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Photo: Courtesy of Erin Brethauer
Photo: Courtesy of Erin Brethauer

Pop-Up Magazine’s Interactive Stories, From Politics to Karaoke

We’ve written before about the draw of performative storytelling here in the District, but the desire for people to connect with storytellers in a physical space beyond the page or screen also extends outside the boundaries of the DMV. In addition to locally sourced and produced shows, many live storytelling events (i.e. The Moth Story Hour, Mortified, A Prairie Home Companion to name a few) travel from city to city, engaging regularly with new audiences eager to participate in the experience. There is undeniable power and draw to live interaction, made even more precious in the digital age. Indeed, the increasing popularity of the “story told live” trend points to an attempt to reconnect with our human past, deeply rooted in oral histories. 

Founded in San Francisco in 2009, Pop-Up Magazine occupies a unique niche in this realm of live and interactive storytelling.  Drawing heavily on a journalistic tradition, its shows are crafted around reported stories. Like many others, Pop-Up Magazine’s shows are produced for the stage with a live audience, but Pop-Up Magazine’s multimedia approach – incorporating the work of print journalists, radio producers, illustrators, animators, filmmakers and others – also sets it apart.

Senior Producer Tina Antolini says the magazine was born from an idea to draw communities of diverse media makers together, as well as “creating or fleshing out a new medium for telling stories” that incorporate aspects of different kinds of media.

Antolini, who spent the majority of her career in radio journalism prior to joining the Pop-Up Magazine team, speaks to the difference in processes for both creators and consumers of media between working in-studio and experiencing a story remotely (perhaps while jogging, or commuting, or otherwise not fully immersed), respectively, versus the collaborative and immersive Pop-Up Magazine model.

“The dynamic of telling a story live to an audience and having them receive it is a world of difference from recording your tracks in the studio. I think that the audience has a totally different experience, too, receiving nonfiction stories this way. So often we’re consuming stories now as an individual, and to have a collective experience of a story, I think the emotional pull of that is different – for example, the funnier things are funnier when everyone else around you is laughing,” said Antolini.

Pop-Up Magazine’s shows are not themed, but instead depend on the collaboration of a cast of writers, producers, artists and media-makers of all kinds to bring reported stories to life. Some of the stories included may ultimately be destined for other media forms, like documentary work, and so, says Antolini, “it’s a collaboration from the earliest stages in terms of thinking about the story idea that might work for the show and helping to shape it specifically for the stage.”

Some shows involve Choose Your Own Adventure style participation, while others engage in more emotional or artistic ways. This spring’s tour, for example, includes the communal viewing (and subsequent communal experience of interpreting) of a photo essay from a photographer who has been documenting the response to mass shootings over the past eight years. A story like this is relevant and moving and perhaps crucial for us as a society to see together, and Pop-Up Magazine provides the outlet for us to do so.

Another important aspect of Pop-Up Magazine is that it shows not all nonfiction is inherently heavy, or difficult to approach. On the lighter side, for example, a past iteration included a story about the top five most dangerous karaoke songs that led to conflict in karaoke bars, which culminated with the whole audience singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

As with any live performance, the tone and experience of each showing varies depending on who is present, and what is happening in the lives of the presenters and audience members alike – something that is also true but often overlooked and underestimated in the case of traditional media consumption – but the goal is for each one to be both enjoyable and challenging.

“I think this show in particular manages to have some stories that are really relevant to the present moment of not just politics, but issues that people are really thinking and caring about that are approached in Pop-Up Magazine’s signature very beautiful, thoughtful way,” says Antolini.

Pop-Up Magazine will conclude its spring 2018 Tour at The Warner Theatre in DC on Wednesday, May 23. Additional highlights include a moment of live visual art, co-writing by a robot, and an acting performance from a character in one of the reported stories. Tickets and information can be found here.