A ha-ha-holiday special with Columbia alum Tyler Anthony Smith

By Paige Barnes, Audience Engagement Editor

Lucas Martinez

From placing a blanket on his head as a child and pretending to be Ariel from “The Little Mermaid,” to now putting a wig on to play Bernadette Peters in “The Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special,” 2017 acting alum Tyler Anthony Smith said people deserve some relief from the stress of the world.

Smith said he went with the “logical” career choice after high school and began studying at Point Park University in Pennsylvania. He initially wanted to study performing arts in college but said he was ill-prepared and defaulted to pursuing an English teaching degree.

After one week, he dropped out to join the Smithfield Street Theatre, where he stayed for two years.

“I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, where [acting is] not really something you consider yourself doing long term,” Smith said. “It’s something you do as an extracurricular activity and then you go and you become an English teacher, but that was never gonna cut it for me.”

Smith then attended Columbia to formally study performing arts in 2013. He said coming in as an older student, he was more “hyperaware” of how much he wanted to perform and what it took to succeed.

The college prepared him well to have his hands “in all of the pots” from writing, acting and creatively producing shows, he said. Smith said one’s talent only takes them so far, so using connections provided by Columbia helped him succeed in finding outside performing opportunities.

After graduating from Columbia, Smith was a receptionist at an eye-care clinic during the day and an actor by night, he said.

However, Smith never stopped auditioning and touring to perform in shows when he could.

Timing aligned for him when he auditioned for Hell in a Handbag Productions’ “The Drag Seed,” a parody of “The Bad Seed,” in May 2019.

Now an artistic associate for the theatre company, Smith said the opportunity to play the role of Peters was a no-brainer.

“I had wanted to work with them for a very long time and camp is something that I’ve always been drawn to in terms of theatre,” he said. “Finally the opportunity presented itself and I went in for that. Ever since then, it was just like lightning in a bottle.”

Smith said he admires Peters’ “freedom” in her performances and grew up watching her character in the movie, “Annie.”

His costume as Peters is head-to-toe glamour with a long curly strawberry blonde wig, a gold sequined evening dress and loads of makeup.

“My first year that I was [at Columbia], I did a production of ‘Mary Stuart’ and I had so much makeup caked on my face, I think it’s still coming out of some pores,” Smith said. “It’s just fun to just put so much makeup on your face and then be someone else.”

Because the show is taking place during the pandemic, all filming was done over a two-and-a-half week span and will be viewable virtually through Jan. 8.

David Cerda, co-founder and artistic director of HIAH Productions, said they filmed in a large warehouse, limited filming to five or six actors at a time and required temperature checks before entering the warehouse.

Additionally, the actors were filmed on a green screen to make it appear like they were in the same room if there was a scene that required more than two actors.

“With the magic of green screen and special effects, [it] looks like we’re together,” Cerda said. “It was the best we could do with what we had.”

It was a new idea that came with a learning curve, he said, but the company learned a lot.

Cerda said Smith fits in with the company because he thrives among “all things absurd” and took on his role as Peters as his own.

“He’s one of those people I can kind of depend on to deliver and he knows his stuff,” Cerda said. “The subjects in his writing and his performances are just really off the beam, which I really love and encourage.”

“The Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special” is streaming through Jan. 8, 2021, Thursdays through Sundays via Vimeo. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $15 for students with the code, “students.”

HIAH’s next production, “Out, Darn Spot!” is written and performed by Smith.