Playwright Tanya Saracho
With a new Chekhov adaptation in the Goodman's Latino Theatre Festival and a pair of commissions from Steppenwolf, Tanya Saracho is poised to break out.
“I like pleasures. You know, food and drink and”—here Tanya Saracho drops to a comic whisper—“sex. Pleasures. I had to cut them back so I can write. And it’s worked! It so has. But I am the most boring human on the planet.”
This revelation comes about five minutes into my first on-the-record conversation with Saracho. I have yet to ask a question.
“Glutton things, those are things that are dangerous for me,” she continues, sentences piling on top of one another, rat-a-tat. “My grandma and my aunt died of diabetes; I’m borderline diabetic.” The day after she tells me this, she informs me and her 1,782 other Facebook friends that she has in fact developed diabetes; the status update is accompanied by a phone-cam pic of the doctor’s letter containing the diagnosis.
This eagerness to share (or overshare) can get Saracho into trouble; she says she made her Twitter feed private last year after telling the world she was off to Milwaukee for the day and returning home to find her apartment had been robbed. But it’s also representative of the honesty that imbues the Sinaloa, Mexico, native’s work as a playwright in pieces such as Kita y Fernanda, about the class-hampered friendship between a daughter of a wealthy border family and the daughter of her family’s maid; or Our Lady of the Underpass, an interview-based character study of those who saw the Virgin Mary in a Fullerton Avenue salt stain in 2004.
“Tanya will talk to anyone about anything; she has no fear,” says Coya Paz, who cofounded the all-Latina ensemble Teatro Luna with Saracho in 2000. “I think that’s what makes her a great playwright—she loves to have a conversation, whether it’s on stage or in person.”
Henry Godinez, the curator of the Goodman Theatre’s Latino Theatre Festival, puts it this way: “She’s inherently a theatrical animal. Theater and storytelling just ooze out of her.”
It seems as if Saracho can’t stop the story-oozing; in conversation, in her free-flowing blend of English and Spanish (the ratio determined by present company), she’ll say something revealing and then get flustered—her eyes widen and her hands come to her face, as if she knows she shouldn’t have said it but just couldn’t help herself.
This same openness marks Saracho’s writing, which has developed a small but devoted following in productions with Luna, Teatro Vista and Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater, and has had us long convinced that we’d see her break wide at any moment. With a high-profile appearance at this week’s national conference of the theater trade organization Theatre Communications Group; the announcement last week that the Goodman was adding El Nogalar, her production inspired by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to its upcoming season; and new plays in the works for About Face and Steppenwolf, I think el momento está aquí.
Saracho’s family moved from Mexico to the border town of McAllen, Texas, when she was a teen. She likes to say—as she did earlier this year on an MCA panel with fellow playwrights of color Kristoffer Diaz, Young Jean Lee and Tarell Alvin McCraney—that she got into theater partly to lose her accent.
But Saracho tells me, as she also said at that panel, that she didn’t experience racism until she arrived in Chicago. “I was from the border. So the fact that I was an Other in this country had never dawned on me,” she says, not even during her college years at Boston University. “In academia, it felt very protected, very encouraged. When I think back on it, there were only, like, four Latinos in the whole School of Theatre, so it’s like, Yes, Tanya, wake up.”
But it was her well-meaning new neighbors’ welcome to Roscoe Village in 1998 that woke her up, when they jokingly asked if she or her roommate were Mexican. When Saracho replied that she was, her neighbors assured her they meant, you know, “the other kind of Mexican.”
“They were med students. Seemed like they got mail from Greenpeace,” Saracho recalls. “But then you’re gonna say some shit like that? That feeling, it stayed.”
Saracho, now 34, came to Chicago to do theater, sight unseen, for the same reason so many other young college grads do: “I moved here because of the S-word, Steppenwolf,” she says, the idea that “You can start a group. They started a group. And you can be that successful. I got hold of a book or something, with pictures of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, and I was like, Yes, I will be a famous actress on film and TV.”
At BU, Saracho had dabbled in writing, directing and performing. “Even then, the word hyphenate was to me, like, the proudest thing,” she says. “I am equally a writer and an actor and a director. Nobody’s ever really liked my directing but me. I think it’s fly.” That background, her nascent politicization and her tendency to get called in only for what she calls “the Maria role” all came together when she met Paz at a Chicago audition in 2000, and Saracho soon proposed starting their own company.
“I really didn’t want to do it,” Paz says, knowing that “the work of running a theater company had very little to do with the artistic work…[but] I’m glad that Tanya pushed Teatro Luna. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”
Luna became known for ensemble-devised, often monologue-based work that reflected its members’ young, urban Latina outlook, with writing that was often guided by Saracho. “Her voice became our voice,” says TL managing director Alex Meda.
Pieces such as Generic Latina, Machos and Lunatic(a)s garnered Teatro Luna loyal fans, many of them Latinas and other minorities who appreciated seeing their experiences reflected onstage.
Godinez first encountered Saracho as a performer, and cast her at the Goodman in 2004’s Electricidad, part of the first Latino Theatre Festival. “But then when I started seeing her work as a writer at Teatro Luna, I was like, Oh my God, this is a really unique voice,” he says. “For a young writer, I thought she was crazily well-developed, how clear her writing was and how poignant.”
To encourage her writing, Godinez suggested her for the Goodman’s Ofner Prize, which supports new work. “Henry is a thread in my quilt of Chicago. So many things wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for him,” Saracho says.
The 2005 Ofner brought her to the attention of Ed Sobel, then Steppenwolf’s literary manager; further playwriting connections and commissions blossomed from there, and Saracho had her “S-word” debut last fall with a young-adults adaptation of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Adapting Cisneros’s Chicago-set novel, she says, “was for me, in a geeky, kumbaya way, really important, because those people in the audience? They’ve been waiting for House on Mango Street since they read it. It was their Catcher in the Rye.
“It’s something bigger than what was on that stage. It was bigger than the story, bigger than the art. It was the eight brown bodies, and the brownie that had written it.”
Writing has yet to pay the bills, so Saracho continues to perform. She recently spent a few days in L.A. filming a walk-on role for HBO’s Hung (“My character was called ‘Fat Woman.’ Not even ‘Fat Girl’—that would have been cuter”), but her lucrative local income comes from voiceovers for radio and TV.
I accompany her to a recording studio in River North, where she’s booked a radio spot for a major retailer. In the booth, she reads the Spanish ad copy three or four times with minimal direction from the engineers, while an ad exec listens in via speakerphone. The whole gig takes about a half hour. “That’ll pay more than most play commissions,” she says.
Saracho says she books a lot of Spanish-language voiceovers because she has a native Mexican accent, which is subtly but appreciably different from a first-generation American-born speaker. Not surprisingly, given the debate over Arizona’s controversial new law, immigration comes up frequently in our conversations.
Saracho, who retains her Mexican citizenship, offers more than once to show me her green card, which she says she now carries with her. “I consider myself a Mexican in the United States. An acculturated Mexican,” she says. “But I think I might need to put the hyphen-American really soon, even if I’m not a citizen.” She’s the only member of her family who hasn’t become naturalized; she says she wasn’t ready to renounce her Mexican citizenship. “My dad says I’m being ridiculous,” she says. “He keeps telling me, ‘Tanya, you don’t have to have a Mexican passport to be Mexican.’” But the 2008 election convinced her the time has come. “I was like, Wait, I can’t vote for Obama. I want to be able to vote for him when he runs again.”
But becoming a citizen is only one step toward feeling welcome in her adopted country. “Why don’t they like us? Is it the language? Is it the color of our skin?” she asks rhetorically. “We were picketing outside of the Cubs game [when the Arizona Diamondbacks visited in April], and somebody was there and he was black and he was protesting our protest: ‘Go back to your country.’ And I was like, Isn’t that some shit?”
The playwright says friends keep asking her to write something about the immigration situation, but between the U.S. rhetoric and the ongoing dangers back home—type Sinaloa into a Google search box and the suggested autocomplete is cartel—she says she doesn’t have enough distance at the moment.
“The border is crazy right now,” she tells me after a visit home last month. “I’m like, My dad can’t go to work right now because his office is across the border. I’m worried about him. The word sequestro, kidnapping, is always in our mouths. My sister lives in Phoenix. She’s naturalized, but we’re still brown.”
I began this profile of Saracho determined to get to the bottom of what I thought must be a complex mystery: Why hasn’t a writer this talented gotten broader notice yet? To my surprise, Saracho’s answer is jarringly simple—she hasn’t tried. “This is the year that I’m taking away some things to get serious about this. I’ve never given myself the chance to be a writer,” she says. “Other people started taking me seriously before I took myself seriously.”
She has what she describes as an “M.F.A. complex” about not having a master’s degree, and has never submitted her work for consideration outside of her Chicago network. “The culture of being a playwright, I never picked up because I was running a company,” she says. She recently hooked up with an informal group of Chicago “lady playwrights” that includes Marisa Wegrzyn, Laura Jacqmin, Emily Schwartz and others, and says she’s learning the ropes from them.
The things she’s taken away, besides food, alcohol and sex, include Teatro Luna; Paz’s prediction about administrating a theater company proved true. “Running a company, administration—the writing of a grant takes precedent over the writing of whatever you are trying to get,” Saracho says. “Unless I had something due for somebody, I wasn’t writing it.” That said, “I’m having such an identity crisis right now, going from the we to the me. I feel so übersingle.”
“I felt she was living a really schizophrenic existence,” Godinez says. “I don’t mean that in a negative way, just in terms of a sort of tug-of-war between being the co-artistic director and sort of visionary behind Teatro Luna—the driving force, or cohesive force—and a writer.
“Teatro Luna is so important—I love that company, and what all those women do is so invaluable to [Latinos’] efforts,” he emphasizes. “But it was zapping her of some of her own artistic energy as a writer. I thought it would be good for her to expand herself beyond that, not allow herself to be pegged as a writer of Latina monologues.”
The transition hasn’t been entirely smooth for Teatro Luna’s core figures. Paz, now a faculty member at DePaul’s Theatre School, was the first to walk away, in early 2009; she tells us she was asked to. “I was on maternity leave and [the TL ensemble] sent me an e-mail asking me to step down. I’m not privy to how all of that went down, so I’ve been reluctant to talk about it.” (Meda describes Paz’s characterization as “not untrue.”)
Saracho stepped down some months later to focus on expanding her own writing; she’s now working on a pair of commissions for the Steppenwolf ensemble and a piece for About Face Theatre inspired by the true-life case of Albert Cashier, born Jennie Hodgers, who fought for the Union in the Civil War and lived out the rest of her life in Illinois as a man.
Saracho appears at the Palmer House Saturday 19 in a conversation with the much-produced playwright Theresa Rebeck, whom she describes as a hero of hers. The talk, which caps this year’s TCG conference, is moderated by Steppenwolf’s director of artistic development, Polly K. Carl, who notes that her company has made an ongoing commitment to Saracho. “Tanya is a writer who should be given that opportunity,” Carl says. “We want to make sure we’re not just about the past and the present, but the future of what American theater’s going to look like.… Tanya epitomizes that voice.”
A July 17 reading of El Nogalar, Saracho’s female-focused version of Chekhov, follows in advance of its full premiere next spring, a coproduction of the Goodman and Teatro Vista. Saracho still seems flustered about the high-profile gig: “Who the fuck do I think I am to adapt a Chekhov?”
Paz has an answer. “I love that she is gaining access to a different kind of theater, a more mainstream theater. Having a voice like hers in some of our more staid institutions really potentially transforms what those institutions are about. I believe she will be a major voice in American theater. I think she deserves to be, and I think American theater will be the better because of it.”