Eighteen students from St. Joe’s Prep are getting ready to perform Shakespeare in the City Hall courtyard, and it’s all because Mayor Jim Kenney played football in high school.
In a Philadelphia magazine profile during his campaign last year, Kenney dropped the notion that one of his major regrets was never taking part in high school drama. Though St. Joe’s is well-known in the region for its top-level sports teams, the theater program is also especially robust. Bill Avington, the school’s communications director, describes it as “on the level of many pro theaters.”
The presumptive mayor’s lament immediately caught the attention of St. Joe’s theater director Tony Braithwaite.
“I read that and was like, WOW!” Braithwaite says. “He had been a football guy.”
He came up with the idea to remedy the lack by inviting Kenney to play a cameo role in one of the school plays. A tweet from the school’s SJP Cape & Sword account garnered a positive response from the man himself.
But via email, Kenney’s campaign director (now spokesperson) Lauren Hitt put a hold on the plan. “He’s a little busy running for office right now,” she noted.
Braithwaite wasn’t ready to give up. His main job nowadays is as artistic director of Ambler’s Act II Playhouse, but he spent a dozen years as a full-time teacher at St. Joe’s and has been directing the shows there for 23. A Kenney cameo, he and Avington realized, could help raise the profile of the program, and help drive home the importance of theater arts in school.
“There’s so much involved in high school theater if you’re doing it right,” says Avington. “It’s not just the actors. We have many students who consider theater their life, even though they’ll never be on stage.”
Theater gets kids involved via multiple disciplines, he notes. While it’s all artistic in one way or another, the sound team also learns about audio engineering, the lighting crew about electrical engineering, the usher squad about customer service. And there’s a whole separate group of students who do marketing and promotion for the shows, honing other useful post-graduation skills.
And so when Mayor Kenney, now settled in office, agreed to speak at an alumni communion breakfast, Braithwaite was ready to pounce. He readied an official-looking envelope labeled “Cameo Packet” with everything needed — a cast list, a costume measurements form, a possible script — and planned to ambush Kenney with it during the speech.
Turned out he didn’t even have to raise the issue, since Kenney brought it up himself.
“He looked down at me in the front row,” Braithwaite says, “and repeated the lament. ‘You know, Tony, my biggest regret is that when I was here I didn’t do the shows.’ It couldn’t have been more perfect.”
The packet was presented — “It looked like I had come up with all that on the spot, I got mad props” — and a date was arranged. During the May 14 performance of the musical comedy Curtains, the Cape & Swords were joined by a special guest star, and the show was a smashing success.
“It was surreal while it was happening,” Braithwaite says. “Honest to God, standing in the back of the theater I started to cry.”
After the show, Kenney seemed as pumped as the director. On the spot, the mayor came up with the idea for a citywide High School Theater Festival, something he’s tasked Philadelphia Chief Cultural Officer Kelly Lee with helping Braithwaite and Avington organize.
The festival would bring together theater troupes from all over the city for a day or couple of days of collaborative performance — a logistical feat. Because of all the moving parts it would involve, the event is still in very preliminary planning stages, per Lee, so there’s not yet even a target date to announce.
“It’s going to take a lot of thought, more thought than bringing football players together for a high school all-stars game,” Avington explains. “It will be more intricate, but I think we have the right people.”
However, on the evening of his cameo, Kenney offered another suggestion to the St. Joe’s theater team, one much easier to execute.
“Tony,” the mayor said, “can you guys do some Shakespeare in the Park?”
With that, he invited the Cape & Swords to be part of the new Culture in the Courtyard performance series, a changing roster of noontime shows that have started popping up at City Hall on Wednesdays. The series kicked off in June with Pasión y Arte flamenco, the youth drum troupe Mad Beatz Music took over the courtyard floor last week, and today dancers from the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School strut their stuff.
The Cape & Swords performance will go down on Wed., Aug. 3. The students, including eight girls from partner schools (St. Joe’s is all-male), have been joined by 17 alumni of the program for the City Hall outing. Together, they’ve prepared four scenes and five monologues by the Bard, plus a rendition of the song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” by Cole Porter.
“By highlighting theater, the mayor is saying that these programs are important, that he values arts education,” Braithwaite says. “It’s all very gratifying.”
“When the mayor texted me after his cameo to set it all up, he asked me to call him ‘Jim’ and I thought, ‘Is this really my life?’”