Print May Be In Peril, But Pop-Up Magazine Is Alive and Thriving (Maybe Because It’s Live)


Last March, sitting in Town Hall Theater in Seattle, Brooke Jarvis cried over a magazine story. Not something she’d read, though. Jarvis found herself in tears over Pop-Up Magazine, the live storytelling series aiming to shift the print experience from the page to the stage. Jarvis is herself a seasoned investigative reporter, and knows something about provocative storytelling. “Unclaimed,” her profile of an anonymous migrant who spent 16 years unidentified in a vegetative state, won a Livingston Award this summer, a big deal for journalists. But at Pop-Up, she found herself moved in a new and unexpected way. “I could imagine reading the same information in a magazine or text, and while you’d have an emotional reaction to it, maybe it wouldn’t be as strong as being in the audience, all together,” she says. “You’re laughing and crying and caught up in the collective experience.”

At a Pop-Up show, journalists become performers and vice versa. Lineups may include comedians and actors, as well as reporters and essayists, invited or accepted via an open application process. The challenge is to tell a reported story through audio and visual means, crossing the playfulness of fiction with the rigor of nonfiction. The development process can take months and is collaborative, involving members of Pop-Up’s team.

Next week, the series sets down at Lincoln Center for the first time. (Past New York legs have included Town Hall, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Kings Theatre.) Performers on tap include the comedian Aparna Nancherla, with her funny analysis of a viral TED talk on body language, and Cord Jefferson, who juxtaposes the death of voicemail with a more private loss. They share the stage with traditional journalists: New York-based reporter Matt Wolfe, whose piece tackles a mysterious graffiti tag laced through the city; an examination of the word “diva” by the investigative reporter Robin Amer weaves in a performance by an opera singer; and an appearance by Kurt Andersen, who knows all about the transition from the written word to live performance, having gone from co-founder of Spy Magazine and editor of New York to Peabody Award-winning radio host of Studio 360 on WNYC.

The series has become something of a rite of passage for media wonks since 2014, when the journalist Douglas McGray launched both the live Pop-Up shows and The California Sunday Magazine: a more traditional publication in tandem with a whole new kind of journalistic model. Ultimately, California Sunday has developed into a formidable media property in its own right, the winner of multiple National Magazine Awards, as well as a darling among journalists.

A loose pipeline connects California Sunday and Pop-Up: Jarvis’ editors at the former suggested she apply to perform at the latter. Her “emotional reaction” during field research surprised her, given her familiarity with magazine stories. Sitting in the audience full of emotion “made me want to pitch them,” says Jarvis. It’s a unique experience for writers used to seeing their words live on in print or online: the shows aren’t recorded, or disseminated for viewing after the fact.

For performers it’s like touring with a band, absent the “jerks,” Jefferson suggests; shows start with a backstage toast and end with a cocktail party in the lobby. There are three tours a year, with this one swinging from the West Coast to the East, with a stop-off at the Twin Cities. Future tours may expand out of the country, and into new storytelling modes: virtual or augmented reality.

The “special kind of alchemy” of live storytelling appealed to Jefferson, a Gawker alum who now writes for Master Of None and The Good Place. In television, “it takes forever to accomplish anything, and often the things you end up writing never see the light of day,” he said by phone.

Pop-Up offers something new for journalists, too. Jarvis spoke of the “constraints” of the obsession with timeliness in the field, which can discourage writers or editors from considering subjects dead and gone, such as the 20th century kidney doctor Jarvis’ new story tackles. “I think every writer has had the experience, probably many times, of being in love with the story, and you can’t convince an editor to love it too. Because editors are working within constraints. They need to convince readers why you should read this and why you should read this now.”

Revenue includes ticket sales and ads run as narrative segments during shows, as well as subscriptions to California Sunday. “The biggest way we gauge impact is how we moved the audience,” says Anita Badejo, a Pop-Up senior producer and former BuzzFeed editor. “We have people who’ve gone to really early Pop-Up shows and years later will say, ‘We remember this story we saw at Pop-Up in 2011.’ That is really powerful and really exciting, because how many stories do you read in a newspaper or hear on a radio that you’re going to remember in six years?”

The model echoes live theater. “Other people may see the same play, but never the version you saw,” as Jefferson put it to me. In the age of screen dominance, “it’s nice that as in life, sometimes you have to be there to get the experience of something,” Jarvis agrees. She left the Seattle Pop-Up show with an idea, a pitch for the story she’d take to the stage, scribbled in the program.

Pop-Up Magazine will be performed Monday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall.