Tony Braithwaite is one of Philadelphia’s most talented comedians, and has been seen in many productions in the Philadelphia area including shows at Act II Playhouse, Montgomery Theatre, 1812 Productions and the Arden Theatre. The 2014/15 season at Act II Playhouse marks Braithwaite’s third season as Artistic Director. I had a chance to talk with Braithwaite about being the Artistic Director at Act II Playhouse, as well as how comedy became his passion.
Kelli Curtin: What is the process you go through with each production from deciding the show to the casting to the directing?
Tony Braithwaite: This is an evolving process. In September, I present a list of 25ish titles to our staff, so I can get their opinions. By the time I present this list to the staff, I have already taken the list down from sixty. We have to take into consideration what will fit on our stage, length, cast break-up, variation of style and aesthetic. The staff and I chat about the selection of shows, and we see who we think fits the shows as a director and actor. I then take what we determined to the board, present the ideas for the shows and give basic budgets. By January 1st the board has voted on the shows for the next season.
When I first start deciding on shows, I do not want to do anything too obtuse - the shows need to be accessible. First and foremost, theatre should entertain.
Kelli Curtin: Was there ever a moment that you thought to yourself, “I want to be an Artistic Director someday”?
Tony Braithwaite: I never really knew what I wanted to be, but I knew I wanted to make people laugh. At Act II Playhouse, Bud Martin was leaving and the patrons of this theatre knew my face from being in productions there. Bud asked me if I would think about being the next Artistic Director. For me, Act II has the aesthetic vision close to what I like to do, and my best friend, Howie Brown, is the Managing Director, so it seemed like a perfect fit for me. It feels right being the Artistic Director; it is as if the stars aligned.
Kelli Curtin: For someone who has never been to Act II Playhouse, what can they expect?
Tony Braithwaite: A small space. Sometimes people are shocked at the size of the theatre. This small space is Act II Playhouse’s best asset. The intimacy of the space draws people into the productions.
Kelli Curtin: Tell me how comedy became your passion.
Tony Braithwaite: My father is the funniest man I have ever known, and he married a vibrant and charming woman. In my family, if we can make each other laugh, we can make each other feel loved. Humor is valued in my family, and we are always seeing who can come up with the sharpest line.
Kelli Curtin: You seem to have a great respect for teaching and teachers. Who have been your great teachers?
Tony Braithwaite: I have had a lot of great teachers, but there is one who I remember having such a positive influence on me. Dr. Beverly Edwards was my English teacher for two years, and at one time I had a crush on her. I was in the nerdy honor section of her English class, and she had the ability to make me feel ten feet tall. She was never condescending to her students, and she gave me more encouragement than I could ever imagine. When I was a senior, she recommended me to do the National Shakespeare Competition; I did and I won, and she was my sponsor. This one teacher touched my life, and she died way too young.
All the Jesuits were also great teachers. They have such wit and are funny. These people are not afraid to tell kids what’s what. They helped develop my humor and influence my thinking. They were great influences and coaches in my life. Personally, I still see myself as a teacher as well.
Kelli Curtin: For those of us who have not been blessed with your gift, how do you explain your mental reflexes that you display with such greatness?
Tony Braithwaite: I was the youngest in my family, and in my family being funny was prized. My siblings were adults, and had life experience, so I had to develop strong mental reflexes to keep up with them. I developed a skillset of being funny to thrive. I learned to listen to people differently, and through listening I see opportunity for humor. This pays off in improv. Fear inhibits people from being quick. My mom and dad taught us to be verbally fearless, so these mental reflexes were passively instilled.
Kelli Curtin: In your career so far, which roles have been your favorite?
Tony Braithwaite: Definitively, Felix in The Odd Couple. Also, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. There is a huge part of me that is him, misogyny aside.
In addition, there are roles I like to do such as the shows I do with Jen Childs, such as our George Burns and Gracie Allen routine, as well as our Lounge Lizard act. In Didn’t Your Father Have this Talk with You? I get to play a heightened version of myself, and have the freedom to do improv. When I use improv in Didn’t Your Father. . . the audience is more alive. The audience is viscerally reminded that the show is not happening the same each time.
Kelli Curtin: You have said in previous interviews that you are grateful that you can make Philadelphia your artistic home. Why is making your career in Philadelphia important to you?
Tony Braithwaite: I have a lot of connections here. I like to be able to look at the audience and say that “These are kids I taught 10 years ago” or “so and so went to school with my mother.” The connective tissue in Philadelphia makes for a nice dynamic. I love that the kids at St. Joe’s Prep come to see me perform; it is a surreal experience. In Rounding Third, the show highlights a side of me that people would not see otherwise. People in Philadelphia know me, and it is great that I know someone in the audience every night.
Kelli Curtin: Do you feel that the Arts and live theatre are important for the education of young people?
Tony Braithwaite: Theatre, Arts, Good Music – this all quickens the pulse and stirs the heartstrings. The Arts does this immediately and shows the human condition, and what it means to be human.
There is this thought in Arts education that the Arts has to be boring to make an impact. We need to find a gateway theatre for Arts education. This is why we are doing Children’s Theatre at Act II Playhouse; we need to introduce kids to live theatre early in order to keep them interested. Without Arts in education, there is no insightful education because young people need to feel fully alive.
Tony Braithwaite can currently be seen in Rounding Third at Act II Playhouse. Rounding Third runs through October 12, 2014. For more information and tickets visit their website at www.act2.org or call their playhouse at 215-654-0200.
Photos courtesty of Act II Playhouse
Final Thought: It was an incredible pleasure interviewing Tony Braithwaite. He is an exceptionally talented and passionate individual. Braithwaite brings an effervescence to the stage whether he is performing in a show or directing. If you are not familiar with Act II Playhouse, or have never seen Braithwaite in a show, I highly recommend making the trip to Act II Playhouse to see a production at this gem of a theatre in Ambler, Pa.
Kelli Curtin is editor and writer for theatresensation.com. In addition, she is a contributor for the online site broadwayworld.com and is a freelance writer. Kelli is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on twitter @theatrescribe and on Facebook/theatresensation.