Photo by Debra Lopez
By Nina Metz
What is it like for a woman of color trying to make it as a writer in Hollywood?
Tanya Saracho’s career began as a playwright in Chicago, but for the last five years she has been based in Los Angeles working as a writer on shows including HBO’s “Looking” and ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder.” That experience — specifically the transition to Hollywood and how isolating it can be when you’re the only Latino person on a TV writing staff — forms the basis of her play “Fade,” currently in production at Victory Gardens.
The action centers on just two characters. Lucia is in her late 20s and trying to keep her head above water at her first TV gig, an unnamed procedural drama. That means many late nights at the office on the studio lot — alone and somewhat lost. Abel is in his early 30s and works on the overnight cleaning crew. They are both Latino, though with vastly different lives and class markers. Over the course of several months, a tentative friendship grows.
Saracho’s own rise through the ranks has been rapid. She is the creator and showrunner of the forthcoming Starz series “Vida,” which began shooting this month in LA. Saracho is now the one making decisions — who to hire and what stories to tell — but it was that first miserable year in LA as a novice that forms the basis of the play. It’s not autobiographical (much has been fictionalized) but much was rooted in first-hand experience.
When Saracho first moved to LA, she was juggling duties on the Lifetime series “Devious Maids” while also attending a twice-monthly workshop for playwrights at the Mark Taper Forum.
“I shouldn’t have said yes to that,” she told me, “because I was so distracted with learning how to be a TV writer and I just couldn’t concentrate. I was staying so late at the studio because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what Final Draft (the screenwriting software) was. I didn’t know what an outline was. I didn’t know what pitches were. I didn’t know any of the terminology or things you had to do. It was just a mess.”
At “Devious Maids,” the writing staff would knock off around 6 p.m., whereas Saracho would stay on the lot until 10 or 11, trying to get up to speed. “When I would go to the workshop, all I would do was complain about how miserable I was and about how much I missed Chicago. Every day I was like, ‘I’m quitting, I’m the worst, I don’t know what I’m doing!’
“And one of my workshop mates was like, ‘Why don’t you write about that? It’s all you talk about. Write something, geez.’
“And I was like, oh. Maybe I should. So the play’s not autobiographical, but it started from this therapeutic place where I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to talk about these evenings. (In real life) I would see not just one janitor but the whole custodian staff that would start at 6 and would stay overnight.”
The play is fiction, but it does talk bluntly about certain realities. The script describes the setting as “one of those generic itinerant writer's offices in the writer's building where coat after coat of paint covers up years of nail holes and career disappointment. The place has seen decades of bad writing, receding hairlines and frantic all-night writing sessions.”
The play also goes in on the so-called “diversity hire” that exists in many Hollywood writers rooms. A few years ago, Beejoli Shah explained what the job entails for Defamer: “Most every writing room has one — an entry level non-white staff writer, explicitly hired due to their race. (If you're really lucky, being gay or a woman might just suffice, in lieu of not being white.)”
The position, she explained, is “earmarked solely for an entry-level diverse writer, with funds allocated specifically for said hire by the network — funds that do not come out of the show's own budget.”
If that writer were ever to be promoted out of the diversity slot, their salary would need to come out of the show’s budget. Without the network footing the bill, it would suddenly cost money to employ that new-ish minority writer — and when faced with that prospect, showrunners more often than not choose to allocate that salary to a more seasoned writer who is invariably white, male and straight.
Here’s Saracho describing her experience staffing the writers room for “Vida”: “My first time up to bat as a showrunner, what I did was hire an all-Latinx writers room. And it’s a diverse Latinx writers room — we have an Afro-Dominican and Texicans and Chileans. It’s diverse within its Latinidad.
“But when managers and talent agents were sending me potential writers, they kept saying, ‘This is a diverse writer.’ And I was like, wait — a writer can’t be diverse! A group can be diverse, a pairing can be diverse, multiples can be diverse. A person can’t be diverse. But it was code, because they don’t want to say person of color or POC or WOC. So I’ve been calling out some of the agents and managers and saying, ‘One person — a human being — can’t be diverse.’ ”
What it means to be a diversity hire is addressed in the play:
“I know very well why I'm here,” Lucia tells Abel. “Trust me. They won’t let me forget it. On the first day, one of the other writers — this guy named Gary who’s basically a prevention ad for skin cancer with his fake orange tan — he, like, corrals me in the kitchen, puts his face real close to mine and whispers all gross, ‘You do know you’re the diversity hire, right?’ And I’m like, ‘What’s that?’ He says, ‘You’re only here because you’re a Hispanic. It’s great, you don’t have to try too hard, you’re only here to meet the quota.’ ”
The play also zeroes in on class distinctions within the Latino experience. Lucia describes being asked up to her boss’ office for the sole reason of talking to his Spanish-speaking housekeeper on the phone in order to translate the guy’s instructions. “It’s crazy to see how LA s set up,” Saracho said. “More than Chicago, I noticed a lot of us are here to serve one segment of the population. It was very evident when a couple of my bosses didn’t have any Latinas in their lives except for their maids.”
It’s worth noting that when The Hollywood Reporter recently published its list of top Hollywood executives under the age of 35, only a handful of people of color made the rankings, including Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud and Disney executive Foster Driver.
“Younger Hollywood is a little bit more aware,” Saracho said. “I wouldn’t say woke, but aware and at least understands its privilege in some ways. But man, when I first got here — and it was only five years ago — it was like, ‘Nope, this is how things are done and this is how we’re going to keep doing them.’
“Having said that,” she added, “my experience with Starz — and this is not being political — has been amazing because at every turn, they’re so aware of the landscape right now. That we should do this right. All my department heads are women.” Including Emmy-winning casting director Carmen Cuba, who also did the casting for “Stranger Things.”
“I don’t think all of this would have been possible,” Saracho said, “if it hadn’t been for Starz being like, ‘This is your vision of the world that you want to create? Not just on screen but in creating the show? OK, we support it.’”
April Yvette Thompson