Text, Truth, and TikTok
Let me be clear, right from the start.
This week, I have been consumed by the dramaturgical practices of TikTok.
This is the manifestation of that consumption.
Many of us are working from home, which can be tricky when your job is to create engaging performances. To stay productive and sane, some actors- famous or otherwise- have turned to the internet to spread their work to a digital audience. Some may choose to do this in the form of a self-tape. Self-tapes consist of an actor performing and filming a monologue by themselves to be distributed to directors, producers, or whoever else wants to see it. Most of the self-tapes I have seen online are not for a specific audition or role, but instead consist of someone in their bedroom using their phone to film themselves doing a scene from a movie or TV show they like.
I don’t have an issue with people spending their time doing this. Performers can gain experience and have fun recreating short scenes or monologues from works that they like. It’s something fun and productive to do, and during times of crisis we need activities like this to keep us motivated.
Here’s my problem- I don’t think people enjoy watching them.
I like seeing that people are doing them, but unless the actor in the video is a friend of mine or Ian McKellen, I don’t watch them. I personally don’t go scrolling through Facebook looking for good dramatic performances. But at least my circle of online activity is dominated by the performing arts, and many of the videos I see are posted by people who have a background in live performance. There’s a world of content removed from this background, where acting is not based in an artistic process, but instead is closer to copying or performative fanfiction.
That world is called TikTok.
I have finally been forced to reckon with this social media platform. I have had to confront the strange videos that have seeped into my feeds. Children and teenagers reenacting TV shows. Young adults giving overly dramatic monologues in their childhood bedrooms. Not good, but so mesmerising I could ignore it no longer.
If you've seen videos like these, you understand that they are akin to a performative car crash- you simply can't look away.
But, because I don’t understand TikTok, I asked my brother about all this ‘acting’ . He confirmed my suspicions that users who watch acting Tik Toks are not looking for internet thespians to entertain them. From his experience, the people creating these videos are either very young- children and teenagers whose whole internet life will one day bring them great shame and regret- or adult influencers trying to engage with these kids. To quote my brother directly-
“…Why, children? Why are you doing this?… I think that acting Tik Toks are the cringiest f*cking thing”.
Is that the standard reaction to videos like this?
When you watch them, you might laugh; but it’s at the expense of the performer. These videos are annoying and embarrassing, right? Maybe even the cringiest f*cking thing.
I think this reaction is based in a lot of cultural influences- the embarrassing nature of puberty, the cringing horror we feel when someone is convinced they look cool when they definitely don't, and so on. But I think it actually has more to do with dramaturgy than most people would understand.
We will now be stepping very briefly into some critical theory. This has been your warning.
One of the first major problems dramaturgs and theatre makers can encounter is one of logos.
This is a Greek word that translates to ‘word of god.’ Logos shows up quite a bit in critical theory, but today I want to introduce you to logocentrism. This is essentially the idea that the language of a drama is where the truth of a drama is located. If you’re asking yourself a thousand questions- like, what is truth? where is truth? or what is language?- then welcome to the world of hardcore dramaturgy.
Language here can mean a few things, but let’s look at it as it pertains to the words written by a playwright and then spoken by actors. Western culture has been dominated by the idea that text- playscripts, novels, and other words on papers- are the most important form of artistic expression. The stories that are conveyed in writing were not always the most important, considering that human beings evolved from cultural traditions that privileged other artforms like dance and painting. But ever since the printing press meant books could be more widely published, the written word has dominated our culture. And right here alongside books was theatre, with its written dramas that attempted to follow arbitrary theatrical rules- rules regulating characters, settings, and plots. In these dramas, the words of these playwrights- the logos- is then performed precisely by actors. Actors may add their own inflections and gestures, but the words they speak- the logos- remains the same across all performances.
Still with me?
Some of you might feel confronted by this idea that written texts are the most important and special cultural artefacts we have. If you are, you are in good company. More contemporary understandings of dramaturgy, including the ones I subscribe to, posit that meaning and integrity in a work aren’t confined to the words of a drama. What about a play with no characters or plot? What about abstract movement pieces? For theatre, logocentrism presents a problem- is theatre best understood when it is a written text that is performed, or as a live performance experience?
Again, this is a simplification- there are lots of decades worth of books on critical theory to read if you want a full account of the history of Western dramaturgy. The major point to understand is that logocentrism apparently has the answer to my rhetorical question.
Question: Is theatre best understood when it is a written text that is performed, or as a live performance experience?
Logocentrism: The first one. Written text all the way.
Which brings us back to TikTok.
Let say you watch a video (on your social media platform of choice) of a young woman reciting a few lines from 13 Reasons Why. Let’s unpack the layers that have accumulated up to this point.
1. Performer ‘acts’ in a 1-minute long video using audio and lines of dialogue from 13 Reasons Why.
2. 13 Reasons Why is a 2017 web series developed by writer Brian Yorkey and distributed by Paramount Television and Netflix. The scripts are based on a book by Jay Asher.
3. Thirteen Reasons Why is a 2007 novel written by Jay Asher and published by Penguin Books.
4. Jay Asher had a family member experience suicide, and was inspired to write a novel based off this experience.
These are the layers of development that produced this self-take or TikTok. The central essence of 13 Reasons Why has undergone at least three transformations to get from a real-life inspiring moment to a 1-minute long video. The root of some of that cultural frustration is uncovered when you try to establish the logos of this situation.
What is the text of a 13 Reasons Why TikTok?
The obvious answer is the web series. That is what is being recreated, after all. Or, is it maybe Katherine Longford’s performance of the script of the web series? The TikTok kid is trying to act like her, after all. Or, is it maybe the book the show is based off? Lines and themes from the book are inevitably recreated in the show, after all. But what about the real-life story? Is that ‘text’? It’s not written word, but it was surely a moment that was in some part comprised by words. And that is the origin of the story, after all.
The process of establishing logos is deceptively simple. But to audiences who are used to text being widely regarded as the original and most authentic version of a story or moment, it can be really important in shaping the meaning of that story or moment.
To me, these self-takes are almost like a frustrating additional layer on an already unstable cultural strata, but it’s a layer that, by its removal, complicates the entire structure. To dismiss these videos on principal is to take a stance. It is saying that TikTok is not valid as an expression of a text. This is a fair position to take, but taking any position automatically demands some defence of that position. And that can be frustrating.
As I manically decided to write an entire blog post about TikTok, I discussed the idea with my partner. He’s an actor, and his experiences with the layers of logos reveal how this way of looking at text and theatre can be frustrating for performers too.
A few years ago, he performed in a production of Grease as Danny Zuko. As with any Zuko, the question of voice came up. Would he do an impression of John Travolta’s iconic performance of the character? The accent of a character in a drama is dependent on where that character is from and where a narrative is set, which means that the text of Grease should reveal the truth. But what is the text of Grease? Is it the 1978 film, set in California? Or is it the 1971 stage show, set in Chicago? John Travolta’s accent doesn’t make sense in either setting. What is an actor to do? The audience may expect a Travolta impression. Does that expectation usurp the authority of the text? It was frustrating for my partner, because there is no correct answer.
Ultimately, logocentrism has fallen out of fashion, and audiences are probably not concerned with where the text is and how it related to the meaning of a TV show or movie. But there is still that vague shadow of logos in our culture, where text is considered pretty important in how we interpret a dramatic work.
So don’t be mad at the 16-year-old kid making TikToks in his bedroom. Don’t even be made at the uni student filming awkward self-takes in her bedroom. Be mad at the cultural expectation of logocentric drama that have forced you to think about the implications of textual meaning and artistic hierarchy as you scroll mindlessly through a pandemic.
I know I am.
What do you think? Does text effect your viewing or reading experience? Leave your musings in the comments!
Cowan, J 2018, 'Every L.A. filming location from Grease, 40 years later', L.A. Magazine, June 15, viewed 8 June 2020, <https://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/grease-movie-locations-los-angeles/>.
Harrison, M 2020, Logocentrism, The Chicago School of Media Theory, viewed 8 June 2020, <https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/mediatheory/keywords/logocentrism/>.
Lehmann, H 2006, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. K Jürs-Munby, Routledge,Abingdon.
Penguin/Random House 2017, 'Jay Asher tells why the Thirteen Reasons Why anniversary edition contains the book’s original ending', Penguin Teen, viewed 8 June 2020, <http://www.penguinteen.com/thirteen-reasons-why-anniversary/>.
Clapperboard image © Shutterstock
TikTok still © CNBC