For all the Chicago acting talent that turns up on TV each season, a steady number of local playwrights are landing TV work as well. Particularly women. Laura Jacqmin recently joined the staff of the new ABC series "Lucky 7" (which co-stars fellow Chicagoan Stephen Louis Grush).
And Marisa Wegrzyn will be writing for "Mind Games," the ABC drama set to begin production this summer in Chicago. Ironically, the writers' room is in L.A. — which means Wegrzyn is relocating to the West Coast in order to work on a Chicago-based show.
But first, when the campy melodrama "Devious Maids" premieres Sunday on Lifetime, it will mark the TV debut of playwright Tanya Saracho, who began her career more than a decade ago on Chicago's off-Loop theater scene. Commissions from both the Goodman and Steppenwolf helped put her on the national radar. "Those two houses have a lot of pull," she said from L.A., "in terms of creating opportunities outside of Chicago."
Saracho never pictured herself as a TV writer. But talent and a desire for steady income tend to steer playwrights in that direction. For eight months she worked on "Devious Maids," the winking satire from producers Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives") and Eva Longoria about Latina housekeepers and their insufferable Beverly Hills employers (one of whom is played by Steppenwolf ensemble member Tom Irwin).
The show is the first to feature five Latina actresses in lead roles. But already it has generated some controversy. "The soapy drama — crammed with scheming maids, Spanish guitar-strumming and accordion-heavy transitions — finds itself accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes," the L.A. Times noted earlier this month.
"I'm obsessed with this topic," Saracho said. Born in Mexico and raised in Texas, she grew up in a home that employed domestic workers. "There's a maid in almost every play I do because I'm trying to sort all that out."
Parachuting into the world of TV has been an eye-opening, sometimes lonely experience. It has also led to her next job. Two weeks ago Saracho started work on a HBO series (yet untitled) about a group of young gay friends in San Francisco, and starring "Glee" and "Boss" alum Jonathan Groff. Judging by some off-the-record buzz I've been hearing, I wouldn't be surprised if Saracho had a development deal with a cable network in the near future.
For now, she's still adjusting to LA: "I get really self-conscious here. In Chicago I'm cute, but the people out here, I call them the half people. It's like they removed a hip. Even the guys." When we spoke, she was bunking with Steppenwolf actress Rondi Reed ("Mike & Molly") while she was in between sublets. As far as she's concerned, she has no intention of moving to L.A. full time.
Q: You've been itinerant over the past year. Why haven't you rented a place in L.A. long term?
A: Rondi is my savior. Last year, I stayed four months at her house when I first got to L.A. because I had no money when I first got the "Devious" job. She was so Midwestern and awesome about it. Like, "Aw, come on, honey. Come stay at my house." I still have my apartment in Roscoe Village. Knowing that my stuff is somewhere means something to me.
Q: That's expensive to maintain a home you don't even live in.
A: It's not smart! But I have a fetish for Chicago. It's become everything that I am. I don't understand myself away from it, and the more I stay away, it's really stressful. I just went to get a new cell phone and the guy asked if I wanted an L.A. number and I was like, "No!" This year I've only come back twice. So I need to figure out how to get back more.
Q: You started writing on "Devious Maids" almost a year ago, right?
A: I started in August and my contract got extended twice, which, I didn't realize how rare that was. They fired half of the staff the first six weeks I was there. That happens, I guess. Everybody told me, "You will be fired at least once in this business." But it was my first time going through it so I was like, "Holy (expletive)!" There are all these levels, by the way. There's upper level (writers) and lower level. It literally says that (on your contract). You just have to take your self-esteem out of it. Lower level means you're a staff writer — which is what I was— story editor and executive story editor. And then upper level is producer, co-executive producer and executive producer — and those people, the money they make is unbelievable. But to get there takes lots of years. Or a lucky break. But you have to work up the levels. This is the stuff no one tells you about. The hierarchy plays out in the writers room and you, as a staff writer, need to know your place.
Q: How is writing for TV different from playwriting?
A: I didn't know how to pitch ideas. I didn't know how to do an outline for TV. I didn't even know how to use (screenwriting software) Final Draft. It moves fast. And a lot people in the room have been doing this for decades and they don't care if you get upset because they crap on your idea. I had to realize, it's not my story at all, so just get out of your own way. So when I got out of my way, it got easier. Also, I dress up cute sometimes to go to work but TV writers don't! They just go however.
Q: How much interaction did you have with Marc Cherry?
A: He hired me, so I interviewed with him. Disney is the studio behind the show, so that's where we worked. Walt Disney had a corner office and that is where Marc Cherry's office is now, so we would always joke, when something went wrong, "Oh, there's the ghost of Walt." But Marc is really charming. There's only a few giants left and he's one of them. And he was in the writers' room a lot because eventually there were only four writers and him. That's tiny (for TV). But it was the best experience because I got to write.
Q: How many Latinas were hired as writers?
A: There were two of us, me and Gloria Calderon Kellett. She's written on "How I Met Your Mother" and other comedies that are big and successful, so learning from her — especially how to take the punches when a pitch doesn't go well — that was big. She came to work weeks after she gave birth and she would be pitching with a breast pump going. The men would joke about that and she would just roll with it. If that were me, I would be crying about it, but she had a really good sense of humor about it. I was able to see a woman with a full life, in action.
Q: You're an actor, too. Are you pursuing that at all in L.A.?
A: That's a real question for me. I don't know. I still have my agent. Yesterday I recorded a Special K commercial, but it's not the same. I am dying to act. There were a couple of theater opportunities in Chicago I had to turn down, and it killed me. I don't know how (recent Tony winner) Tracy Letts does it. How does he write amazing plays and then has time to act, too? I want to get a little bit of that model going for myself.
Q: If you get to create a show one day, do think you'll want to set it in Chicago?
A: When I talk to (Laura) Jacqmin, when I talk to Marisa (Wegrzyn), that's all we talk about. Stories set in Chicago. That's the instinct. And then we're going to go through the Hollywood machine, right? So we'll see how that turns out. But my goal is to have a show in Chicago. Imagine that! Maybe we'll talk five years from now and that will be a reality.
"Devious Maids" debuts 9 p.m. Sunday on Lifetime.
Ponies vs. bronies
"My Little Pony: Equestria Girls" is the latest entry in the "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic" brand, expanding the animated TV series into a feature-length film that reimagines the main characters as high school-aged humans, rather than ponies. It screens 11:30 a.m. Saturday and again on July 14 at the Music Box, times that suggest the targeted audience is clearly under the age of 10. But Bronies (adults, usually male, who also follow the show) are a fanbase as well and the movie's concept has raised a few eyebrows. "Bronies have expressed a strong interest in seeing the Ponies in sexy, humanized forms," a piece in Slate noted last week, "and it seems Hasbro has given them exactly what they want...A few mad moms is an easy price to pay when you consider the huge profits Hasbro will rake in with this move." Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
Gary Coleman retrospective
Next week the Museum of Broadcast Communications launches an exhibit devoted to "Diff'rent Strokes" star Gary Coleman, featuring old episodes and artifacts donated by his parents. A native of Zion, IL, Coleman died in 2010 after several years of health problems and financial struggles. (He sued his parents in 1989 over money issues.) The exhibit includes video recollections from TV producer Norman Lear and former NBC president Fred Silverman. Go to museum.tv.
Movies in the park
Millenium Park's free weekly movie series features a Tuesday screening of 1957's "Funny Face" starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, followed by 1942's "Yankee Doodle Dandy" starring James Cagney (July 2) and 1984's "Amadeus" starring F. Murray Abraham (July 9). Go to millenniumpark.org.
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