Johnny Dwork isn’t afraid to be a black sheep – in his life or career path. The New York native has seen how following his passions, even when they were different from what other people were doing, has rewarded him. As a kid, he chose to play Frisbee when everyone else was playing soccer. This led to two world flying disc freestyle championships and a career doing what he loved. His passion for the music of the Grateful Dead led to his authoring an award-winning encyclopedia, entitled The Deadhead’s Taping Compendium: A Guide to the Music of the Grateful Dead on Tape.
The passion is still what drives Johnny today in his current role as co-founder and event producer at Peak Experience Productions. The Portland-based company’s events aim to foster creative participation and a sense of community among attendees. During its ten-year run, nearly all of the Peak’s events have been sold out festivals, with audiences nearing the 10,000 mark. However, after a decade of producing these large events, Johnny is beginning to focus more on smaller, intimate gatherings that encourage closer connections between event-goers.
Activist, scholar, music journalist, teacher, and artist, Johnny continues to create a meaningful life for himself, and to inspire others along the way.
You hold the world’s only Bachelor of Arts degree in Professional Flying Disc Entertainment and Education. How did this happen?
Growing up, I was the classic ADHD kid, always with the lowest grade scores in the class. I really struggled until I turned 13, at which point I was introduced to playing Frisbee. All of a sudden, here was something I found that I loved. Since I loved it so much, it gave me focus. I ended up being adamant that, if I loved this thing so much, I could use it to help me become a good student. I realized that Hampshire College in Massachusetts offered an individualized curriculum. So I came up with this idea, since Frisbee is a tool, or a technology, that it could be studied and mastered the same way any tool or technology could be.
For one of my sub-theses at Hampshire College, I assembled the professors who were the directors of the dance programs at Mount Holyoke, Smith, UMass, Amherst, and Hampshire. I presented to them both a paper and a performance entitled, “An Examination of Flying Disc Freestyle’s potential as a Vehicle for Artistic Expression.” I proved in an academic setting that dance is art, and Frisbee freestyle is dance, and therefore art.
This set the tenor for my life. I found that if I could learn to make a living out of Frisbee, than I could learn to do anything I wanted for a living.
How did your company, Peak Experience Productions, get started?
In the late 1980s, a visionary in New York named Larry Bloch contacted me. He was interested in the production work that I had been doing with my light show company, and wanted me on board the team as a creative advisor for his new project. He had an idea for starting a nightclub that would be the first conscious celebration center in New York City. The result was the famous Wetlands Preserve, which opened in 1989. It was the first nightclub in the world to offer conscious entertainment, by encouraging people to become active in environmental causes. This was very successful at the time.
Wetlands was the seed for Peak Experience Productions. When word got out on the West Coast about these unusual events that I was producing on the East Coast, in which I was synthesizing art, music, performance art, education, spirituality, and activism together, I was contacted by some folks out here in Portland. They invited me to co-produce shows with them. We did a New Years show at the Portland Art Museum, and it sold out in advance. This was a shock to everybody. The next winter, we did another New Years event at the art museum. It sold out again.
We were providing something that eventually turned into the transformational festival movement. Now there are these festivals all up and down the West Coast. Oregon Country Fair, Burning Man, and Faerieworlds are some of the big ones. They are based on mythic themes, environmental production ethics, and audience participation. I am one of the co-founders of this movement. I started Peak Experience Productions because I found that while we were doing amazing work on the East Coast, it was a bit stiff compared to the West Coast. I learned very early on that the West Coast was a better place for this new era in event production.
What does an event producer do?
An event producer is not unlike a general in an army. You build teams that can handle the enormous amount of work and you oversee them. You fund it and you manage it. You have to figure out what entertainment you will offer, be it bands, artists, lectures, or art installations. You have to deal with the foundations that the festival is built on, from staging and lighting, to rigging and projections. There are so many details that go into it. You need to handle insurance, ticketing, public relations, hiring, catering, vending, medical, legal, security, as well as the fire marshal and liquor commission. I develop all-encompassing artistic themes for every one of my events. I then hire artists to work together to bring the theme to life over the course of the event. If you do a summer festival, you are in essence an urban planner. You are building a temporary city in a forest. It is about much more than just putting bands on a stage.
How do Peak events differ from typical entertainment experiences?
Peak events are about far more than getting drunk and standing underneath a stage, watching bands make music. There are activities for families, educational aspects, yoga, healthy food, interactive art, and an overarching theme that gives people the ability to interact with one another in a more substantive way. There are a myriad number of ways you can meet people, express yourself, and form deeper bonds with people than those made at a regular concert.
What are some of your favorite events Peak has done recently?
I have recently been producing the Illumination Gathering. It is much more intimate than some of the large events I worked on in the past. At these events we light a fire at midnight and we tend that fire with improvised song, dance, spoken word, and meditation all night until sunrise. Just by staying up all night, with conscious intention around a fire, you begin to think about your life, and you start to meditate on the metaphorical lead in your life and you transform that over the course of the three nights into gold through introspection. I went to my first sacred fire circle 12 years ago and it just blew my socks off.
What’s next for you?
I just shook hands with OMSI for a three-month installation of my L’HA! Laser harps this autumn. It is a wild, metallic sculpture that you dance through, and it triggers low-power laser beams, which in turn make music. By dancing with light, you make music. Last year the laser harp was at the San Jose Museum of Technical Innovation in Silicon Valley, where about a quarter of a million people interacted with it. Now I’m bringing it to Portland.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
My corporate logo is an image of a heart with an eye in it. This symbolizes the moment of awakening that consistently happens at these events. People look to the person sitting next to them with an enormous grin on their face. There is this look in each person’s eye that says, “We are at the absolute coolest place we could possibly be on the planet right now.” For me, that’s what it’s really all about.
Photo by Kyer Wiltshire