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13 Questions for Tanya Saracho

The Chicago playwright on her journey from Roscoe Village to HBO.

Photo: Lisa Predko

To say it’s been a busy two years for Tanya Saracho would be an understatement. In the past 22 months, the Chicago playwright has juggled theatre commissions from the Goodman and Victory Gardens, worked in two Hollywood writers’ rooms, and sold her first TV pitch to HBO—all while jetting between Chicago and L.A. Her latest (glitziest) gig was writer for Looking, Michael Lannan’s new HBO series about a group of gay friends in the San Francisco Bay Area (set to premiere this Sunday). I caught up with the newly ambidextrous story-slinger last month to talk about her latest projects.

So, how long have you been back in Chicago?

Since the beginning of November. I hadn’t been back for 22 months, really. I would come for a weekend here and there—I was doing a show at the Goodman last year, so I would come on the weekends. But I feel like I haven’t really been back in Chicago until now.

Did you keep your apartment while you were away?

Yes. I subletted eight different sublets while I was out there, which is not sustainable. It’s the stupidest decision economically, and the smartest for my soul. I have to know I belong to Chicago.

What did you miss most about Chicago while you were in L.A?

Seeing people walking in the street. I’m always in the car in L.A., so I see the people I work with—and thank god I adore the people I work with—but it’s a little lonely. I miss my cat, my things, the way my space feels, and just Chicago, the city. There’s a taste here—a sazón—that is nowhere else. My palate is made for this—my taste in art, in theatre. 

You were a staff writer on Maids and a story editor on Looking. Are those roles interchangeable, or did you have more responsibility on Looking?

I did have more responsibility on Looking. It’s all part of the Writers’ Guild, the levels you go up. There are lower-level writers and upper-level writers. Literally, my contract said ‘lower-level writer.’ The more you stay on TV, your title changes. I’m at level two right now.

I saw a photo of you and Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg on the Looking Instagram page. Was he involved with the show?

Oh, yeah! He directed my episode. It was the Chicago episode. The thing that was difficult was, our boss is Andrew Haigh, who’s a brilliant independent filmmaker—he directed Weekend. And so [Looking] has a lot of the same coloring, the palette, of Weekend. Joe had to come in and kind of catch the wheel and match the aesthetic of the show, and also bring his Joe Swanbergness. It was so much fun working with him.

As a Chicagoan, what was it like writing a show set in San Francisco?

I was nervous, because when somebody’s going to write a show about Chicago, I’m like, “You better get it right.” So many times shows say they’re set somewhere—like in Chicago, The Good Wife —but it doesn’t feel like Chicago. Well, Andrew [Haigh] is in love with environment and authenticity, and he had spent some time [in San Francisco]. Michael Lannan, the creator of the show, had lived in San Francisco, and one of our writers, JC Lee, is from San Francisco. So, between Michael and JC, we felt like we had it.

Now that you’re back in Chicago, are you working on plays again?

I am, and I just sold [another pitch] to HBO. It’s based on a play of mine, Mala Hierba, that’s been going around for three years. We read it in New York, we read it here—everyone’s been interested, but no one would quite do it. But HBO had read it, and they were interested, so they put me together with Mike White’s production company, RipCord Productions—they did Enlightened—and David Bernad, the producer there.

So you’re focusing more on TV then?

Well, no. I have five commissions from five theatres. I’m always writing. There’s no stopping. It’s just that you can’t see it sometimes. Right now I plan to be here for at least four more months. Hopefully they’ll pick up Looking, and then I would go back in the spring and write. I think this would be a good life—to be here five months and over there seven months.

Has your TV writing affected the way you write plays?

Oh, yeah. The first year I was writing on Devious Maids, I was [also] writing a play for Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was a big play—ten Latina women in 17th century period convent costume. In TV, I’d started to get used to the two-page scenes, one-page scenes—stuff happens quickly, you know? And in theatre, it happens when it happens. Especially the way I write—I write these long scenes—and I couldn’t get back into it. I felt like [TV] was tainting the theatre stuff. I have this way that I do stage directions which is kind of me talking—I have my attitude, or I make jokes in the stage directions—which, in that particular show, was not encouraged. My voice in the stage directions, which has always been consistent in my writing, was gone. It was really scaring me. I had this crisis, like, “Ah! I ruined my theatre writing!” I hadn’t learned how to switch back and forth between genres. With Looking, I learned.

Is it easy to switch back and forth between theatre and TV at this point?

Not easy, but I can do it. And it’s now content in my theatre work. The play I’m writing for the Goodman is about a first-year TV writer and a janitor. I didn’t see a lot of Latinos the first year I was working [in L.A.]. I had one Latina in the writers’ room, but besides that, I didn’t see a lot. It was really a culture shock for me, because most of my friends here are Latinos and Latinas. I was used to speaking more Spanish every day, having cultural shorthand. So, [when] I would stay late to learn Final Draft, the janitorial crew would come by, and they spoke Spanish. I made friends; I almost went on strike with some of them, ‘cause they cut their benefits. It was a whole other life I had at night. It became this little community. And so the play I’m writing for the Goodman is a two-hander between a first-year TV writer and a janitor.

What about Looking? Were there any other Latinos or Latinas in that writers’ room?

Well, JC Lee is all things—half-Chinese, a little bit Puerto Rican, a little bit black, and Sicilian. So the technical answer is yes. But in the show, there are two Latino leads, so I felt like I could be of use. There’s a way you can serve, culturally, in my opinion. Especially with the Mexican character, Richie. A little bit of trivia: I have known that actor [Raúl Castillo] since I was fourteen years old. He was my first high school boyfriend.

It must be nice to have that dash of home out there.

Absolutely. I remember sitting in bed reading plays, [Raúl and I] were starved for Latino stories, starved for culture and literature and a way to express ourselves. So the writing came quickly when we got to Boston University. We were writing plays and we were putting each other in plays. My sophomore year he was in a play I wrote, and now I’m writing on HBO for him. It’s crazy.

Do you think you’ll ever move to L.A. for good?

You never know, with life. Right now, I can tell you that I always have to have a link here. I have lived a lifetime here—a couple lifetimes here. There’s something of my DNA here. The people here feed my soul. Walking down the street or having an exchange at 90 Miles with another Cuban person, or somebody dancing in the restaurant while they wait for their order—even that little thing is so different than my life in L.A. I want to stay in Chicago.

Looking premieres Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.

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