Back in May, as COVID-19 shut down theaters around the country, Cha See, a lighting designer, was in a bind. Like many, she was also out-of-work. But unlike most theater artists, she could not apply for unemployment. As an immigrant designer from the Philippines, in America on an O1 visa, applying for government aid could put her visa in jeopardy.
And See was not alone, she noticed other immigrant designers who, like her, were wondering how they were going to make ends meet. Especially because unlike actors or playwrights, their work did not translate as well to Zoom. So See created a GoFundMe.
“It all started when I was having troubles financially,” she said. “So I started this GoFundMe. At that time, I was just talking to my friends who were also having the same problems because we couldn’t apply for unemployment, all of our shows have been postponed. It was the uncertainty with finances and with theater.”
The GoFundMe originally raised $32,969. But See soon realized that the need was greater than her immediate circle of immigrant designers. “Many people were contacting us from different disciplines and what we wanted to do was help as many people as we can,” said Kimie Nishikawa, a set designer from Tokyo; she helped See administer that original GoFundMe.
The two, along with costume designer Rodrigo Muñoz from Mexico City, then created the See Lighting Foundation, which has been raising funds and distributing them to immigrant theater artists in need.
“There’s no vetting process, there’s no application process, the only requirement is that you’re on an O1 or an OPT, and you work in theater,” said Nishikawa. OPT stands for Optional Practical Training, which allows students on an F1 visa to temporarily work in their area of study.
Originally, the idea of the See Lighting Foundation was to do a one-time-only payment to anyone who applied for it. But the group soon realized that theater was going to be shut down for at least the rest of 2020, which meant many artists were going to be without income for months. And artists on an O1 visa cannot find work outside of the jobs specified on their visa.
So the See Lighting Foundation is currently supporting 64 artists, giving them $500 a month. “We have a waiting list, which is about 15 people,” said Nishikawa. “Hopefully some people who have registered with the foundation, their financial situation might improve, and they will drop off. A few have already dropped off and then people on the waiting list come up.” Artists also usually drop off when they go back to their country of origin.
Adds See, “I wish we can help them all. But it’s also based on the number of donations and the amount of donations. We’re working hard.” The three administrators make sure the artists on their list have gotten their funds before they pay themselves.
Before they started the See Lighting Foundation, See, Nishikawa and Muñoz had never fundraised before. As Nisikawa puts it bluntly: “We’re fucking designers. We don’t know how to fundraise.”
It’s been a learning experience for the team, from finding a fiscal sponsor so that the donations can be tax-deductible (Ars Nova is their fiscal sponsor), to directly asking big potential donors for money. The funds are distributed to artists as personal gifts, so it doesn’t violate their visas. On the day of the interview, the team disclosed they had received a donation of $30,000, their biggest single donation yet (their average is usually $74).
“We just realized how really, really, really, really important it is to keep our voices out there,” said Muñoz. “We need to make ourselves present. And it’s been like an interesting and funny ride because we decided, for example, we should open a Twitter. And then it’s like, wait, how does Twitter works? None of us use those platforms!”
But they’ve been learning how to fundraise as they go. The most valuable thing they’ve learned about asking for money during this time is similar to getting theater work in the before times: persistence.
“Even if you don’t get a response, just keep emailing them back,” said Nishiwaka. “Always be polite. Just keep poking, keep poking.”
They’ve also learned that they can use social media to educate people. They realized that many people who worked in the industry assumed immigrants can apply for government assistance. So they’ve been doing a series of Instagram posts to dispel some myths about visa holders.
As for the future, the three artists at the head of See Lighting plan to stay in America, which they consider their home.
“We’ve already sacrificed a lot,” said Muñoz. “Giving up or going back is not an option for us. From my personal opinion, I just hope things change and the future has great opportunities for everyone, for the three of us, so we can just continue making theater in the United States.”
Nishikawa hopes that when theaters come back, they pay artists better so that artists are no longer living paycheck-to-paycheck with no savings, so that they’re better equipped to withstand hard times.
“I hope that people or institutions invest more in the people and not the product,” she said. “There are so many shows that I have done, where my fee is $2,000 for a whole set design, and my [production] budget is $30,000. And just the gap between how much the institution pays for their people and how much they care about advertising and the product itself is too big. We were all hanging on by a thread. When this pandemic hit, most of us were like, ‘Wow, I don’t even have enough money to pay rent for next month.’ And we’re all working on big Off-Broadway shows. We are supposedly the ones who made it but the industry cannot support their artists. And I think that really has to change.”
For her part, See hopes America as a whole learns to be less individualistic and less obsessed with one person bootstrapping themselves out of hardship.
“The idea of individualism, I hope it’s lessened,” she said. “ I hope that we all realize that we all need each other—whatever my neighbor does, whatever my coworker does, whatever my collaborator does, it’s all gonna affect me. Whatever I do, it’s all gonna affect you. We all need to help each other at the end of the day in times of crisis. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter what your background is. If you’re in need right now, we’re all here to support you and help you. That’s what I want to see more of when we go back to the new normal.”