When Anthony Hillanbrand realized some of his family was unable to afford music and acting classes, he thought of a solution.
When he was a sophomore at Temple, Hillanbrand created ASH Theater Company, a local nonprofit organization that uses performing arts as a source of community development.
Hillanbrand, a senior risk management and insurance major, has been involved in theater since he was 12 years old. He is currently producing an adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Next to Normal.” The show will play until this Sunday at the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center in Manayunk.
“Next to Normal” tells the story of Diana Goodman, a mother struggling to control the effects her worsening bipolar disorder are having on her family.
The program started out in a local church, but quickly outgrew its venue. In 2014, Hillanbrand’s program moved to the Venice Island Performing Arts and Recreation Center. For a small fee, the program hosts open auditions for their shows.
Hillanbrand said a theater company is “the hardest business to run” and that producing “Next to Normal” is the biggest project he’s taken on so far. He believes his business and risk management classes have provided him with enough skills to manage.
“There is so much involved in running a theater company,” Hillanbrand said. “There are sets, costuming, the licensing fees, the rental space, the pit and the performers, so it’s a lot. It’s kind of tricky, you have to be creative. So the classes that teach creative business and strategic planning have really come into play and helped me tie everything together.”
“Producing this musical was really a sacrifice of my social life sometimes,” he added. “But I am determined to do well in anything I do, so I’m willing to give up my weekends and free time.”
Hillanbrand said he decided to produce the musical, written by Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, after seeing their other musical, “If Then,” on Broadway. He said he was drawn to their contemporary music style because he thinks it “relates more to people” than traditional theater.
He brought in some people living with mental illnesses to speak with the cast and crew during the production process. The experience helped them understand how to accurately portray mental illness through their work, he said.
Abby Hemmler, a junior fashion and design major at Drexel University, was involved with costume design for the show. She helped create costumes for the six characters in the musical.
“There is a color progression based on psychology throughout ‘Next to Normal,’” Hemmler said. “So getting the outfits to work with which color they have to be was really hard to line up. It took hours of going through the show again and again just to make sure it worked.”
Goodman, the main character, experiences the most drastic costume changes during the show in order to reflect her character’s manic and depressive states brought on by bipolar disorder.
Jen Jaynes, who received a master’s in theater from Villanova University in 2013, plays Goodman.
After working on “Next to Normal,” Jaynes spoke with her friends and relatives and learned that many of them were taking medication for mental illnesses.
“Doing this show has really opened my eyes and made me realize why some people I know are the way they are,” she added.
Hillanbrand said he hopes his production will spread awareness about mental health to the surrounding community. After seeing the opening night, Manayunk resident Maddie Dillion thinks it will.
“This show is going to help a lot of people understand what living with a mental illness is like,” Dillion said. “I think that’s great. Understanding often leads to empathy.”
Meghan Costa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.