In the chaotically queer third act of Fake Friends’ 2020 production of Circle Jerk, the performance’s trio—played by Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, and Cat Rodriguez—erupt into a frenetic meme ballet. As the production climaxes, audiences are inundated with TikTok trend after TikTok trend. We see Eva María (Rodríguez) drop to the floor to recreate the “WAP” Challenge to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song of the same name. We see a blue-haired troll (Foley) “pull out a ring” and say “marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone.” And we see these “fake friends” do the “I am you, you are me” challenge. Throughout the TikTokian meme ballet, Circle Jerk not only comments on how TikTok has fully penetrated the everyday realities for many folks in the United States, but also how the platform has become a viable force in theatre-making itself.
But Circle Jerk isn’t the only example of TikTok’s reach into theatre-making. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no no no.
As TikTok has emerged as the most downloaded app in recent years, even outpacing social media mainstays such as Facebook and Instagram, the platform’s influence has become far-reaching, penetrating nearly every facet of life in the United States. The theatre industry is not immune.
In what follows, I highlight three examples of how TikTok penetrates theatre. These examples—TikTok’s dance craze culture, Fake Friends’ Circle Jerk, and Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical—speak to the different avenues that TikTok performance takes. At times, theatre explicitly draws inspiration, aesthetics, and form from TikTok. Other times, TikTok works as a storytelling platform in which TikTok itself is theatre. Throughout these examples, TikTok aesthetics and performance spill into other digital realms as well as analog spaces. The digital stage, then, becomes the stage. The result is something wholly TikTokian.
In Renegades: Digital Dance Cultures from Dubsmash to TikTok, I position TikTok—and Dubsmash—as a performance space in which a native digital theatre emerges. Central to this cultural work are dance crazes, which have largely been made possible by the contributions of Black teenagers and young twenty-something-year-olds. In the last two years alone, we have seen countless examples of how mainstream TikTok culture is Black culture that is then appropriated, mimicked, and, oftentimes, watered down. Take, for instance, the controversy over the Renegade Dance Challenge in January 2020. The dance was created by then fourteen-year-old Black teen Jalaiah Harmon, but became synonymous with white teen Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most-followed creator. As D’Amelio repeatedly performed the dance, she became wrongly credited as its creator and gained credibility and a following in the process. In this case, Black aesthetics and performance became the mainstream on TikTok and other social media dance apps. That is, even as white and non-Black TikTokers hit dance challenges created by the likes of Jalaiah Harmon, they inevitably engage with Black culture and Black performance. The case of the Renegade Dance Challenge conveys how TikTok is a viable performance space and digital stage. Dances and trends that begin on TikTok spill offline, becoming part of analog culture. This is precisely why you can walk into a high school dance or a club, hear Cardi B’s “Up” and see people of all types performing the corresponding viral dance trend, which became the de facto official choreography. In these instances, we perform TikTokness even when we aren’t on TikTok’s stage.
While TikTok is a stage in its own right, it is also affecting other stages, some more traditional than others. Take, for example, the aforementioned Circle Jerk, which debuted in fall 2020. The production, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, was written by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, directed by Rory Pelsue, and featured dramaturgy from Cat Rodríguez and Ariel Sibert. Contrary to most pre-recorded digital theatre during the Covid-era, Circle Jerk featured a live performance each night during its run. Much like Fake Friends’ This American Wife (2021), Circle Jerk itself defied the logistics and boundaries of digital theatre. As audiences watched the performance, we caught a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how the production was made. While this consisted of backstage views of quick-changes, it also encompassed audiences witnessing how Fake Friends made TikToks and, in turn, made TikToks into theatre. As such, the performance was as much about its story as it was about TikTok’s relevance in internet culture (and, by extension, theatre). TikTok aesthetics informed Circle Jerk as it delved into the relentless internet meme culture that has come to define Millennial and Gen Z experiences. As Circle Jerk erupted into its infamous meme ballet, the more we associated with the piece, the more we recognized, the more implicated we became. Where does TikTok end and where does digital theatre begin? Or, are they one in the same? Does a distinction even matter?
Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical
The most explicit crossover between TikTok and theatre has been Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical. Bolstered by a wave of crowd-sourced TikTok creations plus Disney’s stamp of approval, Ratatouille debuted on January 1, 2021, making over $2 million for the Actors Fund in the process. Notably, the experiment began when teacher Emily Jacobsen uploaded a TikTok of her singing “Ode to Remy.” Composer Daniel Mertzlufft then scored the tune, adding text to his video that spoke to how spectacular the number would be on stage (i.e., Remy on a lift flying over the audience). Soon, TikTok was filled with musical theatre artists and fans adding to the Ratatouille TikTok universe. Within a few months, hundreds of thousands of audience members were watching Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical, which has captured the attention of not only the theatre industry, but also mainstream US media, as well. Although the production left the TikTok platform, the finished result had a distinctly TikTokian flare. Under the direction of Lucy Moss and with a book by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley, the production leaned into TikTok aesthetics, messiness, choreography, and meme culture. Ratatouille’s success revealed how TikTok can be a site to expand analog and digital theatre aesthetics while also being a space to develop new theatre. Although musicals have been the most attention-grabbing with Bridgerton: The Musical, Grocery Store: A New Musical, The Lorax, and Up: The Musical, TikTok remains a playground for theatre writers across the board.
TikTok and Theatre
When TikTok became available in the United States in 2018, it was largely the digital land of teenagers and other members of Generation Z. Many adults disregarded the platform altogether, something that quickly shifted in March 2020 as the majority of the United States began a long period of self-isolation at home. At this moment, we collectively turned to TikTok to pass the time and find community. Writing nearly 18 months later, it’s hard to imagine a world in which TikTok isn’t a cultural force. Actors have taken to TikTok to build followings and reveal their “backstage” lives. Dancers flock to the platform to engage with TikTok’s dance challenge culture. Set designers use TikTok to display and archive scenic models. Composers showcase new music on TikTok. And, of course, theatre fans perform their fandoms on TikTok. The examples are endless. As Tiktok, and digital cultures in general, become more embedded into our everyday culture, its reach into our live theatre and performance spaces is not just inevitable, it’s the present.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.