Actress Annabelle Gurwitch turns her misfortune into a cottage industry.
By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times
March 15, 2005
Annabelle Gurwitch was ecstatic when she was cast two years ago in the New York production of "Writers Block," a pair of one-act plays written and directed by Woody Allen. Like many actors, Gurwitch was a huge fan who kept Allen's published scripts, his short story collections and his DVDs proudly displayed in her Los Feliz home.
A few days into rehearsal, Gurwitch became less of a fan. She was fired.
"It's not an uncommon thing for a director to change his mind about the direction of a role, and that was the case with Mr. Allen," Gurwitch explains diplomatically. "It is hard, though, when your idol says, 'You seem to be retarded.' That can hurt a little bit."
More than a little. After Gurwitch got the bad-news phone call from an associate of Allen's, she recalls, "I cried and cried and cried and cried, for, it must have been 12 hours."
Gurwitch may have lost a role, but she gained a vocation. The setback led her to launch a "Fired"-inspired cottage industry including a book-in-progress, a documentary to be filmed this summer when she travels the country interviewing people who've been colorfully terminated, a website and a series of staged readings by actors and writers titled "Fired: Tales of Jobs Gone Bad," which begins Wednesday at Skirball Center in a L.A. Theatre Works production.
However, before the healing could begin, Gurwitch, a preternaturally chatty type best known for hosting TBS' cable series "Dinner and a Show," went through an extended purge-and-vent period. Returning home from New York, she announced her termination to a group of guests gathered at her rabbi's house for a pre-Passover dinner and roamed Los Angeles like an ancient mariner, sharing her trauma with friends, strangers and store clerks. "I would go to the dry cleaners and instead of saying, 'I have this skirt I need cleaned,' it was, 'I just got fired by Woody Allen.' "
As it turned out, seemingly everybody Gurwitch knew, except her 7-year-old son Ezra, had also been fired. "I remember running into Felicity Huffman in the gynecologist's office," Gurwitch says. "I was crying. Felicity says, 'Annabelle, what's wrong?' I said, 'I was just fired, actually from your theater company.' "
Huffman, a member of the Atlantic Theater Company, which produced Allen's play, responded that she had once been fired. She found out her role had been "recast" when she read about it in the newspaper.
That night, Gurwitch was enjoying drinks with "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Patricia Heaton. "She told me she'd been fired from this restaurant. Patty was devastated, and then relieved. She knew it was time to move on."
The confessions just kept coming. Gurwitch's husband, comedy writer Jeff Kahn, was fired from the same Chicago deli as actor Andy Dick; neither could memorize the sandwich selection. Actress Illeana Douglas briefly worked as a coat-check girl before an altercation with a Russian mobster cost her the gig.
Rhino Records co-founder Richard Foos was not only fired from his job as a pharmaceuticals deliveryman, he was told to return his paycheck. Hillary Carlip, proprietor of essay website FreshYarn.com, never got her phone calls — or her practice balls — returned after she tried and failed to teach comedian Jimmie J.J. Walker how to juggle.
Eventually, it dawned on Gurwitch that these funny-in-retrospect rejections could be organized into an entertaining night at the theater. "I started out collecting these stories just to make myself feel better," she says. "But then I realized they're hilarious and inspiring — someone else should hear them too. Once I started getting people together to perform them, it was like a public service."
Gurwitch staged the first "Fired" show in late 2003 with a group of friends at the Hudson Theater's Comedy Central Workspace, where she dished the details on her Allen debacle in a piece called "Crimes and Mythdemeanors." Early in 2004, Gurwitch presented a one-night performance at New York's Second Stage Theatre. In the audience was L.A. Theatre Works' associate director Susan Raab Simonson, who was there to see her husband, Eric, perform his short play about getting fired as the director of Paul Simon's musical "The Capeman."
"It was a packed house and people were just insane with laughter," Simonson recalls. "The stories are so humiliating, but they're done with this sense of humor so everybody can laugh with them rather than feel like, 'God you're telling me too much.' "
Simonson and L.A. Theatre Works director Susan Loewenberg agreed to record a series of Los Angeles readings for the company's nationally syndicated radio theater program. "There's a lot of great dramatic plays with comic elements," Simonson says, "but to put something on stage and have people laugh for an hour and half — that is hard to find."
For Gurwitch, getting "Fired" onto the stage has helped soothe the sting of dismissal. After a period of exile, the Woody Allen collection has been restored to its place of honor in the Gurwitch household. And she credits her new job as a contributing writer to National Public Radio's "Day to Day" program to the career reassessment forced upon her by affair d'Allen.
"I don't wish firing on anyone," she says, "but it really did change my perceptions. Sometimes you look at everyone else and it's like: 'Oh, they're having the perfect life, and nothing like this has ever happened to them,' and then you find out, 'No, actually, it has happened!' Getting fired seems a little less crappy when you realize so many people you admire have had the same experience. It makes you feel less shameful about your failures."
Where: L.A. Theatre Works at Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday