Creative Hyphenate Maryedith Burrell

by Nancy Russell-Forsythe

She Says Yes to It All

Maryedit Burrell

Maryedith Burrell

If you go to YouTube and search for the Fridays TV series segment, “The Praise Satan Show,” you’ll find Lucinda, the show’s deliciously satanic hostess. Or search for “The Muppet Hunt” and check out the straight-faced girl reporter. Both are played by the seasoned actor-writer Maryedith Burrell, one of the regulars on the show that was ABC’s answer to Saturday Night Live during the early 1980s. Along with Larry David–yes, of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame–Maryedith wrote and acted for these and other classic Fridays sketches.

These comedic vignettes showcase the skills of a self-described “creative hyphenate.”  Maryedith, who is now a Master of Liberal Arts student at the University of North Carolina Asheville and will teach screenwriting in its Great Smokies Writing Program in the spring, has had a decades-long career as a stage/TV/film actor and TV/film writer and producer. These are roles she continues to juggle. She is currently writing fiction, producing a documentary, and creating a one-woman play–all while attending her MLA classes. Before leaving town for a summer assignment in New Mexico, Maryedith found time to talk about her life and career, and the path that has led from her home state of California to her new home in Asheville.

Maryedith grew up in Gilroy, California, a small farming town near San Francisco, which is known (by those who make it a point to know such things) as the garlic capital of the world. Fittingly, Garlic Girl is the tentative title of a collection of short stories set in California from 1965-1985 that Maryedith is working on now.

After attending a Catholic girls’ high school on scholarship, she headed to UC  Santa Cruz, working and studying simultaneously with The American Conservatory Theatre and The San Francisco Mime Troupe in San Francisco. Planted firmly in the land of the West Coast literati, Maryedith acted alongside future stars such as Annette Bening and Peter Coyote. That experience was “a disciplined training ground for classical theater,” she said. “I had teachers in college and teachers at ACT. The common practice at ACT was to take classes and have minor roles on stage. There were no teachers at The Mime Troupe. There, I learned on the job doing street theater.”

Maryedith carried her freewheeling creativity back to her UCSC study, inventing for herself a major in aesthestics. “This was an independent major,” she said. “One of the reasons I now like being in the MLA program at UNC Asheville is that I like studying in an inter-disciplinary way.”

After two terms at UCSC, Maryedith transferred to UC Los Angeles, where, as a student in its Theatre Arts Program, she won the Hugh O'Brian acting award, named for the actor famous for playing TV’s Wyatt Earp. One of the judges happened to be Jack Lemmon, who, impressed by Maryedith’s talents, gave her his phone number and offered to help with her budding acting career. This contact opened doors, including getting an agent and appearing on Days of our Lives. Another “byproduct” of winning the award was working with Alan Alda as a guest-star on the TV show M*A*S*H.

During the 1970s, while still a college student, Maryedith took a temporary leap from California to London when she was asked to work with The Royal Shakespeare Company by director Peter Brook. “We met at a Teatro Campesino workshop in San Juan Bautista, California,” she said, “when I was still a student and he was touring the country with the company and his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.”  Peter Brook was just one of Maryedith’s mentors during that time.  While working in the publicity department of Westwood Playhouse, she met Jason Robards, Gena Rowlands, and Shelley Winters, and a number of writers and producers who taught her lessons about forming a career that would include writing as well as acting.

To hone her creative hyphenate talents, Maryedith joined The Groundlings, an improvisational theatre company that was a training ground for comedians such as Phil Hartman and Lisa Kudrow. The Groundlings (and its connections) led to her first TV writing assignment, for The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts, a new show by the creator of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Ann Marcus. In addition to The Groundlings, Maryedith has performed with other improv groups over the years, including The War Babies, Second City, The Comedy Store Players, Sills And Company and The Spolin Players. This work offered not only the opportunity to write and perform at the same time, but also to be part of an ensemble and to appreciate the importance of teamwork.

For those who dream of life in the entertainment industry, Maryedith offered this caveat: “Be prepared to take on millions of jobs when you’re starting out.” Add Maryedith’s talent and energy to the mix, and those disparate jobs will clump into a meaningful shape.  Case in point: during the 1980s, Maryedith dug into what she described as “the mother lode of creative work on TV.”  After the Fridays show ended in 1982, she starred in two other TV shows, did a few films, wrote a number of movies and acted in “a few,” including Kiss Me Goodbye, starring Jeff Bridges and Sally Field.

Also during the 1980s, Maryedith was tapped by Shelley Duvall, whom she’d met when Duvall was a guest host on Fridays, to write five programs for the successful Faerie Tale Theatre. Big names in the film world who would not normally work in TV signed on for this venture, which made it especially fun for Maryedith. She watched actors and directors such as Carrie Fisher, Francis Ford Coppola, Lee Remick, Burgess Meredith, and Tim Burton bringing life to her scripts.

Characteristic of someone who networked well and created multifaceted work throughout her career, Maryedith continued to “say yes.” The 1990s saw her starring in two more TV series, taking countless recurring roles and guest shots on others, acting in films, doing voice-overs for cartoons, and writing more movies. One of the movie assignments came from a former colleague of hers at The Groundlings who had become head of TV movies for NBC. Impressed with the work she’d done for Duvall’s series, he asked her to write the teleplay for her first TV movie, Little Match Girl.

From that point until today, Maryedith has constructed a successful career of writing for film/television (17 written and 12 produced) and acting in film and TV. Notably, she snagged a three-year deal with Disney Studios to create original TV programming, and she even turned a hand to ghost writing, for films that include The Little Mermaid and Casper.

The new millennium finds Maryedith with creative pick in hand, still mining that vein of entertainment-world gold. Since 2000, she has written a screenplay for Universal Studios, signed a deal with Sony to write the biography of Emily Post, and is having a script shopped by the producer of Super 8. She has also written a one-act play, Maxine Upwell, which was originally produced in LA and has been submitted to other one-act festivals around the country.

As if to leave no genre unturned, Maryedith created her first documentary, The Road To Miss America, in the 1990s and has continued to work in documentaries ever since. Her most recent assignment is as story producer on a feature film documentary showcasing Paws and Stripes, an organization for wounded veterans that provides service dogs for soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

With a foot successfully planted in the present, Maryedith has an eye toward what’s next. Her decision to move to Asheville and enter the MLA program at UNC Asheville is testament to that. She realized that her success in writing historical screenplays could translate into writing history-based fiction and chose this program for the craft lessons she needed to take that next step. Garlic Girl, the story collection she is completing as part of her MLA work, is a genre she has dubbed “historical pop culture.” She explained, “This is a time and place of great personalities. Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis, and Patty Hearst, to name a few.” The cultural/political movements and historical events of the time thread through the stories, such as the rise of the conservative right wing, the influence of the Black Panthers, and the inception of the AIDS epidemic.

About this new work, Maryedith said, “Over the years my screen-, stage-, and tele-play writing has been fairly equally divided between original material and assignments. That's why Fridays was so much fun. I got to do that a lot, whereas as an actor you rarely have the luxury of creating your own material. I’ve had that luxury on and off in the past, but now, I can concentrate almost entirely on what I love.”

And she is doing that from her new home base in Asheville. Having made the decision to leave Los Angeles, her stomping ground for over 20 years, Maryedith set out to relocate with a checklist of requisites in hand.  “Asheville had nine out of ten,” she said. (The tenth item on her list was an ocean, which not even Asheville could provide.) “Good cappuccino, a lot of colleges—meaning a lot of thinkers—an international community, theatre, good restaurants, a house I loved in a neighborhood I loved, and the kind of graduate program I was looking for, one that provides discipline and the incentive to write. I have a wonderful program, wonderful professors—for example, Tommy Hays and Holly Iglesias, who is also my advisor. My fellow students represent such diversity—younger, older, students who split their year between another country and here. I feel that I lucked out. Asheville has been a very welcoming community for me.”

At the end of our conversation, Maryedith provided some unique advice for budding writers, no matter what the genre, no matter how hyphenated their creativity:  “Join a gym and exercise.  Get out of your head and into your body.  Exercise helps you maintain your health and sanity.”  She added, smiling, “Get a lot of life experience.”

Nancy Russell-Forsythe is a member of the Great Smokies Writing Program. She has published fiction and non-fiction pieces in The Rambler, Verve and WNC Woman. Currently she is writing a novel based on the early Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina. She is President of Leadership Bridge, a consulting firm, and teaches career development at area correctional centers as an adjunct instructor of UNC Asheville.