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The TikTok Revolution

A couple years ago, I created a podcast about theatre entitled “For the Revolution.” It originally started as a project for a class, a way for me to recommend plays and share advice to other young theatre creators, but soon it evolved into a conversation about the future of theatre and Generation Z’s place in it. At the end of every episode, I ask my guests the same question: What does theatre need?

The overwhelming answer that I’ve gotten is very simple: theatre needs youth, and theatre is bad at engaging young people. Many of the creators I interview agree that theatre needs a younger approach, more appeal to younger audiences, and more creative solutions to decades-old systemic problems—which young people are more than willing to try to solve. So how can we involve today’s youth? How can we raise a new generation of theatre?

One answer is TikTok. I see TikTok as the future of theatre. TikTok is inherently theatrical, turning users into both voyeurs and performers. TikTok has evolved to make even the most mundane actions, like restocking a pantry or showing a skincare routine, prime entertainment. TikTok epitomizes the idea that art reflects life and life reflects art, as TikTok’s influence is very prevalent in culture.

The platform began in 2016 as musical.ly, a lip-synching app. As it evolved to become a site for short videos, it became increasingly popular, with the number of users doubling as the COVID-19 pandemic began and people were shut away in their homes. Now, TikTok has over one billion users, and it is one of the most downloaded apps of all time.

TikTok is revolutionizing art making online and opening a realm into the younger generations—a realm that older theatremakers should be paying attention to.

The concept is pretty simple. Users create and upload videos, watch other creators’ videos, and like, share, and follow other users. The site is primarily attractive for its short content, with videos being limited to three minutes. TikTok also has innovative filters, editing features, and celebrity content creators, which make the platform popular among young people; ten- to nineteen-year-olds are the biggest demographic of users in the United States, according to Pew Research Center .

TikTok is revolutionizing art making online and opening a realm into the younger generations—a realm that older theatremakers should be paying attention to. We’ve seen the proof of TikTok’s theatrical potential through Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical and Barlow and Bear’s The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which landed them a Grammy.

Two women posing for a picture, each holding a Grammy.

Abigail Barlow and Emily Bear with their Grammy for The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. Photo by John Locher.

Known as the “Ratatousical,” Ratatouille was a musical theatre retelling of the popular Pixar movie of the same name. This cultural phenomenon began with Emily Jacobsen’s song about Remy, the main character from the film. The song took off, and soon other users began adding on, creating full orchestrations, harmonies, dances, and eventually more songs. Users even designed a poster for the musical as well as set and lighting design. The musical was officially recognized on TikTok by Playbill, and on 1 January 2021 Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical premiered as an online concert benefitting The Actor’s Fund. With a star-studded cast that included Andre de Shields, Kevin Chamberlain, Ashley Park, and other Broadway performers as well as the original TikTok creators, the concert raised over $2 million for The Actor’s Fund.

Just ten days later, twenty-two-year-old composer Abigail Barlow posted a TikTok saying, “What if Bridgerton was a musical?” She soon teamed up with piano prodigy Emily Bear, and the two began composing The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical. Their songs, beginning with a duet between the characters Daphne and Simon, soon gained millions of views on TikTok,. As with Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, other creators jumped in, adding choreography, harmonies, and staging. Barlow and Bear encouraged community-building around the show, composing many of the songs on live sessions on TikTok and inviting audience feedback. They self-produced the album of twelve songs and, in April 2022, became the youngest composers in history to win a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, beating out industry giants Stephen Shwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Both of these examples celebrate a new generation of theatre, showing young creators that they don’t need Broadway connections, a prestigious education, or tons of money to break into the often-impenetrable industry.

There are several aspects of TikTok that make it ideal for the creation of art. First of all, it is accessible. The app is free to download, and theoretically anyone with internet access can create and upload content. TikTok users have also normalized putting closed captioning on videos, prompting the app to include a caption feature.

The app also allows for easy collaboration with other creators. It is easy to find other people who share similar interests to you through TikTok’s algorithm. I found two of the theatre creators that have guest starred on my podcast, Emma Sue Harris and Grace Walker, through TikTok. Emma, (@ohemmasue) likes to think of their platform as a “radical rehearsal room” and believes that TikTok is the ultimate form of experimental theatre. Emma often shares book hauls, radical theatre history, and dramaturgical insights about pretty much everything. Grace Walker (@notkristenbell) is another dramaturg who uses her platform to promote plays and playwrights that often go unnoticed in the theatre canon.

Both creators promote open discourse about theatre and current events, share their insight and education freely with their followers, and cultivate a supportive network of young theatre artists through TikTok’s platform.

This monetization of art makes virality the new measure of success for art—assuming, of course, that the level of virality directly corelates to compensation.

The app’s “duet” feature, in which one user can create a video in conjunction with one that is already posted, even enables creators to add to existing art. For example, if a creator were to post a video of an original composition on piano, another creator can duet it with their own lyrics to the song, or add themselves playing the trumpet, or even some choreography. Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical was created this way, allowing people all over the world to contribute to a work of art.

TikTok actively influences the entertainment industry as well. The app has grown from a small lip-synching app to a powerful platform on which every major sports team, company, and celebrity has an account. Creators with many followers find talent representation through TikTok, theatres have accounts through which they promote upcoming projects, and I’ve even come across casting calls posted on the app.

While I have the tendency to view TikTok as an idyllic form of artistic creation and expression, it is also a business that ultimately serves a financial purpose rather than an artistic one. Many popular creators make money from their videos, whether from brand deals, advertisements, or through the “Creator’s Fund” that TikTok has set up to pay creators directly. This monetization of art makes virality the new measure of success for art—assuming, of course, that the level of virality directly corelates to compensation.

We continue to see virality as vital currency with the The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which was able to take advantage of the popularity and buzz around the Ratatouille musical and use it as a jumping off point for its creation.

For example, the popularity of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical attracted the attention of producers, and the final product was monetized in the form of a benefit concert for The Actor’s Fund. Ratatouille also provided an excellent model for proper accreditation, providing names and TikTok links of TikTok creators who contributed to the musical, and viewers were assured that each creator was also compensated. Of course, this begs the question: were they compensated fairly and equitably? Also, can we consider Ratatouille a success because it raised $2 million? Would it still be considered successful in the artistic sense even if it never made it off TikTok and turned into a benefit concert? We continue to see virality as vital currency with the The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, which was able to take advantage of the popularity and buzz around the Ratatouille musical and use it as a jumping off point for its creation. The Unoffical Bridgerton Musical has more critical acclaim and measurable success with its Grammy award, but the question remains: what determines its success? With the recent lawsuit Netflix filed against Barlow and Bear, the question of monetization of content becomes even more important. Where is the line? Was Netflix willing to turn a blind eye until Barlow and Bear began to make a profit from intellectual property that wasn’t entirely their own? While there are still many lessons to be learned from Barlow and Bear’s more open model of creation, this shifts what I had previously regarded as a successful form of TikTok theatre.

There is another drawback to this direct monetization of content: it disadvantages Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) creators more than white creators. TikTok users speculate that the TikTok algorithm silences certain videos and creators that made content the app deems nonprofitable, which often affects videos that speak about topics like racial injustice and anti-capitalist material. These videos tend to appear on very few people’s feeds in a phenomenon known as “shadowbanning.” TikTok has been accused of censorship numerous times for hiding what it deems “ugly” or “unaesthetic,” political content like the Black Lives Matter movement, and content by Jewish creators. “Shadowbanning” disproportionately affects BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creators, which is especially dangerous when these creators are counting on the money they make through TikTok.

So what can we learn from TikTok? Although many regional theatres and Broadway shows have created TikTok accounts to advertise for shows and appeal to a younger audience, I don’t think theatres should be treating TikTok as merely an advertising platform. TikTok musicals like Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical and The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical have shown us the limitless possibilities of creation that can exist when you remove barriers like distance and money. Maybe the answer to making theatre more equitable and accessible is sponsoring and encouraging more community projects like the “Ratatousical.” Maybe the answer lies in TikTok’s audience engagement with The Unofficial Bridgerton Musical, when everyone felt like they had a voice and gave honest and encouraging feedback during live, generative sessions. Or maybe the answer lies in education with TikTok creators like Emma Sue Harris and Grace Walker providing theatre education, play recommendations, and industry advice for free.

Theatre has always been an instrument of change, fueled by social upheaval, injustice, and—most importantly—community. In an era when many harmful people and practices in our industry are facing a reckoning, TikTok has immense worth not just as a tool to make art, but also in its ability to shape communities and encourage public discourse. My friend Emma Sue Harris has a fantastic quote: “A play is like a wheel; its true function is only realized when it is set in motion.” TikTok has the power to set not just the next Grammy award-winning musical into motion, but an entire generation of artists seeking a more accessible, equitable, and youthful theatre. Hopefully, we have the good sense to either join them or get out of their way.

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I think it is really interesting how young people are creatively adapting, repurposing and amplifying new, current, and old technologies; actively making space for their art to exist online and for others to contribute to it.

There is this strange digital divide that happens when "traditional" theatres (or any company/organization) use TikTok as just another platform for marketing purposes because it is really more for active engagement, creative commentary, and art making of all forms. Contextually, it feels out of place in this "sacred" digital space fuelled by pure creative intentions. There are some good examples of successful marketing/outreach and engagement on TikTok, such as the Black Country Living Museum in the UK, but I believe it requires that extra dash of youthful creativity - someone who understands the TikTok environment and the different layers to and forms of online engagement.

As a platform, TikTok has many flaws and inequities, but it is a space where youth, and many others, have found a way to thrive creatively.

- a young person

Thanks for leaving your thoughts Megan! I completely agree- there is a magic in the way that TikTok has completely redefined marketing in conjunction with digital art - especially in the way that in my opinion, a lot of successful TikTok marketing doesn't take itself seriously at all.

Exactly! There’s room for play and discovery on each end - “creator” and “audience”. Everyone who comes across that content is a potential collaborator, commenter or critic and creators take on an actively engaging role as soon as they publish content to the app, regardless of initial intent (artistic, marketing, etc.). The engagement cycle is continuous.

It’s also actively rewarding and inspiring to be a part of something (a movement?) that just started as another “free use” social platform that is morphing into something greater in the hands of young artists and creators. I don’t know if this ecosystem would exist if we tried to shift it to another platform, for example, something strictly “arts based”; or what else could have manifested if the app wasn’t set up as an algorithm-based FYP.