As job descriptions go, it doesn’t get much better than Danny Davis’. Though his official title is “technical director” at The Goat Farm Arts Center, his mission is simply to “protect awesome.” To Davis, “awesome” means artistic ideas on a grand scale, the more ambitious and seemingly impossible, the better.
At The Goat Farm, artists propose the “what” and the “why,” and Davis and his team figure out the “how.” Projects like last month’s Terminus, an outdoor, immersive theatrical experience based on the book Watership Down, are usually eclectic and often don’t fit into a single genre — just the kind of art Davis prefers.
Even though Davis oversees all of the Goat Farm’s production and design, the arts center provides just over half of his work. The rest falls under his production company, officially dubbed Protect Awesome. Now an operational business with a website under way, Protect Awesome “is an attitude,” says Davis. “It’s not wanting to let good things look like crap.”
Davis’ boundless energy for all things awesome is immediately apparent upon meeting him. Tall and burly with a scruffy beard and kind eyes, he looks like a guy who builds stuff, the neighbor you call when your sink breaks or you need to borrow an Allen wrench. He shows up to our morning meeting freshly showered and smiling though he looks tired, and tells me he was working until almost 3 a.m. “I forced myself not to crash in my hammock,” he says. “I work psychotically too much.”
By coincidence, our interview falls on the sixth anniversary of Davis’ move from his native Portland to Atlanta, a decision he made on a whim. Then 23 years old and working for his family’s advertising business, he was restless. “I needed to find something that would teach me what I was capable of doing. I didn’t even know what that would be.”
Davis loved Portland, but he says the city was “being invaded” by people who were changing its vibe, and he knew he wanted to be someplace new. Atlanta was on his radar, though his friends “staged some pretty big interventions” in disbelief over his interest in moving to the South. When a friend said he was taking a cross-country road trip to Atlanta, Davis made his decision within the hour; he packed two bags of clothes, his tools, and his dog, and relocated to what his Portland buddies jokingly called the home of “T.I. and Coke.”
“I ran away from advertising because of dance,” says Davis. In 2004, he saw a performance at Portland’s Time Based Arts Festival called “Under an Hour: Water, Flour and Light,” danced by Monster Squad and set to an original score by the experimental rock group Menomena. In under an hour, the stage went from a shallow pool of water, to mounds of flour, to a shiny, lit surface. “Wow,” he thought, “that’s someone’s job. Someone gets to do that.” Davis was mesmerized by the vision he calls “fully involved” and decided to pursue production and design as a career.
When he first arrived in Atlanta, Davis spent hours exploring the city on foot, walking his dog through would-be public arts spaces and soon landed a job at 7 Stages theater: “I had to figure out what I was good at and what I loved.” He also connected with Susan Bridges, director and owner of Whitespace Gallery, whom he calls “the godmother of the arts in Atlanta.”
But his big break came in the spring of 2009 with the production of Axiom, a large-scale, indoor/outdoor gallery in Old Fourth Ward. With a budget of just $144, Davis and his team, along with fellow organizer and Public Acts of Art founder Alana Wolf, built out seven empty spaces and involved 85 artists. People took notice, and Davis has since established himself as a fixture in the Atlanta arts community, a risk-taker and guy who can do a lot with very little.
But Davis is quick to give credit where credit is due. Again and again, he mentions people who have inspired him and help him execute the 40to 50 projects on which he works every year. He says when he was asked to be profiled for ArtsATL’s “Behind the Scenes” series, he was “tempted to send out a mass text to all the badass tech people” who are just as deserving. “Whole institutions would shut down” if these people stopped doing their jobs, says Davis.
With characteristic humility, Davis says, “I don’t do lighting design. I’m not a master carpenter or rigger, and I’m arguably not a master stage electrician.” In fact he does all of these things but considers himself more of a team organizer and overseer of production. Because so much of his work happens in nontraditional spaces, Davis prefers to work with talented people who don’t have much theatrical experience. His carpenter works on houses, not stages, and his rigger has a background in industrial steel. To Davis, this puts him at an advantage. His Protect Awesome crew doesn’t think within the constraints of a dark theater; they are free to improvise and discover practical, creative solutions to even the most daunting logistical problem.
Davis says Dance Truck, which he founded with his friend and regular collaborator Malina Rodriguez, is the closest he’s come to regular work on a proscenium stage. Davis met Rodriguez at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art eight years ago, and says it was “fate” that brought them both to Atlanta. Of collaboration between Atlanta artists, he says he sees an exciting shift toward “new creative content,” with people from all disciplines “working together as equals.”
“Most people in the Atlanta dance world look at collaboration as the video artist and the dance company,” Davis says as he grabs his keys in one hand and his coffee cup in the other to illustrate the separation. “I don’t see it that way.” He hopes for a more holistic approach to art making and to lose labels like “choreographer” and “dancer,” which, he says, haven’t caught up with the 21st-century creative process.
Davis doesn’t want to be considered “behind the scenes,” because he usually isn’t. Everything he does is visible, and when the audience shows up he says, “I know when I’ve done it right.” He says his greatest gift is to stand in a crowd and see people experience a shift. “I see change or awe or sadness or serenity. It’s intoxicating to watch.”