Anthony Hillanbrand, artistic director of ASH Theater, which is staging the Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Next to Normal,” this weekend in Manayunk, is seen here giving Steven Spielberg’s famous lovable character, E.T., a ride around the neighborhood.

Anthony Hillanbrand, artistic director of ASH Theater, which is staging the Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Next to Normal,” this weekend in Manayunk, is seen here giving Steven Spielberg’s famous lovable character, E.T., a ride around the neighborhood.

by Len Lear

Long-time Chestnut Hill attorney Sam Rossitto contacted me two weeks ago to tell me about “an amazing young man,” Anthony Hillanbrand, of Roxborough, who at the tender age of 21 is currently producing his 10th play with the ASH Theater Company, “Next to Normal,” winner of three Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The contemporary musical about a subject one would not expect to find in a musical, a mother who has been battling manic depression for 16 years, will be staged at the Performing Arts and Recreation Center, 7 Lock St. in Manayunk, from this Friday Oct. 21, 7 p.m., through Sunday, Oct. 30.

Hillanbrand, a senior at Temple University studying risk management and insurance, is the artistic director of ASH Theater. “An artistic director,” he explained, “oversees the entire production and coordinates all aspects of the show such as costume design, set design, lighting, sound, etc.”

Anthony began acting at a very young age and took acting lessons at the Towne Playhouse, which used to be on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough until it was replaced by apartments. “From that time on, I wanted to give everyone the opportunity to perform on stage if they wanted to, so ASH began at a local church in 2009.”

How is that possible that a full-time college student who has books to read, exams, term papers, etc., can also find the time and energy to produce so many stage plays? “It has been an interesting journey, a juggling act,” he replied. “ASH started in 2009 with a talent show. From there, we did our first major title, ‘Seussical Junior,’ in 2011 and then worked on two productions per year rather than just one.

“Running a production can be exhausting. There’s a lot more work behind the scenes and outside of rehearsals that requires really strong time management. ASH has helped me with that, and I’ve been finding a happy balance between running a show and succeeding in school, part-time work and social activities.”

Anthony is particularly excited about putting on “Next to Normal” because “it finds a creative way to tell a story of someone’s struggle while also educating the audience on mental health, how an illness may be treated and how it can affect everyone.”

“Next to Normal” has a personal connection for Anthony because a family member and a friend both struggled with mental illness. “That friend has been working with us, so we can make the show as authentic as possible,” said Anthony. “It has been a great learning experience for me.”

Another reason Anthony, who hopes to work in the insurance industry after graduation, was drawn to “Next to Normal” is that its playwrights, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, also created “If/Then,” the first Broadway show Anthony ever attended — and which he loved.

We also asked Anthony the following questions:

What is the best advice you ever received?

“Don’t be afraid of failure. Make wise choices and remain true to your heart without falling prey to pressures that surround you.”

What is your greatest regret, if any?

“Not to sound cliché, but I don’t know if I have any regrets. I have had a lot of moments that served as great learning opportunities. I don’t like to get caught up in the ‘what might be’ but rather find ways to learn and grow.”

Which talent that you do not have would you most like to have?

“I would love to be able to play piano. It’s a talent that I used to have but lost because I did not keep up with it. I’m hoping that I can one day regain that. I think the piano is such a beautiful instrument, and I have a strong admiration for pianists.”

What is your most treasured possession?

“It’s a letter from Jackie Burns, who at the time was in ‘If/Then’ on Broadway. That letter came at an important time in my life, and so I’m grateful for that.”

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?

“Probably, Italy. Who doesn’t love a good meal with wine and scenery?”

What do you like to do in your spare time?

“Since things can get chaotic trying to balance everything, I spend any spare time I get either watching Netflix, listening to music or exploring center city with my friends.”

For more information about “Next to Normal,” call 610-999-3360 or email admin@ashtheater.com.

...