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.’”
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson