“Change IS nature, Dad.” - Remy the Rat, “Ratatouille”

Soliciting and maintaining relationships with donors is a challenge all arts organizations face. Personal connections are stressed for development officers as a crucial part of relating to donors, but in the era of COVID-19 where people are encouraged to stay at home, the ways people are choosing to connect is changing not just in how they consume art and culture in their daily life, but in how they give back to the arts. A face to face meeting isn’t a safe or viable way to connect and foster relationships, so organizations need to think outside the box to reimagine how to tell their stories.

The online platform TikTok, which allows users to create and upload their own short personalized videos, is a huge producer of viral trends. One of these trends began in the summer of 2020 — the user Em Jaccs uploaded a TikTok singing their own original lyrics to an imaginary musical about Remy, the rat who could cook fine French cuisine in the Disney Pixar filmRatatouille.” The TikTok video became a viral sensation — with hundreds of other TikTok users adding additional lyrics, creating new songs for other characters, adding in fleshed out instrumental scores, and choreographing dances.

Seizing on the momentum of the viral sensation, Seaview Productions, a company responsible for producing such Broadway productions as “Slave Play” and “Seawall / A Life,” partnered with the TikTok creators to create a one night only musical event that would be used as a fundraiser for The Actors Fund, which was founded in 1882 and “provides a safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals over their lifespan" and is a major supporter of out-of-work Broadway performers. The musical would debut on Jan. 1, 2021 and be available for 72 hours. Ticket pricing was flexible — it was a “pay what you could afford” model with all proceeds going to the Actors Fund, and the TikTok creators who were involved were financially compensated. There was a small orchestra who played masked and distanced in a recording studio.  There were big name Broadway stars who signed on, including Titus Burgess, Andre De Shields, Andrew Barth Feldman, Priscilla Lopez, and Wayne Brady, who filmed their performances at their own locations, adding in their own simple costumes and props.

Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical was a hit - over two million dollars was raised for the Actors Fund.

An unlikely combination of elements came together to allow “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” to turn into a production and fundraising success. But it wasn’t random - the original TikTok was a great story that people connected with and shared, and it developed an audience, which allowed more people to connect and share. There is an appetite for stories that connect us, and TikTok capitalizes on trends that people can copy and interact with. Seaview Productions and the Actors Fund brought the product directly into people’s homes while allowing the majority of the cast and crew to work safely and remotely.  And it introduced a new group of donors to the Actors Fund. People using TikTok as their primary platform for a creative outlet were able to see their work on a larger scale. This TikTok musical had the feel of a gala with a fraction of the cost — a special event that touted a premium, limited-time experience created by everyday people.

But is “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” something that can realistically be replicated?

The “Ratatouille” phenomenon shows us the success of this effort is something that could be replicated by performing arts companies moving forward. There is a wealth of content in the world, and viral sensations often intersect with the arts through dance and music. Making the leap to a large-scale fundraiser — such as a full-scale produced musical – may not be the right fit for every performing arts group. The involvement of a savvy behind-the-scenes team was an integral component to the “Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical” success - Seaview Productions is a company that, in its own words, “ferociously committed to disrupting industry standards by taking a radical approach to what we make and how we make it” and so were poised to think outside the box to produce this first of its kind fundraiser.

So, what is the best way for companies to use TikTok for fundraising?

Flexibility is an important part of interacting and engaging with viral trends on TikTok — finding particular trends that resonate with their company and their mission, and knowing when a trend can be capitalized on. Since there has been a substantial increase in the technology available and accessible to people at home – including better cameras and microphones that capture high quality recordings without the same expense as being in a theatre, recording from home becomes a viable option for a wider range of artists. TikTok provides opportunities for performing arts organizations to find new creators and unleash the creativity of their own performers. This could be used for targeted and small-scale fundraising — creating posts on TikTok promoting a company’s future work and directing people to their giving page. TikTok has created a level of access to content that could be used for fundraising — special performances, acoustic sessions, monologues. Since TikTok is user friendly and allows people to react to content with their own responses, the possibilities are only limited by the creativity of your organization.

TikTok is one of many social media tools that companies could be using to find new and engaging ways of connecting with their audience, and is uniquely suited for use in the performing arts field because of its popularity and interactive features. As social media makes more of an impact on our day to day lives, arts organizations can capitalize quickly on trends by reacting to those bursts of creativity and act quickly before trends fade away.  As Auguste Gusteau said in “Ratatouille,” “You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true—anyone can cook... but only the fearless can be great.”

Laine Goerner is the Production Coordinator at the Moss Arts Center and is working towards a graduate certificate in arts leadership.