Telling Stories / Pop-Up Magazine

Images from Pop Up Magazine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on May 10, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

Pop-Up Magazine is what happens when a diverse group of artists decides to create a live magazine. That’s right, a live magazine — as in on stage, in person, with an audience.

On Wednesday, May 23, 2018, Pop-Up Magazine wrapped up its Spring Issue tour at D.C.’s Warner Theatre. Journalists, actors, filmmakers, photographers, calligraphers, singers, engineers, and more came together to create this unpredictable spectacle. Pop-Up Magazine is multimedia storytelling of the highest caliber, but with a sincerity and reverence for truth so lacking in mainstream media at the moment. And, oh yes, it’s all scored by a live orchestra (Magik*Magik Orchestra, to be precise).

Images from Pop Up Magazine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on May 10, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

Birthed in California, Pop-Up Magazine held its first show in a small theatre in San Francisco. Now the team works with artists around the country to produce insightful, critically-acclaimed live shows about —  to name only a few topics — social issues, food, news, politics, spirituality, art, business, crime, and technology. There’s no limit to what and how you can tell your story through Pop-Up Magazine, and (the cliché holds true here) there’s something for everyone.

A veritable Cirque du synchrony, every movement, note, and syllable is timed and executed to the millisecond, but it doesn’t feel that way. Like the best art from the most masterful creators, the acts don’t show their seams. They flow easily and naturally — off the cuff and conversational but bursting with passion and curiosity.

The stories performed cover the full emotional spectrum. There’s humor to communicate deeper truths about human connection and empathy in the whimsically nonsensical, “Dear Abby” advice column written by a “bot,” and from a woman learning her long-divorced parents, whom she had never thought of as a single unit, had been arrested for running a successful “sex therapist” business in the 1960s.

Images from Pop Up Magazine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on May 10, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

Going the route of investigative journalism, Helen Rosner’s “The Wedge” thoughtfully and meticulously examines what iceberg lettuce and President Donald Trump’s adoration of the wedge salad say about contemporary America, racism, and labor reform. (A lot, surprisingly.)

Andres Gonzalez’s “Thoughts and Prayers” addresses gun violence by photographing the gifts and letters sent in the wakes of Newtown, Columbine, and Parkland to bear witness to how a nation reacts and internalizes public tragedy. In Mike Seely’s “Exiled,” we are shown the consequences of our nation’s immigration battle on a personal level through the emotional journey of United States paratrooper Hector Barajas, who was deported after six years of unwavering service.

The final act (of ten) featured a rousing call to action: an appeal to basic human decency. In the nuanced “All Together Now,” journalist, Chris Colin recounts the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus tour which the vocal group embarked upon through the southern states following the 2016 election. Their mission was to find common ground and understanding in response to the polarizing cultural rift which had parked itself, like a neighbor’s unwelcome political campaign sign, on the nation’s front lawn that November.

The broadly political becomes deeply personal when chorus member, Phillip Whitely, invites his ultra-religious, conservative parents to hear him sing Patsy Cline. Correction: sing and channel a slightly tipsy and more-than-slightly bawdy Patsy Cline with a dress, wig, and about a dozen props (including a framed picture, records, and a saw) stuck down the front of the costume.

I won’t ruin the ending of the story (which you can read here), but that night we were treated to a glorious rendition of “She’s Got You” by Patsy herself. The audience rocketed to its feet in an ovation long before the final notes.

Images from Pop Up Magazine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on May 10, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

It’s that feeling of, for lack of a better word, togetherness which helps to distinguish Pop-Up Magazine from other live storytelling experiences, such as The Moth or TED Talks. There’s a current of electricity in the air even before the show begins because those who have attended a Pop-Up Magazine show before know they’re going to experience something wonderful. Those who (like myself) are Pop-Up virgins don’t know what to expect but have a strange feeling it will be something different than the rest. How right we are.

Then there’s the ephemerality. Each eclectic show only exists within that performance space on that particular night with that specific audience. Blink, and you’ll miss it. There are no photos, no videos. No snippets were popping up on social media before you’ve left your seat. Instead, the performances are committed to memory, where they’ll be poured over again and again, like the pages of a beloved book, and, hopefully, shared again and again. After all, can something honestly be fleeting if you carry its memory with you and breathe new life into it with each retelling?

Images from Pop Up Magazine at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA on May 10, 2018. Photo by Erin Brethauer

Walking out into the balmy, late spring night afterward, I feel like I’ve experienced something almost spiritual. That feeling — that you have been a part of something profound and unique is part of the magic of Pop-Up Magazine.

Pop-Up Magazine continues to expand — in 2014, they launched the California Sunday Magazine, a visually stunning, award-winning, bi-monthly magazine and their Brand Studio to create smart, arresting campaigns for big brands such as Lexus, Google Play, and Squarespace. At the heart of it all, however, is the desire driving Pop-Up Magazine since the beginning: to tell a hell of a story, and to tell it artfully.


By Madlyn McAuliffe