Photo: Erin Brethauer
Photo: Erin Brethauer

Behind The Audio: NPR’s Yowei Shaw Brings Mystery to Pop-Up Stage

When Yowei Shaw attended her first Pop-Up Magazine show, she was so intrigued by the unique storytelling platform she knew immediately that she wanted in. The current NPR producer for Invisibilia was a freelancer at the time, so she was well versed in the act of pitching proper stories for the right outlets, but after proposing nonfiction after nonfiction stories, Pop-Up proved to be incredibly selective about its performers. Though Shaw is still figuring out the perfect pitching formula, a story based on her personal experience was approved for the fall 2018 issue and is on its way to Warner Theatre in DC on September 25 (she’s also performing in Portland and Toronto for Pop-Up’s international debut).

“I think it was a little bit of a fluke that I got through,” Shaw jokes, but as she describes her upcoming performance, it has all the traits to captivate a listener and keep them tuned in until the end.

The story is based on, “something strange [that] happened to me years ago when I used to run a tiny DIY youth radio project in Philadelphia,” Shaw says. During a workshop she taught to young people about creating radio stories for their communities, “something went totally haywire with one of my students and I haven’t ever been able to get it out of my head.”

Shaw was able to track down her former student who inspired the story, but that’s all she could share with me. Staying true to her background in long form audio content, the story involves an abridged investigation packaged for her live set. Through collaboration with Pop-Up’s team of the artistic and visually-minded, her story will feature animations and documentary photos.

At the time of our interview, Shaw hadn’t seen all the visual elements to her own story but is excited to see what the team comes up with. “Each story presents different opportunities and I feel like they’re always trying to maximize potential and try different things,” Shaw says.

Pop-Up ensures a diverse lineup, starting with shorter, comedic stories followed by heavier, longer stories toward the end. Shaw’s somewhere in the middle.

Shaw’s seen at least four or five Pop-Up shows now, explaining, “it’s really a magical experience. Every time it comes to town I have to go.” She adds that the Pop-Up team are masters of this new medium of storytelling and she’s very excited to meet her fellow performers and watch their own stories come to life.

“I’m a huge fangirl of [Ann] Friedman (Call Your Girlfriend podcast). I subscribe to her weekly newsletter, so that will be personally gratifying to meet her and see her story. I’m really excited to see what Albert Samaha (BuzzFeed) comes up with, Ed Yong (The Atlantic), really all of them. Almost all the rest of the lineup, these are people I admire and respect very much. It’s very strange to see my name [alongside their’s]!”

The storytelling performances are made up of avid note takers by profession – journalists from all media platforms. But what happens at Pop-Up Magazine’s live shows stays at Pop-Up: with its no-recording policy, audiences are left to sit through these performances and leave with just the memory of a night that draws from all bases of the human experience.

Working mostly in the radio world, Shaw was eager to collaborate with other types of journalists, making her both thrilled and nervous to perform a story live instead of producing it in a studio.

“Listening to the audio is a pretty solitary experience so I don’t know what people think really or how they experience it. I don’t know where people laugh, I don’t know where people sigh… I have performed before just a few times, and there’s a high you get from that kind of audience participation and reaction that you don’t get from putting out a podcast or radio show.”

As for what Shaw has planned next, she will produce a longer version of her performance for NPR’s Invisibilia, returning for its next season in spring 2019. “Imagining the audience and how they react in a much more intentional way, that is something I will be bringing back to my work with Invisibilia. Just the thrill of taking people by the hand and in the story and just giving them a ride and an experience.”

Pop-Up Magazine is coming to DC’s Warner Theatre on September 25. Find ticket information and see who’s performing here.

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.popupmagazine.com

Fareeha Rehman

Fareeha is a writer and artist from Northern Virginia. Tweet her @RehmanFareeha.