Playwright Tanya Saracho Explains How to Get in the TV Writers’ Room

Outside the Theatre   Playwright Tanya Saracho Explains How to Get in the TV Writers’ Room Saracho shares how she made the transition from stage to working on hit shows like Looking and How to Get Away With Murder.
Tanya Saracho
Tanya Saracho Marc J. Franklin
Tanya Saracho
Tanya Saracho Marc J. Franklin

Who: Tanya Saracho
Outside: The Cherry Lane Theatre

Playwright and screenwriter Saracho is a writer and co-producer for the hit TV shows How to Get Away With Murder and Looking. Her new behind-the-scenes comedy for the stage Fade, presented by Primary Stages, is having its New York premiere at Cherry Lane Theatre beginning January 25.

Fade follows the friendship between two Latinos of Mexican descent working at a ruthless Hollywood studio. Was it inspired by your real life?
TS: Initially, yes. [I wrote Fade during] my first year as a TV writer. At the time I was part of the Center Theatre Group’s writers’ group, and I had been working on a play about Lupe Vélez. But I never showed up with any pages, I would just complain about my job at the studio. [Like me, the character in Fade] is a writer from Chicago, who has just started working in TV, and she has no idea what she’s doing. I didn’t even know what an outline was. I would complain all the time, and finally one of the playwrights said, “Just write a play about this. You’re never going to write the play about Lupe Vélez.” It was part therapy at first, and then when it became its own thing, it wasn’t autobiographical in that way any longer.

How did you get into TV writing?
I was one of the first Chicago writers to go to L.A. and do that. No one guided me through it, but here is how it happened: I was in New York doing a play, and an agent got in touch with me and said he wanted to take me out for lunch. In the theatre they never want to take you out for lunch, so I thought yes! I went, I ordered steak, and he told me he thought I should write for TV. I was a poor playwright; I think I owned a TV but nothing was coming out of it, but he told me to go to L.A. and set up meetings. I asked, “What do I do at the meetings?” He said, “Just do this!”

So what is “this,” exactly?
I still don’t know what those meetings are. You just go and talk about yourself—it’s a weird balance of trying hard enough but not too hard. I just started showing up at these meetings [that my agent set up], and one of them yielded a job. I didn’t even know that I was meeting with a showrunner. I would stay until 10 or 11 PM after work was done just to learn. I had to learn from scratch. There was a lot of fear and anxiety. I thought they were going to find out I was a fraud! And, as writers, we already have fraud syndrome. There were some growing pains.

Did you have to adjust your writing style?
I’m a playwright, so [in the beginning] my scenes were so long. The executive producer said to me, “Each page is $100,000 to shoot. Think of it that way.”

What exactly happens in the writers’ room for a TV show?
In TV, you’re a “writer for hire.” That means you’re trying to guess what your boss wants and delivering that story. There’s a lot of spitballing. The big thing is “breaking story,” which means coming up with a story. You do it by episode and put it all up on a board. The scariest thing is a blank board. There’s also a lot of pitching and making yourself heard in the room, which I felt awkward about [in the beginning], but had to overcome.

What about making the transition to producer—how did that happen?
That’s the hierarchy outlined by the Writer’s Guild of America. You climb those titles.

Does your role change as a producer?
Yes and no. No—we still have to pitch to the upper levels and deliver scripts the same way. Yes—there’s a different level of responsibility. You’re on set more when you produce an episode, and its long hours but you learn so much.

How do you balance your career as a playwright and TV writer now?
I started doing TV to support my theatre, but now it’s [difficult to balance both]. I’m sad about my theatre career, but I've also fallen a bit in love with TV!

For more information on Fade and to purchase tickets visit PrimaryStages.org.

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