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Theater students use TikTok as outlet for expression, creativity

Second-year theater student Ana Nguyen uses TikTok to create content that connects them with their followers, their art form and themselves. Through the app, they have found a newfound sense of confidence in their expression and love for acting. (Katie Frei/Daily Bruin)

By Kari Lau

April 28, 2021 6:17 p.m.

Quarantine set a new stage for two UCLA Theater, Film and Television students – TikTok.

Equipped with spare time during the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTokers and second-year theater students Ana Nguyen and Andrew Luff found a virtual audience of millions through acting and being themselves. In the process, Luff said he has gained an increased passion for the arts and opened the curtains for self expression. Through the app, Nguyen said they have transformed their timid personality from high school to become more comfortable expressing themself.

“I feel a lot more bold in how I present myself, how I speak and how I perform as well,” Nguyen said. “It’s like a newfound confidence.”

[Related: Student’s TikTok feed shares snapshot of daily life at UCLA during pandemic]

Satirizing male anime characters gave Nguyen freedom in their acting performance, instilling confidence in their artistry and gender expression, they said. Under the username @stringofallmightshair, Nguyen typically cosplays as male characters from “My Hero Academia,” an anime and manga series that follows a boy’s pursuit to become a hero through attending a high school dedicated to training supernatural heroes.

Among their more than 500,000 followers, Nguyen is best known for dressing up as two characters from the show: Shota Aizawa, a moody high school teacher, and most recently as Keigo Takami, or “Hawks,” a superhero. With videos featuring these characters, Nguyen has amassed over 25 million likes across their content.

Although most cosplayers invest a lot of money to immerse themselves into a character, Nguyen said they minimally resemble the character they cosplay as, and they add a personal twist to the persona. To dress as Hawks, Nguyen sticks small paper wings on their back to replicate the character’s large red wings. Nguyen also pretends that Hawks became a parent of an egg that they named “Eggstasy,” which is now the center of Nguyen’s ongoing TikTok series that has helped popularize their account.

Prior to TikTok, Nguyen solely focused on dramatic acting and never considered themself to be a comedian. But through reading receptive comments to their posts, Nguyen said they found the confidence to freely explore their acting style, art and gender fluidity. Nguyen added they wrote more poetry and plays because of their increased self-esteem, and they hope to create music in the future.

“I get comments all the time and they’re like ‘Wait, you’re really funny,'” Nguyen said. “I was like ‘Wow, nobody’s ever validated my ideas before. I didn’t know that I had anything to offer to the world.'”

Nguyen identifies as gender fluid and goes by any pronouns. In the process of cosplaying as male anime characters, Nguyen said they feel increasingly comfortable expressing themselves as masculine. In the past, Nguyen said their facial hair was a point of insecurity, but after cosplaying as Aizawa, who has a beard, they have learned to embrace their masculinity and are now considering growing out their facial hair.

Nguyen’s growth has not gone unnoticed, especially by their friend Sheyenne Perez. TikTok was at first just a fun hobby for Nguyen, but Perez said as Nguyen received more traction in their following, they became even more self-assured.

“I’m starting to see that people really see her, and she feels that,” Perez said. “She is beautiful the way she is, and she knows that now.”

Nguyen is not the only TFT student who found their spotlight on TikTok. Luff reaffirmed his love for acting through his account @and.luff. On his platform of more than 200,000 followers, Luff shares acting videos like point of view TikToks or more recently, humorous posts about his personal life. However, Luff plans on returning to acting because he says it gives him the most satisfaction. From pretending to live in a world where people can see the likelihood of being soulmates to acting as a celebrity confronting an ex, Luff said he established himself on the app through his ability to immerse himself in various scenarios.

[Related: Student releases studio single following success of musical content on TikTok]

Over quarantine, Luff said many students within the TFT department transferred to another university or dropped the major because they either lost passion for their respective art or they felt that an online education was insufficient. However, for Luff, performing on the video app only confirmed his love for acting.

To adapt his acting for TikTok, Luff said he pitched down his emotions to avoid seeming like he was trying too hard and became cognizant of angles. On the app, he said there is a balance between the need to look good on camera and the technical, artistic element of acting.

“I wasn’t used to looking at angles and being able to self-reflect on like ‘Oh, do I look good’ because there is that vanity when you post on social media,” Luff said. “It’s very difficult to separate that sense of vanity where you want to look good in addition to whatever your message behind what your posting is.”

Beyond increasing his passion for acting, Luff said he learned to freely express his personal style – even wearing a pearl necklace that he would have never donned prior to TikTok. Luff found the confidence to wear what he wanted after realizing his followers on the app didn’t care about how he presented himself and that his self- expression was rewarded on the platform. Like Nguyen, Luff said he feels more self-assured in his identity – from his appearance to his voice – because of TikTok.

“I used to be so bad with looking at pictures or videos or hearing my voice too,” Luff said. “Doing it on TikTok, I’m a lot more comfortable with me – both being me, seeing me and expressing me.”

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Kari Lau | Assistant News editor
Lau is the 2020-2021 Assistant News Editor for the features and student life beat. She was previously a contributor for the campus politics beat. She is also a second-year student from Honolulu, Hawaii.
Lau is the 2020-2021 Assistant News Editor for the features and student life beat. She was previously a contributor for the campus politics beat. She is also a second-year student from Honolulu, Hawaii.
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