African music and improv come together at Mt. Airy Art Garage

Traditional African drumming, a middle school choir group and an improv troop came together at Mt. Airy Art Garage for African drummer Ron Kravitz’s show, “Underground at Ron’s Goes Aboveground.”

The different groups put on contemporary acts while Kravitz’s traditional African drums and guitars near the stage joined the shows with their own improvisational songs and dances to create an “East meets West” theme.

Kravitz has been hosting improvisational music jams at his Wyndmoor home for nearly two decades and hosting “underground” shows about five times a year. He curates his “above-ground” shows when he is inspired by locations like Mt. Airy Art Garage, where he is a member, and believes he can attract larger audiences.

Playback Theatre performed improv shorts based on the audience’s stories and feelings as a part of their reunion show. The national group had a Philadelphia location with the guidance of Sarah Halley, the artistic director of the troop who served as one of the show’s curators.

“Ron has been a musician for us for many years,” Halley said. “When I talked with Ron about doing a reunion performance, it was his idea to hook it up with the choir.”

The chorale group was the final act and had parents sitting on the edge of their seats gleaming with smiles. The students sang some songs in traditional African form, with accompanying artists like Kravitz and Quint, who guided the students during practices and rehearsals. Kravitz synced other contemporary music with traditional African drumming and music, giving a traditional angle to music the pop top-100 dance songs the choir sang.

The choral director at Jenkintown middle/high school, Alyssa Davidson, was excited to introduce multicultural music to her students and said she hopes to continue brining Kravitz in for more lessons on his skill in traditional African music.

“They get to see different kinds of instruments from all over the world,” Davidson said.

The Jenkintown Select Vocal Ensemble, composed of seventh, eight and ninth grade students, performed traditional African songs and pop music with the guidance of Kravitz and Davidson, who have been working together for more than five years.

For Kravitz, the combination of such a diverse group of performers was ideal.

“This is a little dream connection that I’ve imagined — and now it’s actually happening,” Kravitz said.

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The Delaware Valley Opera group returns to its Manayunk roots

The Delaware Valley Opera Company has returned to Manayunk, where they founded the group in 1979, for its 2015 summer festival.

The group will be hosting several performances until the end of summer at the newly renovated Venice Island just off Main Street.

“The theater is magnificent,” said Sandra Day, president and general manager of the group. “My favorite thing is to walk out on that patio and look out at the river. It’s so gorgeous.”

The Philadelphia Parks and Recreation department and the Philadelphia Water Department recently rehabilitated Venice Island, which was long considered an eyesore by the river. The new space has a 250-seat theater and an amphitheater with a parking lot, making it a hot spot for community events and shows.

“We do have the opportunity to actually reach out to some underserved communities,” Vice President Milo Morris said. “We really haven’t had the opportunity to do that in other locations. Having everything within walking distance is really cool. We’re accessible to them.”

The opera group is a nonprofit, so their tickets, which usually run around $25, are tax-deductible. The group is volunteer-based and although the performers are paid, most of the administrative staff is not. The proceeds of the tickets are used towards setting up their summer festivals.

The group performs many traditional shows, but occasionally puts a modern or more entertaining spin on their performances. The group will be performing Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in July with a steam punk theme. Board member Susan Millsfarrington said the opera has also used cross-dressing in some past performances.

“We’re open minded enough that if a director comes to us with a modernized concept, we will consider it,” Morris said. “Most opera companies are afraid to break traditional molds, but our audience appreciates new and different.”

The opera company often recruits younger and less-experienced artists for their shows. Although less experienced, the performers bring a lot of talent and have the opportunity to build their career in opera.

“Younger and emerging singers get their opportunity to learn and perform roles and get performing experience,” Morris said. “Hopefully, as we’ve seen with many of our performers over the years, they get to move up the food chain to bigger companies.”

After many years as a nomadic opera group, the company is happy to call Manayunk their home once again this summer. The administrators reinforced their dedication to serving the community by offering accessible, affordable opera performances.

“You don’t have an opera company in Manayunk everyday. I’m excited about being here and they seem excited about having us,” said Day.

The Delaware Valley Opera Company will host a total of nine shows throughout the summer.

Tickets can be bought at Venice Island or online.

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Germantown circus troupe looks to push boundaries of faith in upcoming performance

Almanac, a Germantown-based circus troupe, has been practicing since October for their performance later this month titled “Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes.”

The group of five is taking an interpretation of faith into a performance that joins theater, dance and acrobatics in a non-linear story about a group of four performers. In the show, they redefine time, create friendships and turn their relationship into a whimsical and almost confusing story.

“We’re trying to make a piece that is episodic,” Ben Grinberg, an Almanac acrobat said. “There is a narrative, but not just one narrative. And it’s not linear.”

The group has performed silent shows in the past to push their audience into interpreting their story, but their upcoming show involves scripted parts that paint more colorful scenes.

The performers teamed up with Josh McIlvain, a Philadelphia-based writer, in January to help curate the unusual story of the acrobats’ performance about devoting their lives to circus while interpreting what they describe as “sublime human idiocy.”

McIlvain also curates the increasingly popular pop-up performance series in Northwest Philadelphia called “Nice and Fresh.”

The show will be held at Fleisher Art Memorial at 7th and Catherine streets from June 25 to 28. The group said they were enamored with the space and especially inspired by the idea of performing in a church.

“We were looking into performing this piece in a church because it’s all about faith,” Grinberg said.

The performers acknowledge that they are not particularly religious, but hope their show can inspire people on a deep, personal level, the way some people are inspired by their faiths.

“For us to be able to ask our questions in a sincere, searching way and leave space for everyone to come comfortably into it will be our major task — without being overly sacrilegious or purposefully shocking,” Nick Gillette, one of Almanac’s performers, said.

The group said that by colliding three realms of performance in their show, they are creating an opportunity for the audience to interpret their show from multiple angles.

“People see it in a way they are brought to it,” Gillette said. “In a way we can intentionally try to craft one thing but a dance crowd will see it as dance, a theater group will see it as theater and a circus crowd will come in and look at it as circus and acrobatics”

The show’s name, “Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes,” comes from the group’s determination to define faith for themselves and the audience.

“Leaps of faith has everything to do with us becoming an ensemble that will throw each other in the air and catch each other,” Grinberg said. “It’s a big commitment of trust.”

While the church itself is a well-reserved and conventional space for artists to perform, the group wants to maintain their contemporary theme and push boundaries — both for themselves and the audience.

“We don’t want it to stay safe,” Grinberg said. “Something we have been exploring for years is how can we make circus not just this ‘thing!’ that [seems] so easy.”

Many circus performances highlight impressive and surreal moves while acrobats maintain a wide smile. While performers swing effortlessly into the air, the reality of blisters and sore muscles are lost in translation. Almanac’s performers said they hope to use Leaps of Faith and Other Mistakes to hint at their own experience as acrobats, reminding the audience of the months of practice and the steady strength they must maintain for a safe show.

Information on tickets and the group’s previous performances can be seen at their site,


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Realty group donates $30K in funds to Germantown’s Face to Face nonprofit

Germantown’s growing service group, Face to Face, was recently granted $30,000 by Elfant Wissahickon Group to expand their current programs.

The group raised money over the past year then matched those funds by 50 percent. Elfant Wissahickon president, Bob Elfant, said his realtor group is always looking for ways to give back to the community. He was particularly inspired by Face to Face’s approach to serving their community.

“I decided to give Face to Face a call. I took my partners down there and they were impressive — they were warm, welcoming and doing good stuff,” Elfant said. “We decided to put together this initiative.”

Not only has the group dedicated thousands of dollars to the nonprofit, but they also continue to provide active service through volunteer work in the soup kitchen. Elfant emphasized that providing actual service is inspiring to the community and those who benefit from the cause.

Face to Face was founded in 1985 and provides multiple services, including dining, social services, day camps, legal assistance and exposure to art. The nonprofit serves Germantown, where 26 percent of the population lives in “deep poverty,” which is defined by an average household income of less than 50 percent of the national poverty line.

“We welcome those that society shuns and treat them with dignity and respect,” according to Face to Face’s mission statement. “The mentally ill, the homeless, those struggling with addiction, the impoverished elderly, single parents and struggling families, are all welcomed at Face to Face. Our programs work to lift our guests beyond the reach of crushing poverty.”

“The partnership between Elfant Wissahickon and Face to Face is a model for what can happen when businesses truly care about their communities,” Face to Face Executive Director Mary Kay Meeks said in a statement. “We are so grateful for this outpouring of financial support and humble service.”

Elfant eventually joined the group’s advisory board, where he continues to maintain an active role in the group’s work.

“Participating in this kind of program is very fulfilling,” Elfant said. “I would encourage anybody out there that’s looking for a good way to contribute their time and their money, Face to Face is a good steward of their time.”

Elfant said that offering several services to people is especially beneficial to community members who often require different types of services.

“If you’re going to support folks who need help — it’s never one-dimensional,” Elfant said. “Giving them an opportunity to benefit from a multi-faceted organization is great.”

Face to Face is located in Germantown at 109 East Price St. The schedule of services and events can be found on their website.

East Falls resident opens ‘Little Free Library’ outside home as part of mission to increase access to books

Award-winning filmmaker Ron Kanter set up a Little Free Library in front of his East Falls home in April to serve his community on the honor system of “take a book, leave a book.”

The library is a small cabinet built from various pieces of wood — like the backboard of a bed — with the intent of providing kids an opportunity to explore the box and, hopefully, pick up some new stories and literature.

“I think it’s really important for children because if they establish a habit of reading, it’s a lifelong habit,” Kanter said. “There’s lots of research of how important books are to academic development.”

His inspiration for the library came to him when he heard budget cuts to Philadelphia School District public schools.

Even by the third grade, reading levels can predict a child’s future. Shrinking access to books and extracurricular activities in Philadelphia, accompanied by research across the country that analyzes development through reading, inspired Kanter to try something different, even on a small scale.

“It’s hard to know what to do with something as profound as a dysfunctional public school system, but you need to do something,” Kanter said. “The little free library was a tangible idea to support whatever people can do.”

Stephanie Heck, a mother of two who lives nearby, is thrilled by the idea. Her children have been rummaging through the little library to find exciting new books for themselves — and have been replacing them with books of their own to honor the system.

“They just find it exciting,” Heck said, adding that her children think it’s “cool.”

It’s become a routine for her children, Charlie and Louis, to head to the Little Library and pick up something new to read, and she’s noticed they aren’t the only ones benefiting.

“Even when I stop my car I see people looking in there,” she said. “It’s clever. People always have books they want to get rid of and never know what to do with them, so it’s interesting.”

Kanter has a living room filled with books to continue stocking the library in case book supplies dwindle which, he said, isn’t a bad thing. It’s about making sure there are always more books to pick up.

“Kids are curious and reading is part of satisfying that curiosity,” Kanter said.

He said to him, the most important part of his mission is to make the community aware that the book share is there and it’s free.

“I think once they understand that the books are there for them to take… that they aren’t stealing them [and] that they’re there because we want them to have a book and they start sharing books or bringing books back… I think it could work anywhere.”

The Little Free Library is an international organization that allows people to build these small book shares anywhere. For those with questions about how to get started, the site is a resource, but so is Ron Kanter. He can be reached at for those with interest in starting their own little library.

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Mt. Airy man turns around life, pledges to promote peace with T-shirt campaign

Mt. Airy’s Will Little isn’t oblivious of violence in Philadelphia, but he doesn’t accept it either. His determination is peace.

He’s a community activist, poet, motivational speaker and founder of the movement, Peace, Live In It.

Little sells shirts — making almost no profit from them — to create a visual message that people can see, question and, maybe, even relate to.

Buying his shirts has one “catch” — supporters need to take the pledge to promote peace, and to live in it.

What it could mean for an entire city to see the word “peace” dashed across their chest?

“I think everyone wants peace… eventually,” Little said. “If it’s just buying a shirt, it’s helping.”

Little uses social media to promote his shirts and his message. Through Instagram and Facebook, he’s drawn an audience topping 5,000 that see his posts on their feed, and, he believes, this spreads the message even further.

Community meetings are accessible, but not always convenient. Work schedules, babysitters for the kids or the list of hundreds of reasons to pass on driving a few miles to listen to a few activists preach their very important message. Little asked himself if seeing violence but hosting less convenient community meetings can reach a wide enough audience to really change the world.

Stacey Wright, Chief of Staff of state Representative Stephen Kinsey, took the pledge to promote Peace, Live In It because he said he wondered the same thing.

“I’ve been lucky, I’ve never had a violent experience,” Wright said. “However, friends and family have. His shirt — it’s visual. People like to see smell and touch stuff. For me, I’ve always been about peace and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Kinsey’s office reaches more than 4,000 constituents in Germantown, Logan, West Oak Lane and the surrounding neighborhoods. Little’s movement was born in a barbershop in South Philly, where he works, but he lives in Mt. Airy. It’s another neighborhood he can impact, but he said he needs officials on his side.

“Elected officials are out on the forefront, they are our community leaders” Wright said. “It’s important for elected officials to promote positive movements like this so it can become infectious. This is the stuff that needs to go viral, and elected officials are the folks to do that.”

Little isn’t shy about his past. He’s been to jail himself, and said the experience changed him.

“I took a self-reflection and started thinking about my environment. A drug dealer, a gun-toter and a violent criminal — and I realized I was in a hostile environment. Even in jail, I was in a hostile environment,” Little said. “When I came home, I realized I needed to be a father. If I can make it out of prison, [my son] needs a father out of prison. I didn’t want my son to be in jail or growing up to be a mess, a drug dealer or something like that.”

He doesn’t hide this experience, and believes it could change the mind of a few who are close to choosing that path. He said all he wants is for them to hold onto that mindset.

“I want people to get excited when they see Peace, Live In It,” Little said. “One young man told me the shirts stopped a feud between two young guys.”

“I think the message is universal to live in harmony,” Wright said, “So I think that message is universal for every age bracket.”

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Venice Island art installation designed to attract visitors

The Philadelphia Water Department has teamed up with Mural Arts to unveil a renewed Venice Island in Manayunk. They are hoping to inspire those looking for the greener side of things in Philadelphia.

Starting at Pretzel Park, a cascade of small, vinyl mural pieces serve as a path down to Venice Island. The shockingly-blue bubble-shaped images of fish and turtles sprawl across the neighborhood’s blocks and invite people to follow the murals like breadcrumbs to the recently renovated recreation space.

Eurhi Jones with one piece of the mural that represents a time when mules would carry boats along the canal. (Greta Iverson/for NewsWorks)

Eurhi Jones with one piece of the mural that represents a time when mules would carry boats along the canal. (Greta Iverson/for NewsWorks)

Eurhi Jones  was selected from a group of mural artists to create the piece that she said tells a story of the canal’s history dating back to the early 1800s.

“I don’t really have the human element here [at Venice Island],” Jones said. “But, as we go up the street, what’s mixed in with the natural element is the human impact of how people have been in consort with the river.”

The mural pieces end at Venice Island, where large steps are covered in images of native wildlife, particularly the American Shad, which naturally inhabit the Schuylkill.

“What was here before was not very sophisticated and it wasn’t as welcoming. So this is a huge transformation for the community,” said Tiffany Ledesma, a manager at the Philadelphia Water Department.

The formerly dilapidated space on the edge of Manayunk holds more than 4 million gallons of sewage and storm water runoff that gets pumped into a local water treatment plant.

“This is the kick-off of using this site for recreational purposes,” Ledesma said. “People aren’t used to the idea of coming down here with their kids because of the old site.”

The mural ends at the pavement above the water basin. (Greta Iverson/for NewsWorks)

The mural ends at the pavement above the water basin. (Greta Iverson/for NewsWorks)

The Parks and Recreation Department has taken control of the basin to create a welcoming recreation center where they can freely host events and performances for the community.

“There were many community meetings, and this was the ultimate reflection of what the Parks and Recreation wanted and what the community wanted,” Ledesma said. “They really wanted to see theater here. This is something that we’re very fortunate to make work here. This is very, very unique.”

For Jones, the project was “a dream come true.”

“I personally do public work about environmental consciousness raising and sustainable issues and conservation,” Jones said. “I do a certain amount of teaching and I try to make it about art.”

While people see art along the streets and start using the space for sunbathing along the river, treading alongside the canal or playing a game of basketball, Ledesma hopes they will choose their favorite pieces and promote the art with social media by using #PhillyWaterArt.

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