The Telephone Hour – TikTok and Theatre During the Pandemic

L-R: @siswij, @katiejoyofosho, @tylerjosephellis, @jackattackcleary80, @jjniemann, @abigailbarlowww
Zack Reiser
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February 18, 2021 7:00 PM

This is the first of three features from Publishing Editor Zack Reiser on the intersection of digital media and theatre. Look for the next two in the coming weeks. 

TikTok certainly existed before March 13, 2020. But the day the world shut down in earnest people were left stuck in their homes with time on their hands—that is when the real Golden Age of TikTok began. The trends lining users’ For You pages—the first page any user sees on TikTok that is curated by the app’s algorithm and not just who you follow—change near constantly. Dances to audios like Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage” and Doja Cat’s “Say So,” and niche communities such as #BeansTok and #SeaShantyTok–yes, a stream of videos where singers of different vocal types stitch each other’s videos to flesh out old time sea shanties–come and go sometimes faster than you can catch on. I spent the last few months digging into one particular subgenre of TikTok and talking to creators about why they make TikToks and how their community garnered national attention more than once this year—#TheatreTikTok.

Some people were posting on TikTok before the pandemic. J.J. Nieman, previously a swing in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, was posting videos of himself in his unicorn costume during the last in-person show he was in last winter, Bliss at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Katie Johantgen and James Penca, off-Broadway actors and partners in life, were using TikTok as another outlet for content made for other social media platforms. None of them could have expected the following they would grow when the world suddenly turned all-virtual. “I mean, my first TikTok was me filming my sister,’” said Tyler Joseph Ellis, TikTok comedian and actor. “It was only when I really started thinking ‘that would be a funny concept,’ and putting a bit of effort into the videos that they would start getting more views. And then Theatre Bitch began to blow up in ways that I couldn't have known. Some of my idols started following me and commenting on it. I'm like, ‘what is happening?’”

So why has theatre become so big on TikTok in the months since? Many are missing the participation of in-person collaboration and TikTok’s numerous features allow a teamwork-like atmosphere to thrive. “With live theatre not existing right now, TikTok is sort of the closest virtual thing to that collaborative experience,” said Johantgen. “Because there is something to being able to duet another video or being like ‘this person wrote the song, I'll use their sound and I'll make the choreography.’ So it has more of a community ‘let's put on a show’ vibe than the other apps.”

For Jack Cleary, a musical theatre student at Moorpark College who now has 112 thousand followers, TikTok is the extension of what theatre kids were already doing pre-pandemic. “TikTok really erupted during COVID, like everyone downloaded it. I know with a lot of theatre kids, it's given theatre kids a way to perform because like that we have no stage. So this has given us platforms to perform and be our goofy selves.” 

Chris Routh behind @shoeboxmusicals has been using his TikTok to pay homage to scenic design on Broadway while we can’t experience it in person. “I used to go to a show like every other week. So I missed live theatre, and I thought, ‘Why not recreate it in my room?’ I mean, I've always had my mini stage model. I call it my shoe box musical or my shoe box theatre in my room. So with the Wicked set, I wanted people to be like, ‘I can watch Wicked right on TikTok right now in a miniature scale!’”

One of the biggest trends to hit TikTok in 2020 was Ratatousical. The brief video that started it all by Emily Jacobsen exploded over the last half of 2020, creating videos that have garnered #RatatouilleMusical almost 280 million views. Daniel J. Mertzlufft, a New York-based composer and orchestrator, is in part responsible for the trend’s success, and recently served as music supervisor, arranger, and provided additional music for the Actor’s Fund benefit of Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, which raised over $2 million for the charity. Mertzlufft attributes much of the trend’s and #TheatreTikTok’s success to what author and LGBT community activist Dan Savage coined “new relationship energy,” and how TikTok is filling the gap for theatre nerds who want new shows to experience: “It's the idea of like it's new, it's exciting. These past few months I've listened to Six about seven billion times and I still love it. But like, I'd love something new to listen to. I obsess over something, and then I want a new show and nothing's being released. I think it's the new relationship, excitement and energy of having a brand new show that feels real and has high quality and is exciting and always has new content to interact with,” said Mertzlufft.

Being a TikTok creator isn’t always as fun as the content makes it seem. For many, having such a large platform to share their content also comes with some responsibility. Nieman believes in taking a positive approach to addressing world issues on his social media: “It's kind of like being apathetic towards things going on in the world right now with Black Lives Matter and COVID-19. If you aren't talking about that, you're like doing everyone a disservice. 

Johantgen and Penca have also used their platform to speak out on social justice. “We're very conscious of making sure that we speak up about things that are going on, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement. I definitely feel the larger your platform gets, the more of a responsibility we have to make sure that not only are we posting fun things, but also that we're speaking up for what's right.”

Another big challenge some have faced is keeping up with demand from followers including the content posted and how often that content is shared. “It became a different beast once I really started feeling like people were waiting for me to make my next video because then I couldn't not post. Essentially, I can still go days without posting, but it takes up a lot more mental energy,” explained Ellis about his followers. “There's a fire under my butt to make another one because people are like, ‘Where have you been?’ People start commenting on my old videos being like, ‘We miss you.’ It's just wild. So that's difficult in terms of consistency. I love to be able to do it, but I work two jobs, I don't do this full time, believe it or not. So it's a little tough.”

And then there’s the algorithm–the almighty formula that is the bread and butter of TikTok’s uniqueness, and the bane of many of its users. Ellis talked about the frustration that comes from TikTok’s most elusive feature: “The algorithm is this big, dark cloud over everything that grants people success at random. And then sometimes it doesn’t feel random.” Cleary has tried to figure out the rules of the algorithm but ultimately gave in. “I’ve come to terms that I will never understand the algorithm because it showed me that follower count doesn’t mean a ton.”

Annie Schiffman, founder of Downstage Media, a social media marketing firm for the performing arts, explained that most other social media apps have given the public some sort of understanding as to how their algorithms affect their feeds. “Most algorithms are pretty proprietary. They don’t really tell you what the rules and regulations are until it’s a bit more established. For example, in 2018, Facebook made it pretty clear that they were going to start prioritizing relationships with friends and family before brands. TikTok is very different because they are much more underground about what their algorithm is. That’s why you’ll see some pretty random hashtags that people are using because they are literally just throwing up anything that they can to possibly wind up in your For You feed.” Schiffman also believes that the mystique surrounding the algorithm is potentially a key to the app’s success: “I think that’s one of the reasons why people are talking about TikTok’s algorithm so much, because we don’t really know what it is. If they ever do release that information, then it’s like, ‘Ooh, breaking info!’ So it’s this kind of way that they’re able to get a little bit of buzz, and in the meantime keep creators guessing and creating more stuff and using the platform more to try and figure it out.”

Between the fast moving trends, the troubles of the algorithm, and the complex editing platform of actually making a TikTok, it may seem challenging for new users to break through. But if there’s one pervading piece of advice for anyone looking to start posting it’s this: post the things that you like to make. “Honestly, have fun,” Johantgen said. “Our favorite videos to make are the ones where we are having fun making them. Don't think about what's going to go viral. I think it's just like, ‘What do you think is funny? What do you want to put out there?’ And if you are really behind it yourself then other people will see that.” Ellis echoed the same sentiment. “The litmus test for me is if I am making a video and I'm like, ‘Do I think this is funny?’ And if I know in my gut that it's not that funny I'm not going to post it.”

Nieman believes that sometimes the biggest hurdle is just posting. “Don't let fear stop you from posting. I think authenticity is really big and finding kind of your niche and what people are responding to and gravitating towards, because odds are that people will want to see more of that.”

And what happens to TikTok content as the world slowly reopens in-person again? No one can say for sure, other than the certainty that everything will change.

“When I'm busy and having my normal life again and in shows and auditions and classes and all the normal stuff in New York life, am I going to want to continue doing this? I think the answer is yes and no,” expressed Nieman. “I definitely won't be using it as much. I won't be spending as much time on TikTok, but I think it'll be huge for marketing shows.”

Ellis believes that our in-person experience could become the inspiration for new content, “Ultimately, what's going to happen with TikTok when we're not on our phones really all day? But I just think right now, and in theatre especially, what happens when everyone's back in rehearsal and it's sort of this odd sort of ‘we'll get there when we get there’ sort of feeling? I definitely don't ever want to stop posting. When I'm back in rehearsals and I'm working far more inspiration is going to come for theatre related videos because I'll be like, ‘Oh my God, here. That's so good.’ So I have a feeling that I'll probably still keep it up because when I'm doing it, I'll have even more ideas. We'll see.”

Mertlufft hopes to use his TikTok to promote his original works outside of the platform. “I'm really hoping that my followers are excited as I start producing original content. I have a lot of stuff on the horizon that I'm really excited for. I am working on a piece called Breathe: Portraits from a Pandemic, which is a series of five short stories. I have another piece called In the Kangaroo, which is a family show that we are hoping to turn and start pitching as an animated movie that I'm working on with my writing partner, Kate Leonard, and an amazing Australian book writer named Daniel Stoddard.”

Part of the magic of TikTok is its unpredictability–that Abigail Barlow leading a duet of “Burn For You” from her latest project Bridgerton: The Musical can lead into a drag queen impression of Dame Maggie Smith, which then can lead into Pudgy the Chihuahua screaming “owa owa!”; that your For You page is curated specifically for what the algorithm thinks you like no matter how wild the content; that just like Chef Gusteau sings in Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, anyone can create. Who can say what will come out of TikTok in the future–what is loud and clear is that TikTok here to stay.

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Zack Reiser

Zack Reiser has a passion for theatre, cooking, and music. With professional experience in various roles in the Broadway community, he could tell you how theatre works from the front of the house to the back of the stage. He’s been with the Theatrely team since 2019.

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