Journalism is everywhere. (Hello, reader.) Delivered to your mailbox as a print magazine or newspaper. Pushed on your phone. Promoted in bite-sized Insta-posts and Tweets. Shoved in your ears via podcast. Auto-played in videos. Radio, television, streaming, repeat. But all of this consumption happens solo.
Theatre has always been the medium to make storytelling performative, live, present, and communal. Theatre capture molecules in a single time and place—inherently it makes stories about yesterday feel like now. That’s what the founders of Pop-Up Magazine (Doug McGray, Derek Fagerstrom, Lauren Smith, and Evan Ratliff) aim to conjure in their expression of journalism as theatre.
Instead of reading a feature about, say, the Haggia Sophia—a 537 A.D.-built Greek Orthodox cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey, considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture—and the engineers at Stanford University working to create a software that can reproduce the acoustic effects of that space, journalist Sam Harnett’s story becomes a performance.
He starts with narration, his opening paragraph describing the history of the landmark cathedral and what makes it a sight of architectural and sonic purity. As he talks, vibrant photographs illuminate a projection screen the size of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stage, like we’re staring up at the apse of the Haggia Sophia from inside, instead of flipping a glossy page. Harnett welcomes the world-renowned vocal ensemble Cappella Romana to the stage. They sing a Byzantine chant, miked by the A-grade BAM sound system. Lovely. But what would an ensemble like them have sounded like in the 500s chanting in the Haggia Sophia? What did the church feel like when choirs walked its aisles?
The researchers at Stanford wondered this, too; they didn’t want to theorize or imagine, they want to recreate. As Harnett’s story shifts to these Stanford academics, so too does the performance and its structure. You see, the researchers are software developers, traveling the world to map the acoustic characteristics of spaces, input data points into software, and invent aural filters, and recreate sonic experiences. They traveled to the Haggia Sophia, captured the majesty and audacity of the structure, developed a program, and bore a “Haggia Sophia filter.” And then Harnett used this technology in real time.
Dust particles pumped onto the stage swirl in golden light. The choir intakes breath again, but this time, the reverberation transports the entire audience to Turkey. They sing and it’s 537 A.D. This is what it must have felt like—nearly. Lovely becomes transcendent.
Writing about this now cannot capture what happened in that room—the story. The awe. And a written story won’t—which is what the co-founders knew. And so the magazine event is an amalgamation of features suited to theatricality and performed like an evening of one-acts.
In their 2019 Winter Issue (which played BAM in February), there was the story from Arcade Fire frontman Will Butler about his grandfather, Alvino Rey, who apparently invented the electric guitar; the account of a young black girl gunned down in a convenience store; a personal essay about life as a picky eater (complete with a video of this writer trying string cheese for the first time).
“We’re interested in stories that are informative, visually beautiful and exciting, emotional, and most of all, surprising, either in the story itself or the way it’s being told,” says Anita Badejo, Pop-Up’s executive editor and show host. But Pop-Up also calculates the mix “in terms of our contributors and their storytelling backgrounds, the subjects and themes, the emotions we’re hitting throughout.”
Their smorgasbord of innovative stories invites creativity from writers, filmmakers, radio producers, photographers, and, with its upcoming Spring Issue, comedians. “Comedians are inherently storytellers—and, of course, performers,” says Badejo. “We tend to think of our story assignments in terms of ‘shorts’ and ‘features’” and the combination of humor and distillation of stories in stand-up renders a comedian a perfect scribe for a short, “lists, pieces of advice, how-tos.” The one-pagers of the magazine world.
Also like a magazine, there are ads. But they are ads you want to hear. Bulleit Frontier Whiskey was one of the 2019 Winter Issue sponsors, but their promo spot about the history and recipe behind their signature Revolver cocktail was more like an episode of Good Eats mixology edition than a commercial—and then you really want to order a Revolver at the afterparty.
Unlike a magazine—but akin to theatre—Pop-Up’s thrice-yearly issues happen in the moment. Videos are not repurposed for content. The stories are not printed or distributed. There’s no Pop-Up podcast to hear them again on your commute. “These stories are ephemeral,” says Badejo. “Audience members know they have to pay more attention, listen and watch more deeply, because they can’t catch it again.”
In the age of peak stories—and the constant chase for new ways to tell them—turns out the oldest medium is the key to success.
Witness the magic during Pop-Up Magazine’s 2019 Spring Issue Tour. Click here for tickets to:
May 10: San Francisco, California, Sydney Goldstein Theater
May 11: Oakland, California, Paramount Theatre
May 13 & 14: Portland, Oregon, Revolution Hall
May 15: Seattle, Washington, Benaroya Hall
May 17: Los Angeles, California, The Theatre at Ace Hotel
May 29: New York, New York, BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
May 31: Washington, D.C., Lincoln Theatre
Contributors to the 2019 Spring Issue include writers Jon Mooallem (The New York Times Magazine; author, Wild Ones), Mallika Rao (The Atlantic), Jason Concepcion (The Ringer), Vann R. Newkirk II (The Atlantic), Jason Parham (Wired, Spook), and Chris Colin (The California Sunday Magazine, AFAR); filmmakers Denise Zmekhol (Skin of Glass), Sam Green (A Thousand Thoughts), and Sophia Nahli Allison (Sundance Institute New Frontier Lab); photographers Natalie Keyssar and Xyza Bacani; comedians Mohanad Elshieky and Michelle Buteau (Late Night Whenever); audio producers Hrishikesh Hirway (Song Exploder, The West Wing Weekly) and Sam Harnett (KQED); and others.