Upon walking through Donkey Coffee and Espresso in Athens on a Thursday night, beyond the front counter into the back room where the stage is set up for Open Stage, the atmosphere is lively and inviting. The lights are subtle and low and students are all around, studying and doing homework. Eventually, as 8 p.m. nears, the room slowly fills with musicians.
A young woman in her 20s sets up the mic stands and then goes to the back behind the sound booth, calling the names up from her sheet. Between sets, she talks to each artist to make sure they’re comfortable and everything is adjusted to their liking. As musicians play, the full and relaxing sounds from the instruments emanate through the room. Everyone is quiet and attentive. As performers finish their sets, they stay back to watch and support their fellow musicians. It is a lovely and communal atmosphere, which can be attributed to the woman behind the soundboard, Allison DeWitt.
DeWitt started working as the sound engineer and the booking manager for Donkey Coffee in January 2017. A Toledo native and Athens resident of 10 years, she had been coming to Donkey as a performer for awhile. After talking to Troy Gregorino, the previous open mic booker, she became interested in the position. Chris Pyle, co-owner of Donkey Coffee, hired her and now believes that open mic nights really came into their own under her guidance. “[She] found her feet pretty quickly and people really gravitated to her,” he says. “I think a lot of why people keep coming back is because of Allison.”
DeWitt’s position was noteworthy because there are not many women involved in the music industry, particularly from a production standpoint. For instance, a study done by Women’s Audio Mission found that less than 5 percent of producers were women. DeWitt took pride in her position, especially as she encountered people who took notice. “It’s funny, it’s actually usually a lot of older males who come up to me that are like, ‘It’s really cool to see a woman behind the board because it’s really rare,’ and I’m like, ‘Awesome!’”
The Pyles were excited to hire her two years ago, as they had never had a woman completely in charge of sound at Donkey Coffee. Although DeWitt was concerned about a lack of experience, Pyle told her, “As long as you love and have an ear for music, this is the place to do it.” Early into her employment, she brought aboard two other women to help backstage as well, in addition to two women who had been helping with sound before her as live sound engineers. Overall, the experience was positive and DeWitt feels there is a sense of open-mindedness that comes from realizing how rare someone in her position is. Her career goals have shifted from a focus on creating her own music, to a desire to work in a studio as a music producer.
Most open mic nights feature a wide variety of talent and creativity, from acoustic folk to singer-songwriter and even low-fi bedroom pop. The performers may be long-time acts or even first-timers. Generally, each musician’s set is 15 minutes, or three songs. Sometimes, a set consists of mainly original songs tested for the first time on an audience, but often cover songs are sprinkled in for fun. Donkey Coffee is different from other music venues, and there is a degree of respect to the performers that is unique and welcoming with audiences that are thoughtful and observant. Not everybody goes there for the music, but they do stay for it.
The communal aspect of Athens is cultivated at Donkey Coffee as a mainstay of the music scene. “It’s a space where everyone can come and express themselves through art,” says Winter Wilson, a local singer/songwriter who has come to open mics to play acoustic music since she was in high school. “I think Allison does a good job curating a space that is welcoming … and providing that open channel of communication and expression, which is really valuable.”
DeWitt has made friends through her role, and her familiarity as a musician helps breed a comfort level amongst her fellow artists. “Most open mics are at bars, so it’s really loud, but here I like to keep it quieter so people are actually heard and have a respectful audience,” Dewitt says. Luckily, the audience has been receptive. In almost three years, DeWitt only had to caution people to keep their voices down four or five times.
“[A live show] brings people together… Art and music in general can do that all over the world,” DeWitt says. “A few years ago when I wasn’t involved in music, I felt like there was a part of me that didn’t belong anywhere, and once I found the music community, I felt like I could finally express myself.”
DeWitt’s final hosting of Open Stage was Dec. 5, and she finished up running sound at the end of the year. Now, DeWitt plans to invest in a new computer to start recording her own compositions throughout the year. She also wishes to work with film to complement her music. In the meantime, she manages time to sit at the piano and play. “Music is so important to me, and it’ll always be my main thing in life no matter what I’m doing. Even if I’m not performing, I’ll be behind the sound booth,” she says.