Tony Braithwaite will become producing artistic director at Ambler’s Act II Playhouse’s starting July 1. (Photo by John Flak)

by Clark Groome

When Tony Braithwaite was a student at Washington’s Georgetown University one of his classmates was Breck Eisner, Disney chief Michael Eisner’s oldest son. Michael came to see a Georgetown production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” that Breck directed and in which Braithwaite played Octavius Caesar.

Braithwaite, one of Philadelphia’s most talented and in demand actors who July 1 becomes Act II Playhouse’s producing artistic director, had no idea, as a junior in college, just what he was going to do with his life. He was a religion major who had always loved performing, something he started formally at St. Joseph’s Prep, from which he graduated in 1989.

After his performance in “Antony,” Eisner sent word through his son that if Braithwaite would come to Los Angeles after graduation, he would help him get started. So that’s what Braithwaite did.

He spent a year on the West Coast, and even though he got a lot of initial help from Eisner, “never landed anything,” he said in a recent interview at Act II’s Ambler home.

A year to the day after he moved to L.A., he returned to Philadelphia to help his parents move. He had been miserable in L.A. When he had the opportunity to teach religion and sex education part-time to freshmen at the Prep, he took it, beginning in the fall of 1994. “I always joked that they hired a stand-up comic from Los Angeles to teach sex-ed to freshmen.”

Part time became full time, and ultimately he got involved with the school’s drama group, the Cape and Sword, where he had performed as a student.

His first starring role as a student at St. Joe’s was as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” a show and role that would mark other critical times in his life.

During that first year teaching, “Two flukie things happened,” he said. They were doing, you guessed it, “My Fair Lady,” at the Twelve Caesars dinner theater on City Line Ave. He auditioned. “I was 23. I looked five. I thought that there was no way in hell I’m gonna get Henry Higgins, but I got it.”

During his six-month run as Higgins, he met someone who knew someone at the Arden Theatre. “Things started spiraling in Philadelphia Theater.”

His first role at Arden was as Bernard, a small role in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” He garnered terrific reviews, and kept performing while maintaining a full time teaching load at St. Joe’s.

“I balanced my time between teaching and acting. I had a very busy schedule, but I was young and had all the energy in the world.”

Several years later he began to believe that he should pursue performing full time. So when he was required to take some courses for a master’s degree, he took them but cut back on his teaching while becoming one of the area’s busiest local actors.

He performed at Arden, 1812 Productions, the Montgomery Theatre, People’s Light and Theatre, the Philadelphia Theatre Company and Act II. He also did stand-up comedy and served four times as host of the local theater community’s Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre.

Along the way he won three Barrymores – as leading actor in a musical for Act II’s “The Big Bang,” and as part of the ensemble for Arden’s “Baby Case” and Act II’s “The Story of My Life.” He was also nominated nine other times for his performances and, in 2006, as a finalist for the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist.

As his performing career continued to grow, he spent a lot of time performing at Act II. Some of the time he was in their regular season shows. At others he brought in his own creations: “Here’s Tony” and “Look Mom, I’m Swell!”

His time at Act II made him, in producing artistic director Frank “Bud” Martin’s words, “the darling of our audiences.”

Martin – after four years volunteering at Act II and using his business background, producing experience and financial acumen to the institution – decided that the theatre needed a full time leader who was familiar to the theater’s constituents and well known in the area.

When Martin assumed Act II’s reins in 2008 the theater was facing some tough financial challenges. Those have since been overcome, allowing Martin to step back from overall management – he’ll still remain on the board as treasurer – and turn over the leadership to Braithwaite.

When first approached about being an artistic associate a year or so ago, Braithwaite turned it down. As the last 12 months unfolded, the theater’s financial position continued to improve, and Howie Brown, whom Braithwaite taught at St. Joe’s Prep, was hired as managing director.

When the offer to be producing artistic director was made earlier this year, Braithwaite accepted.

“It wasn’t something that I had envisioned early on, [but] it seemed like a natural fit. Given what Bud was saying [and] given the way the audiences tend to be loyal here, [I accepted]. I had become, through good fortune,“ Braithwaite says, “the face of the theater. It seemed like a natural extension of that.”

While he is best known as a performer, he notes that “some of the skill set involved – budget stuff, casting, selecting a season, royalties, networking – was a lot of the stuff I’d done, arguably on a smaller scale, at St. Joe’s. So it wasn’t completely out of my wheelhouse.”

In addition to planning the four-play seasons and engaging the special events that use the theater, he will try to engage members of the community and local businesses to become involved with Act II and to give their time, talent and treasure to the Playhouse.

Braithwaite, 40, lives in Rosemont and plans to involve many of the people with whom he has worked as actors and directors in Act II’s future shows. Bud Martin and outgoing associate artistic director Harriet Power will both continue to direct in Ambler.

In addition, he says, “I am hoping to inaugurate, as soon as next year, theater specifically for kids.”

While his new duties will require that he reduce his time as a performer, he will be still act in Act II shows where appropriate and occasionally take an outside gig when it doesn’t interfere with what’s going on at the Playhouse. He will also continue to direct St. Joe’s Cape and Sword Drama Society.

His latest role on stage – here we go again – is as Henry Higgins in Act II’s recent production of “My Fair Lady.” He notes that some of the costumes he wore in that production are the same ones he wore at the Prep in 1986.

To sum up his enthusiasm about his new assignment, Braithwaite says, “There is a Higgins quote that I have always loved since I was a kid. ‘Happy is the man whose profession is also his hobby.’ I suspect that I will be saying that line, as a very happy man, long after Act II’s ‘My Fair Lady’ closes.”

For information about Act II Playhouse and its 2012-2013 season call 215-654-0200 or visit www.act2.org