Take an accomplished Hollywood writer, director and actress with decades of comedy writing experience, throw her unexpectedly into the flawed and unpredictable American healthcare system, and you’re bound to end up with entertaining anecdotes. Such as: A mysterious accident catapults an Asheville woman into a dystopia of drugs, disillusionment and worst of all, the dreaded one-woman show. “I’m an ensemble player, and that’s how I like it,” says Maryedith Burrell. “At this tender age I’m doing something really scary.”
Burrell’s brand of humor is evident as she describes leaving the hospital in an ambulance high as a kite. “They took me to this rest home, and all I saw were octogenarians everywhere,” Burrell said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I have been made old. They have made me old.’” Turns out the rest home was located above an orthopedic rehabilitation center.
This one-woman show began with Burrell entertaining friends with her stories. But taking it to the stage wasn’t her plan. “I was terrified of it,” she says. She had written a one-woman show before — Catwalk Confidential — but never performed one. She presented her work-in-progress to an invite-only audience at 35 Below, and it seemed to resonate. “Nobody wanted to leave,” Burrell says. “Everybody wanted to hang out and talk.”
So, the Magnetic Theater will present Burrell’s #OUCH! An Accidental Comedy at The Bebe Theatre the first two weekends in October, with Steven Samuels producing and directing. Samuels says that Burrell is the most gifted and experienced performer he has directed. With her countless guest-star turns on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show and ER, recurring roles on Home Improvement and Seinfeld, and roots in theater with The Royal Shakespeare Company in London and ACT Theatre in San Francisco, Burrell — now based in Asheville — is a comedic force.
The multimedia show features slide projections and graphic animation designed by Tommy Calloway. “Steven runs it with me, he’s sort of like my partner in it,” Burrell says. “I’m alone on stage but I have Tommy’s graphics and Steven in the booth timing his cues with me and the audience.”
But being a one-woman show in real life has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to navigating the healthcare system. “The presumption is that no one lives alone,” Burrell says. Back to the hospital scene: “Everybody’s waiting for my husband to come and get me. I don’t have one, can you call me a cab?”
The comedian found this issue to be central to her plight. “There are lots of people who don’t feel the need to be partnered,” she says. “Hello system, you’ve got to account for these people too.”
But in Asheville, Burrell has found community. “I was in the Galapagos six months before my accident,” she says. “It could’ve happened to me when all I had was a sea turtle to talk to.” Instead, friends cooked her gourmet meals and encouraged her to keep writing.
Community is on Samuel’s list of what he loves about Asheville, too. “Historically, you find there are circles of artists who encourage and challenge each other and are a tremendous influence on each other. You don’t get Shakespeare without Marlowe,” he says. “That’s what we’re doing at Magnetic Theatre. I believe in having a core company that is always expanding.”
With a new dedicated space in the works at 375 Depot Street, and plans for a New Play Festival in Asheville starting in 2016, the Magnetic Theatre continues to nurture new playwrights and take the risk of staging original productions. “You don’t know if a show works until you perform it in front of a paying audience,” Samuels says.
Burrell will eventually take her show on the road to New York and Los Angeles, but a local nurse gave her an unconventional suggestion she plans to explore: medical conferences. “I want to get to people in the medical community. They do it everyday, we don’t. There’s a different kind of vulnerability that we have, and a different threshold for pain,” Burrell says. “I can’t believe that I lived to tell the story.”
WHAT: #OUCH! An Accidental Comedy, themagnetictheatre.org
WHERE: The Bebe Theater, 20 Commerce Street, Asheville, NC 28801
WHEN: October 2-12. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m.