Tony Braithwaite teaching at his alma mater, St. Joe’s Prep//Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
On a warm September afternoon, in the compact auditorium at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, two rows of neatly dressed boys have fixed their gaze on the school’s director of dramatics. Tony Braithwaite is comfortable commanding an audience, howevermsmall—and this one will soon have an audience of its own.
From center stage to behind the curtain, Braithwaite relishes the back and forth. It’s what puts him among the area’s most versatile thespians. He spends his days at St. Joe’s and his evenings at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, where he’s a playwright and the artistic director.
His hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Braithwaite has won three Barrymore Awards, and he’s been nominated 13 times. For the St. Joe’s alum who was raised in Bala Cynwyd, it all circles back to his days as a student and his family’s early tutelage. “Theater was always around our house,” says Braithwaite, whose parents took him and his siblings to performances in New York and Philadelphia on a regular basis. “We played show tunes every night at dinner. My parents would have big parties, and my father would put on A Chorus Line and make everybody get up and dance.”
Braithwaite’s theater training began at age 14, but it wasn’t until his junior year in high school that things really clicked. He landed the lead of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role that’s stuck with him for a number of reasons. Many years earlier, his mother worked at a store across from the theater that mounted the show before it went to Broadway. She’d just seen it when Rex Harrison, the lead, came into her shop. “[He bought] a little card with two mice dancing,” says Braithwaite, whose mother purchased that same card and had Harrison sign it. “When I first played Henry Higgins, she gave it to me on opening night.”
Braithwaite also has a personal connection to Higgins. “The character is a consummate bachelor and probably too quick for his own good,” he says, grinning at the thought of how that might mirror his own life. “He says a line that I’ve never not related to: ‘Happy is the man whose profession is also his hobby.’”
Acting took Braithwaite to Hollywood briefly, but he eventually found his way back to St. Joe’s Prep as a sex-education teacher. “Teaching sex education to 14-year-old boys for 12 years was the greatest thing I ever could’ve done for my improvisational skills,” he says, laughing. “I’ve never been kept on my feet more by any audience.”
The experience moved his career forward in unexpected ways, inspiring him to pen the autobiographical show, Didn’t Your Father Have This Talk With You?, which he’s performed at Act II. “I’d been subconsciously writing it for 12 years,” he says.
While he enjoyed teaching, it was the school’s drama department that he loved most. These days, Braithwaite is succeeding where other school arts programs are flailing. His is one of the most popular clubs at St. Joe’s—17 percent of the student body is involved in some capacity. He’s even been asked by Mayor Jim Kenney to add a high school component to Philadelphia’s outdoor summer theater series. Earlier this year, Kenney—a St. Joe’s Prep alum—made an appearance at one of the school’s plays, performing a small role. “It was overwhelming when he was here—in the best of ways,” recalls Braithwaite.
It’s a far cry from where the St. Joe’s theater program was headed decades ago. “Back then, no one auditioned for our shows,” says Michael Zabel, a lawyer and one of Braithwaite’s first drama students, who now serves as an assistant director. “There were small audiences, and it was perceived as something a nerdy group of kids did. He really changed that.”
“I’ve seen him with these kids and how he impacts their lives,” adds Bill Avington, a St. Joe’s graduate and the school’s director of communications. “He’s not just a guy trying to teach them how to do the best vocals or dance. It’s so much more than that for him.” Braithwaite’s approach to theater is unique. “I’m a populist,” he says. “I see theater as entertainment. I don’t see it as always needing to be important and enlightening.”
Braithwaite is distinguished by a finely tuned sense of humor—something he tries to bring to every show. As a result, Act II has seen a substantial increase in attendance over the past four years. “The community is really drawn to him,” says Act II managing director Eileen Cella. “One of the great joys is watching the effect of that humor.”
Cella knows as well as anyone, having performed for Braithwaite at St. Joe’s, which sources female roles from area schools, including her alma mater, the Agnes Irwin School. The pair also found common ground when Cella once played Eliza Doolittle to Braithwaite’s Henry Higgins. “He has absolutely provided a renaissance for this theater,” she says, adding, “He’s great at impressions.”
More than anything, Braithwaite has capitalized on the natural connections between disciplines, always seeming to bring things full circle. “Being on stage, being in the classroom, directing—it all feels like it comes from the same place,” he says.