Pop-Up Magazine is an exercise in ephemerality. The magazine is a magazine, but onstage: Writers, editors and photographers bring stories about politics, culture, technology, architecture, science, relationships and more — it even has live ads. But as far as each audience is concerned, it’s also a mayfly.
Born in San Francisco, Pop-Up lives briefly in a city for as long as you’re in the room watching it, is never recorded and then disappears. The closest you can get to the magazine without showing up is hearing other people’s stories about the stories. There’s no YouTubing it later.
“There’s something special about the fact that you need to be there,” said longtime Pop-Up contributor Jon Mooallem, who is also a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. “That can be a little annoying, too — but the appeal is undeniable.”
And Pop-Up is, according to people who’ve seen it, a damn fine show, with film, animation and live scores for the stories, composed and performed by Magik*Magik Orchestra. For one “issue,” chef Samin Nosrat told a story about tastes, including small, flavor-laced marshmallows with each program so everyone’s palates could follow along. For another, the audience voted on how to move through a choose-your-own-adventure story (about whether to leave a parent at an elder-care facility run entirely by artificial-intelligence technology) via glow sticks. In the spring issue, coming to Benaroya Hall May 15, a technology story about Stanford engineers trying to reproduce the acoustics of a 1,483-year-old cathedral features live Byzantine chant from vocal group Cappella Romana.
Mooallem read at the first Pop-Up Magazine, in the Bay Area in 2009, along with Roman Mars, now host of the excellent podcast “99% Invisible.”
“Roman got up and just said: ‘This is a piece of tape I recorded awhile ago,'” Mooallem said. “It was just 15 seconds of a guy freaking out about the new pope — yelling ‘this new pope is awesome!’ — and Roman just sat down. The whole thing was 30 seconds. It was just so exciting to go to these events where you didn’t know what was going to happen. It was magic. This whole community built up around the show.”
Its current tour is selling out venues like the 3,040-seat Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
Somehow, this magazine you can’t read has fused the techniques of journalism with the fleeting quality of live theater (two projects well-known for their financial and existential crises) and leveraged them into a success.
“We want every story to feel like a conversation between audience and contributor instead of just reading something or sitting and listening to people talk for two hours,” executive editor Anita Badejo said. Before joining Pop-Up, she was a features editor at BuzzFeed News, which sort of prepared her for Pop-Up — the assigning, the editing, the fact-checking — but not entirely.
“As a features editor, you can dangerously equate length with quality,” she said. “One of the most striking things to me when I started was length — our longest stories are 12 minutes long, which on the page is about 2,000 words. Our stories are rich and complex, with twists and turns, but we’ve got to keep it tight.” Then there are the extras, like marshmallows, dust particles pumped onstage to mimic the atmosphere of an ancient building, and glow sticks.
“I had stress dreams about those glow sticks!” she said and laughed. “That they weren’t going to be bright enough, or the different colors wouldn’t be discernible. I remember standing backstage when Rose [Eveleth, of the podcast “Flash Forward”] told the story for the first time. I heard the crackle of thousands of glow sticks being opened in the room, then saw the entire audience all lit up with color — it was a beautiful, magical moment.”
Also on deck for the Pop-Up spring issue at Benaroya Hall: comedian Mohanad Elshieky on the wildest car ride of his life (in his hometown of Benghazi, Libya); science historian and author Laurel Braitman explaining the difficulties of dating on a very, very small island in Alaska; filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison with a documentary about Latasha Harlins, whose death (and her killer’s sentence to probation instead of prison) was one catalyst for the 1992 Los Angeles protests and riots; that story about reproducing the acoustics of a 1,483-year-old Greek Orthodox cathedral in Istanbul; more. Mooallem said he’d talk about dreams, starting with one he had 20 years ago.
What was the dream?
“I don’t think I’m supposed to say,” Mooallem said. “They kind of like the black-boxness of the show.”
You can tell a thing is original when it invites more comparisons than explanations. Pop-Up is like a magazine (but you can’t carry it around), and it’s like live theater (but fact-checked), and it’s a little like a raffle: must be present to win. But everybody gets the prize.
Pop-Up Magazine Spring Issue, 7:30 p.m. May 15; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $32-$42; popupmagazine.com