Jan 17, 2019

Finding Joy in Kensington

by: Laura Kochman

Our Porch Light program has hosted many artist workshops at the Kensington Storefront over the last two years, from knitting to poetry, to painting, and beyond. The goal is to provide an outlet through art, a space for vulnerable conversations and sharing resources. Last spring, local theater group The Renegade Company led a series of performance workshops for anyone in the neighborhood who wanted to participate. Find out what happened next, from Renegade’s Artistic Director Mike Durkin.

What has Renegade been up to in Kensington?  

I’ve been in the neighborhood for about two years working with community residents to create a play that’s in response to daily life. Through this process, we understand that sometimes Philadelphia gets caught up in the past: “I wish the neighborhood looked like it did 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Oh, in ten years, it’s going to be a completely different place,” looking towards the future. There’s not as much attention to what’s happening on a day-to-day level. For me, it’s been really inspiring to see what’s happening in Kensington.

What does it mean to be present in the neighborhood? Present with the sounds, with the smells, with the sites, and also with the individuals that are there. Really understanding that Kensington is more than what you say it is. It’s deeper than that. This project started with just understanding the narrative of the neighborhood—understanding where it’s at, where it was and where it’s heading, and then it became clear that the population that I encountered the most has relationships with substance abuse, addiction, and homelessness. It’s not the only population that I work with, but it’s the majority of the population that I’ve worked with.

Mike Durkin of Renegade Company leads a theater workshop at the Kensington Storefront. Photo by Steve Weinik.

I reached out through many different community association groups—NKCDC, Somerset Neighbors, Harrowgate Civic Association, Kensington Ethnic Business Association—and I got connected to the Kensington Storefront to hold workshops there. They became weekly workshops, in which many folks passing through on a day-to-day basis would come to the Storefront, and it was just a space for people to share what was going on in their lives. The good, the bad, the positive, the negative.

Then it transitioned into a project focusing on output, creative output or expressive output…whether it is a scene or whether it is a story, whether it is us making some sort of sculpture. Guiding individuals to understand what’s happening that they’re encountering, and finding ways to express it in an artistic or creative manner.

It's interesting to hear you mention output, because Porch Light Director Laure Biron talked about this, as a theory for why art can be useful when thinking about mental health and public health. The idea is that art provides a physical end product in a way that conversations don't—but performance doesn’t work that way. 

No, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s more about embodiment. There’s this one person who comes often to the Storefront, and she would talk about Kensington as “Mr. Mean.” “Mr. Mean is really strong, like this.” I said, “Oh, it looks like you’re making a strangling motion. What’s that about? Kensington takes a hold of people.” This particular individual has a lot of disdain for what’s happening outside. She used to be part of it, and then found religion and that pushed her away. The goal in working with her is to understand the roots of the anger and the frustration, and then focus on some positive things. I try to find moments of positivity and joy with each individual, get them to understand that this frustration is not the only way that it is.

One of the thesis statements of the project is that when you see me, you see one version of me, but actually I’m so much more. And for many individuals, they don’t know what that is. So the work that we do is identifying that through creative practice—“I’m a really good listener,” not “I’m always late” or “I’m doing x, y and z, I’m actively in my addiction.” Everyone’s journey is their own journey. I’m here just to receive and reflect. And whatever is happening with that individual, I’m there to build from.

A theater workshop with Renegade Company at the Kensington Storefront. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Has anything really surprised you in doing this work? 

The project originally started with professional performers sourcing material through workshops and conversations. And then Kensington residents started asking, “Do you need any actors for this show?” It happened a couple of times, and I realized it’s so obvious that the performers should be the residents themselves. They’re the ones that can tell their stories authentically. That was a really charged moment, and it became immensely challenging to do that for this process, but it’s been so rewarding to have people keep coming back, keep being excited to perform. I want people to be engaged, in a way that’s different from what’s going on outside.

Last spring, it was a particularly warm day, and we broke out some props—we happened to have hula hoops in the room. So the participants started to use them and started to recall all these memories about growing up in Philly and playing with hula hoops, and started to share these very detailed stories. They started to play 90s hip hop, like DJ Jazzy Jeff, Will Smith, Summertime. It was so joyful and it was huge. The joy that was felt in that moment—I thought, “Oh, this is the project.”



The Porch Light program is a collaboration between Mural Arts Philadelphia and the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services.

Last updated: Jan 17, 2019

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