“It felt unreal walking around J-Town, or Little Tokyo, because it was so empty, like a ghost town. It was just surreal."
"In late October of 2019, I had been asked by playwright / producer / director Del Shores to stage manage his most recent original work, This Side of Crazy, at The Zephyr Theatre. The show rehearsed through all of January 2020 and ran February through early March, closing right before the pandemic forced everything to shut down.
I'm also a part-time stage tech for the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre. We had some big names lined up for the year that, of course, didn't happen because of COVID. Alicia Keys was one of them, Jim Carrey was another one. Tori Amos, yet another. I was disappointed, to say the least. But I am grateful that just before the end of 2019, Flea with the Red Hot Chili Peppers was promoting his memoir on a TED Talk at the Aratani. So I got to meet and work with him for that one-off, which was pretty cool. Given the way 2020 began, that was what I was expecting for the rest of my year - doing the occasional rental job at the Aratani and getting booked for shows.
I had also just paid for my Actors' Equity Association card about mid-March, thinking I would be able to start looking for union jobs and actually start earning union scale pay. I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got my union card, the signature ink’s still drying on it, and I am ready to use it.’ And that was when everything shut down. So those grand plans came to a screeching halt.
That last day of actual theatre-related work that I got called in to do was some breaking down of exhibit set ups at the Aratani Theatre. It felt unreal walking around J-Town, or Little Tokyo, because it was so empty, like a ghost town. It was just surreal.
In 2019, I was going full tilt where I would work a show, close it, book another show, get it up on its feet, then close that, as well -- with a smattering of the one-offs at the Aratani peppered throughout the show cycles. When the shutdown of theatres was announced, I thought, ‘OK, well, you know, we’ll shut down for a few weeks, everybody will behave like an adult and wear a mask, we'll be cautious, wash our hands, the risk of COVID will disappear, and life will go back to normal after a few weeks.’ But, that didn't happen.
Towards the last week of March, Kristina Wong, an actor / performance artist / comedian here in L.A. started the ‘Auntie Sewing Squad,” a group of volunteers that made face masks for marginalized communities. I donated a bunch of fabric scraps, not thinking I would end up joining the Squad and actually making masks. A couple weeks later, though, I saw on the group’s Facebook page that there was a pattern that some of the "aunties" felt was too complicated. At that point of the shutdown, I had reached a level of boredom and I was frustrated with the ineptitude of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. So I said, ‘Sure, why not, I'll give it a go. Let's just start with 50 for now.’ I cranked out the 50.
As I was sewing these masks, I was thinking, ‘I’ve got bills coming up, how am I going to pay them?’ Towards the end of April, I heard that California's unemployment department was offering to cover gig workers. I hopped onto the site and got a blast of information, most of which didn’t apply to my situation. I started thinking, ‘OK, Letitia, breathe slowly, just take it one line at a time and see which applies to you.’ I found that even though the offer was announced to the public via the news, California 's Employment Development Department had not been set up yet to process those sorts of claims.
When it was finally up and running, I still had to figure out how to file properly, since I had a combination of W-2 income from the Aratani and 1099-MISC from my freelance theatre work. Trying to get it sorted out involved emailing and calling every two weeks or so and contending with annoyed account specialists at EDD who couldn't get me off the phone fast enough.
When the unemployment disbursements finally came through in early July, the grand total fortunately included the amount that was retroactively applied to the initial shutdown date back in the last week of March. When I heard the balance amount on the call -in line, I thought, ‘This is a mistake, they gave me too much money.’ But it wasn’t a mistake. And, it was a big relief.
That saw me through, financially, until about the 2nd week of December. Luckily, there has been a moratorium on evictions. I think it’s good until today, or until March, before it expires. I think it’s tomorrow. I need to check in with my property manager to see what I need to do.
Anyway, since those first 50 masks in the spring, the months have flown by. I have been sewing masks and doing some odds and ends of other things. I think by New Year's, I had already sewn about 1,500 masks between the beginning of April and the end of December. I'm still kind of cranking out a few here and there, but I'm burning out.” – Letitia #California