Posts

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

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.