As the pandemic stretches on, artists are finding they can use TikTok for more than just editing funny dances and comic bits—or, in some cases, for addressing serious issues while also editing funny dances and comic bits. The video-sharing app has become a space where they can claim their identity and make theatre their own.
Actor and playwright Ryan Jamaal Swain (Netflix’s Pose) said he is intrigued by the possibility TikTok offers for artists to make their own mini-productions. TikTok dances are cool, he said, but people are now taking the app more seriously. As he got involved, he has quickly became accustomed to this new form of storytelling.
“It’s given me an exercise in crafting and deepening the crafting,” Swain said, “knowing what is universally necessary to achieve it, in the way that it can be tapped into by the viewer.”
He said the power to edit and share content on one’s own terms has created a form of autonomy many artists don’t ever find in their own careers. He referred to “auto-penetration,” a term coined by theatre director Peter Brook in his influential 1968 book The Empty Space.
@ryanjamaalswain##tiktokgraduation ##foryoupage ##TossYourCap ##ryanjamaalswain ##quarantine♬ original sound – fatherco0n
Swain summed up the concept, saying, “The idea that the actor or the subject has to come to the application or the task showing himself exactly as he is, in that knowing in the secret of every character he’s portraying, and then thus a gift that the spectator or the audience—aka the folks that tune into your TikTok situation—then are offered a great wonder, and you are deepening your own interaction with the story.”
The TikTok creation process allows people to play different roles: actor, producer, director, screenwriter, set manager, or any combination of the above. They can develop different skills and explore possibilities outside of their expertise. Actor and comedian Katie Johantgen said TikTok democratizes the idea of “putting yourself out there” and lets people see her as more than just a performer. As a feminist and an outspoken voice for activism, Johantgen tries to be a good role model. Being raised by strong women taught her to not be afraid to use her voice. Her TikTok riffs on musical theatre, she said, are her chance to leave a mark on the theatre industry.
“I definitely am always trying to fight against my own insecurities and urges to be scared and make a complete fool out of myself or just to do something kooky,” Johantgen said. “Nope, just gotta be brave.”
@katiejoyofoshoYou may be flirting but you are NEVER HAPPY ABOUT IT ##musical♬ original sound – katiejoyofosho
One day, she said, she hopes to be in a position to give other people opportunities. “I just believe in our generation and the generation below us,” she said. “I think there’s a lot more open-minded people that are going to make the changes we need to see in the industry.”
Especially during the COVID-19 hiatus but even beyond it, these creators are determined to pave the way for a new generation who will redefine theatre, in part by creating TikTok content.
Nikisha Fogo, a new principal dancer for San Francisco Ballet, has been on TikTok since 2016 but finds the app is becoming more essential to artists. As she posts videos of graceful dégagés and piques, she encourages artists to keep creating art because it can create an authentic image.
@nikishafogoBallerinas coming back to work after using TikTok the whole quarantine… ##putitonmycv ##foryou ##ballet ##throwitback ##fp ##ballerina♬ Waltz of the Flowers – The Manhattan Pops
“When you like someone, not for their art, maybe it’s more likely you will watch them onstage or you see different qualities when you see them onstage,” Fogo said. “You can appreciate who that person is.”
As Fogo prepares to transfer from Vienna State Opera Ballet to San Francisco Ballet, she does not know what to expect from U.S. audiences. Outlets like TikTok can help, she said: “It would be nice if, when people think of me, they feel some kind of warmth and drive to want to also do something.”
While Swain’s experience on Pose allows him to tell the story of love and acceptance within a marginalized group, he finds that Hollywood tends to define him as one thing. As an actor and queer man, he is working to keep himself “malleable and mutable.”
Swain thinks one of the most beautiful things about TikTok is the way it harkens back to the essential nakedness of theatre.
“No bells and whistles,” he said. “No scenery. Just your subconscious, your audience, and your imagination.”
Madeline Powell is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.