Years of working to perfect his craft and to forge connections have finally paid off for one Wylie East grad.
Tanner Smithson, a 2015 graduate of Wylie East High School and current senior at the University of North Texas, earned a job as an intern on Broadway. His duties began in early February and continue through March.
“I have been fortunate enough to land some really stellar opportunities during my undergraduate, including some really phenomenal internships,” he said. “Sometimes, however, a resume and gratuitous recommendation letters are simply not enough. This is where ‘who you know’ can absolutely make or break a young professional. Fortunately enough, I have managed to make a good impression on some of my faculty mentors who have very substantial connections.”
Smithson works at the Belasco Theatre as assistant to the theater manager. His duties include shadowing professionals, meeting with various department heads and helping run seven performances each week of Lee Hall’s “Network.” The show tells the story of Howard Beale, an anchorman who causes ratings to soar when he begins ranting on live television.
The Belasco is part of The Shubert Organization, Broadway’s largest theater owner, which gives him plenty of opportunities to gain in-depth training.
Part of this training involves adjusting to the world of Broadway, both physically and intellectually. He explained that it’s completely unlike theatre anywhere else. His most immediate concern upon arrival was to master the rules, expectations and vernacular of Broadway, as well as the subway.
A few weeks into his internship now, Smithson is well versed in the demands of working in New York. The fast-paced environment makes constructive criticism both necessary and impersonal. The individuals, though, intrigue him the most.
“Broadway (and really theater in general) is home to so many wonderful, vibrant people,” he said. “People of all varieties of tastes, beliefs, backgrounds and ages band together to put up shows for the American public. They work very hard under seemingly impossible circumstances and they do it with ease and humor. Obviously this is a ‘broad strokes’ portrait of the Broadway employee, but I have found (at least so far) that everyone has been very quick to help me, teach me, humor me and listen to me.”
He added that he admires the grace, humility and wisdom of the actors and managers. Working behind the scenes of “Network” means spending much of his time with the crew, but also interacting with the onstage performers. Smithson is particularly impressed with stars Bryan Cranston and Tony Goldwyn (of “Breaking Bad” and “Scandal” respectively), as well as his supervisor.
In fact, his coworkers are what solidified his career choice.
“Directing really stole my heart during undergraduate,” he said. “I loved getting people together to study a work and then collaborate on how to bring it to life. It is, in my mind at least, the act of creation that has the power to change the world. By moving into administration/management/producing, I have taken this love to a new plane. Now I get to collaborate with directors, designers, managers, theater owners, producers, front of house staff, actors, musicians, marketing specialists and patrons to bring quality and life-changing art to life!”
Smithson wants to move people through the power of art. Drama, in his view, connects the past with the present, healing old wounds and reminding audiences of their humanity.
He finds inspiration in most shows he sees, and the most recent one to impact him was Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance” at the National Theatre in London.
As for shows he has done himself, his favorites are Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” at the Dallas Theater Center, and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s “James and the Giant Peach” at Barrington Stage Company’s Youth Theatre. He was assistant director of “Sweat” and line producer of “James and the Giant Peach.”
His time in theatre, both onstage and offstage, gave him a long-sought sense of belonging.
“I remember as a young child the feeling of walking into church; the vast and cavernous space seemed to warm and fill with magnetic energy as worshippers gathered in droves to listen to the Sunday sermon,” Smithson said. “It felt safe. It felt inviting. It felt like home. At some point, church stopped being that for me. In its stead I found solace in the theatre – a vast and cavernous space, safe for exploration and truth telling. The theater was for me, as it has been for many others, a place where I first learned to question, to trust, to speak up and to feel.”
Upon his internship’s conclusion, Smithson will return to UNT. While preparing for graduation – in May he will receive a bachelor’s in theatre, with honors – he will also work in Dallas Theater Center’s Artistic Producing Department.
However, New York has always been his goal. He plans to move there once he obtains his degree and intends to focus on theater operations, theater management, directing or producing.
As he begins his career, he’s reminded of his Wylie roots at his alma mater. In high school he spent four years in advanced theatre.
“Wylie East and its amazing array of educators began shaping me into the professional I am striving to become,” he said. “I say that because it is a journey: every day my idea changes of who I want to be, why, and how, but many of those thoughts first manifested in the halls of that school. Wylie East was technically where I produced for the first time. The ‘Big Man On Campus’ event was a feat to create and implement and I could have never done it without the help of administration, faculty, staff and some very talented peers. Wylie East was a great place to flex my creative muscles and test my leadership skills.”
Visitors to New York can see Smithson’s work in action by attending “Network,” which runs until April 28.
By Morgan Howard • [email protected]