Mike Durkin credits his relationship with his father as the driving source of inspiration behind his most recent project.
Durkin, the artistic director of the local art and theater group Renegade Company, said his father struggled with alcoholism until he died from pancreatic cancer.
“I used to explore the areas in the city that reminded me of him,” he added. “They gave me a connection to him.”
Getting to know Philadelphia in this way inspired Durkin to create the Renegade Company, which recently produced “(Kensington) Streetplay,” a show written and performed by nine Kensington-area residents.
“(Kensington) Streetplay” explores the stories of the River Wards neighborhoods – Port Richmond, Somerset, Harrowgate and Kensington – and how their residents can reclaim and de-stigmatize the areas. It gives residents a public platform to share their perspectives on their neighborhoods, including their experiences with substance use disorder and homelessness.
But the play, which ran from Sept. 6 through Sunday in the annual contemporary performing arts event Fringe Festival, is more than just another typical piece of theater.
Durkin said the Renegade Company’s productions revolve around everyday people in local communities telling their stories and giving viewers an overall life lesson.
“This project ultimately has a purpose to explore substance abuse in the neighborhood,” Durkin said. “The more knowledgeable I am about Kensington, allows me to understand what substance abuse means to a city in its past, present and future.”
According to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, 890 people died from overdoses in the 19134 zip code, which encompasses Kensington and Port Richmond, from 2007 to 2017 – the highest overdose rate among all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. In 2017, 209 overdose deaths occurred in the zip code, which was a 49.3 percent increase from the year before.
It took two years to develop the “(Kensington) Streetplay,” as it was a new concept for the theater company.
Adam Vidiksis, a resident designer at the Renegade Company and an assistant professor in the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, was the sound designer for the play.
For Vidiksis, the most challenging part of composing the play was that its content hadn’t been previously explored.
“We had to find how to create this type of play that works close with community stories and transform that into theater,” he said. “We had to figure out how to get the public to trust us, and in order to do that we needed to become a part of their community.”
The performers were recruited by attending playwriting and story-sharing workshops Durkin held at the Kensington Storefront community center from last October to June.
Durkin said the Renegade Company also had to figure out how to address performers’ trauma while putting on the play, which made production difficult at times.
“The community members are all different and have their own personal stories,” he added. “Some are in the addiction stage, while others are trying to get away from addiction.”
For this reason, spontaneous therapy sessions were sometimes held during rehearsals. The sessions helped performers open up about their experiences, which bonded the residents and the production team.
“Hearing the personal stories of community members and seeing them coming to life is my favorite part,” Vidiksis said.
Paul Gorman, a performer in the play from Cedar Park in West Philadelphia, said he appreciated the opportunity to share his experiences in his own words during the play.
“I am a writer, and during the plays I get to read my own poetry,” he said. “My poetry is about addictions and how to deal with it. It’s personal.”
Interacting with the residents and helping them tell their stories has helped Durkin reflect on his own life, too. He said his favorite part of making the play was learning about substance abuse, specifically his own past with alcoholism.
“The play allows me to be knowledgeable about my relationship with alcohol and because of this I have been completely sober for a year,” Durkin added.
For Gorman, the level of honesty residents put into the play created a sense of hope and empathy in Kensington.
“When I had an addiction, I didn’t care about myself and I thought that nobody cared about me,” he said. “The Kensington play shows the neighborhood that you can get involved in your community, and people actually care about you. Everyone involved has a story of their own that needs to be heard, and this shows that there is someone there to listen to your story.”