Chicago Latina playwright, Tanya Saracho, turned Hollywood TV writer
Tanya Saracho is a Mexican TV writer and playwright. After going to college for acting at Boston University she moved to Chicago where she lived for most of her early adult life. She’s been living in LA for many years but still considers Chicago her home. Saracho has written for a number of TV shows including Looking, Girls, Devious Maids, and How to Get Away With Murder. She has written many plays and was named “Best New Playwright” by Chicago Magazine in 2010.
Her most recent work is a play called Fade. Fade follows two young Mexican and Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles. The first is Lucia, a Mexican born writer who moves to LA to begin her career as a TV writer. There she meets Able, a Los Angeles born janitor from an immigrant family. Saracho puts a unique twist on the story of immigration and shines a new light on the writer in Hollywood. Fade ran at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in 2017.
Was getting into theater something you always knew you wanted to do?
Tanya Saracho: I didn't know I wanted to do theater until I fell into it by accident, it’s kind of a long story. When I first enrolled in school I had a thick accent from living in Mexico for so long and people would point out my accent and pronunciation. So when I was in seventh grade I kept seeing “Speech and Debate” posters in the halls. I thought it would be like speech therapy and if I joined, it would get rid of my accent. The very first meeting, they had me read the poem “Cinderella” by Roald Dahl. I kept going back every week and I would do voices as I read. I thought it would help with how I talked. Then the meetings turned into these competitions every Saturday, and I didn't really know they were competitions, and I was winning with my reading of this dark Cinderella story. I thought these judges were like, speech therapists? I don't know what I thought. I just kept going and kept doing it and I made friends. When we went into high school all of the kids who did speech and debate did drama too, so then I just joined drama and I fell in love. Like a lot of things in my life it just happened. I’m so glad I didn't know what “Speech and Debate” was because I never would have done it.
Do you think, later in life, having an accent and being Latina limited your creative opportunities?
Yes and no. For a long time, I didn’t notice. When I was in university I don’t think it was limiting, or maybe it could have been, and I just didn’t have the eye to see it yet. Where I grew up in Texas I didn’t really experience racism because we were all Mexican, Mexican-American, White-American but it was on the border, so everyone just understood who was around and what it was like. Then in university I needed to do Shakespeare and all those classics and they casted us all over the place. It didn’t matter who you were for a part. We could be an old lady or a little boy or anybody and that went across racial and ethnic lines. My school kind of shielded me from what was out there, and it was lovely, and then I got to Chicago.
I had this classical training. I went to Oxford to study Shakespeare. I had Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw and Ben Kingsley as my amazing teachers. But in Chicago the only roles that I could get were the maids and the prostitutes. All of this was in 1998 so there was even less visibility than there is now. I couldn't understand it. I kept saying that I have classical training! I kept being told that wasn’t going to matter because I was fat and I was Mexican so the only parts were going to be a maid or a funny prostitute, those were my choices and I thought it was bullshit.
The reason I built my career was because I was being affected by being Latina. I was being affected by this racism, but I didn’t just sit down and take it, I made something out of it.
You went to school for acting and you were dead set on being an actor, how did you come to be a playwright? Was that something you were interested in before?
In the beginning I had no idea I was going to write plays. I just knew I needed to act so I was like: I’m going to write a play. I’m going to write a play so that I can act. So it did limit me in some ways but pushed open doors in others. It was the start of me creating an all Latina theater company, Teatro Luna.
At that time, I didn't know anybody in Chicago, I hadn’t even been there a year so it was just me going door-to-door asking if anyone knew of any Latina actors. I went to Hispanic community centers asking for Latina actresses and there was a guy there who kept saying, “You mean Latino,” and I just kept saying no, Latina. I spoke Spanish, I knew what I was asking. He told me that starting an all-female Latin theater company would be counter-productive to the movement, but I’m so glad I was only in my twenties and didn’t listen to him. So I just kept hanging flyers and knocking on people’s doors. It was so hard for me to wrap my head around. I was in a city as diverse as Chicago, and I couldn't find eight Latina actresses. When I finally got it going I was able to run it for ten years and it was amazing. We did all our own work and created ethnographic performances based, basically, on our own lives and as we grew, our work grew with us and I think that was one of the most magical parts of being a part of Teatro Luna.
You were able to carve out your place in Chicago but how was it in LA? Were they more welcoming and accepting?
No. It was shitty. I was not mentally and emotionally prepared to write for television. I was doing a play and a UTA agent. (I kept calling it oota and my friends were like, “its U-T-A, dummy.”) I didn’t know shit about it. I knew about Chicago but I didn’t know anything about Hollywood. I didn’t need to know anything, and I didn’t need to be bothered with anything beyond my Teatro Luna stuff. But the agency had gotten a hold of a play I wrote called Mala Hierba, I don’t really know where they got it from, but an agent had reached out and wanted to have lunch. And in theater you never have lunch, you only have coffee. I was like, shit they wanna take me out to lunch? Yeah! This happened sometime in 2011 and I wasn’t doing that well financially, but I was super happy. None of my artist friends in Chicago are ever doing well financially but nobody knows it, they're just happy. We're all doing the work we want to do. We love our area, we love our friends. I loved my apartment, I loved my cats. It was a great life!
Then during the summer when I went out with that guy from UTA, he said he really thought I could write for television but that wasn’t anything I had ever even considered that was a thing you could do for a living. I watched The Sopranos and I watched True Blood, that was the only TV I watched at the time. So the guy just said that I had an eye that could work on TV and he said just go to LA and “take meetings” and just go to talk about myself. That’s exactly what I did, and it was so weird. You just have to go and basically charm them. I don't know. Then one of those meetings resulted in a job. I didn’t even know that we were on that track and then the next thing I knew I was working in a writing room but I knew nothing. I couldn't pitch, I didn’t know what an outline was, or a final draft. And in that first day they wanted me to write one act. I didn’t know what that meant because my plays were ninety-minute one acts, but they wanted five acts to fit into a one-hour TV show.
I was walking that first day with a coworker that I had just met and he turned to me and said, “You do know you're the diversity hire, right?” I asked him what that meant and he just says, “Oh honey.” Like, oh you poor thing.
I called my agent later that day to ask if I was the diversity hire and he said technically yes but he didn’t want to tell me, so it wouldn't get in my head. I couldn't believe it. I was the only person of color in that room. The only Latina working on a Latina show. And it was a diversity hire. I was getting paid because of affirmative action. After that I didn’t know how to contribute. Did they only want me for the Latina suggestions, was I supposed to actually contribute at all? I didn’t know what my value was. And that was just the first day!
How has your writing and writing style changed from writing plays to writing for TV?
So a one-hour TV drama is usually five acts and the commercials are at the end of each act and it was so different. I used to write one act for an hour and I never wrote for a commercial before, I thought that was so weird. In the theater I write really long scenes but on TV a scene is only like, a page or two. That was something that was really hard to adapt to. Now though, I’m trying to go back to writing for theater and I cannot write the long scenes anymore, and it’s so bad. It’s tainted my theater writing and I don't know how to get that back. I haven’t been able to write a play in almost three years. Fadewas the last play I wrote and that was three years ago when I was still making the transition to TV but I’m still mainly a theater person. But now, I try to go back, and I don't know how to do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen. The whole point of coming to TV was so that I would have the means to do theater.
How much of the Mexican culture influences your writing beyond having Mexican characters?
Its changed a little bit. The play I mentioned before, Mala Hierba, had a much stronger cultural influence because the setting was closer geographically to the border. Fadeis set in LA in a film studio, but I have characters with backgrounds in Mexico so they reference Mexico all the time but they're also American. They’re navigating what it means to be a first and second generation Mexican-American. Then I have another play, El Nogalar, that takes place in Mexico. So it all really just depends on the play but they're all connected to Mexico whether it be close to it or far away.
Interview by Cali Lemus
July 24, 2018