. I'm really interested in Dr. Cornel West; I've been reading a lot of his lectures. And John Waters, who has an amazing quote on how to make books cool again: "If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't f**k 'em!" Just to have my grandmother, John Waters, and Bill Clinton at the same table would be amazing!