With the attention of magCulture shifting to New York for our MagMagMag collaboration at Vitsoe leading up to next week’s ModMag NY, it seemed the perfect coincidence that the latest edition of Pop-Up Magazine was, well, popping up here last night. This San Francisco project comes from the same team as California Sunday Magazine, and is just as exciting as that excellent publication.
Each date of its five city tour, a team of speakers and performers put on a two-hour show — a live magazine. I’ve long wanted to see this — the only way you can is in the flesh, nothing is recorded — so it was with some excitement that we rolled up at New York’s vast Lincoln Centre to find out what a live magazine meant.
The first surprise was the scale of the venue. The Pop-Up logo — that roll-up screen — implies a small room with a temporary screen and projector. This was anything but that, the vast David Geffen Theatre packed with 2,500 people, including plenty of print magazine makers. What we all saw was an extraordinary live event: extraordinary for the scope of the storytelling and also for the way the stories were presented.
The printed programme for the evening.
To describe the evening as a series of back-to-back talks would be an accurate starting point but overlooks the sheer ambition of the project. The stories are carefully complied — edited — and then additional performance elements added to reinforce the mood and enhance the narratives. There is humour and despair, amusing diversions and intense investigations. It truly is a live magazine, with all the shifts in pace and dynamic that implies.
Pop-Up began in a far smaller way, and has grown season by season (this is their fifth run). A bunch of writers and editors wondered how a live magazine might work and set about trialling just that. One of the friends I bumped into in the audience, Andrew Losowsky, explained to me how at first they were more rigid in their reflection of a print magazine flatplan; they started with a series of small stories before moving on to longer stories.
That structure has been simplified to a more practical series of similar-length presentations that are split up by what you might call ‘opening spreads’ — large headlines projected behind the stage. Every few stories there’s an advertisement from a sponsor, and these sit easily in the context of the live show. We saw a preview of a new Amazon TV show ans heard an excerpt from a new Audible podcast.
But it’s the stories themselves that make the show, and what a great series they were. The evening opened with a report about Bot responses to crowdsourced relationship advice questions that immediately warmed up the room, the humour enhanced by some smart animations on the big screen. This was followed by another lighter piece, a list of reasons to unfriend various facebook characters, and more animations.
The next story took more advantage of the live experience. Drummer Joy Bryant shared recording of her favourite drummers talking about their favourite beats, with live accompaniment from the inhouse Magik*Magik Orchestra. This small team of players had already been contributing background music to the earlier stories but were now shifted to the foreground to repeat famous drum patterns from James Brown, Bill Withers et al.
Sheila E’s favourite beat was revealed as the human heartbeat, before Bryant shared her favourite beat, from Taana Gardner’s 1981 ‘Heartbeat’. The arc of the story flowed perfectly, ending with Bryant centre stage drumming the ‘Heartbeat’ pattern.
Further stories used the live experience to enhance the experience in un expected ways. Reportage film about Thailand’s child boxers echoed a captioned photo eassay; a story about a true crime writer, himself a prisoner, featured an actor voicing the first person parts from the writer within the third person narrative of the main speaker; an astonishing personal story of divorced parents and their hidden past only recently revealed to, and now shared by, their daughter.
The personal was contrasted by the political in a report from Arizona about lettuce farmers’ reliance on Mexican labour to produce Trump’s favourite wedge salad that said much without forcing the point.
The evening built story by story making subtle use of the big screen, the musicians and clever but unobtrusive effects. Surprises came from twist in the readings and from perfectly judged staging. Each story seemed to better the last, right up to and including the finale. This was a carefully edited and crafted evening.
The moving finale concerned a gay choir from San Francisco touring the US post-election to try and break down the oppresive nature of the Trump win. Their tale began in the third person, a reporter talking to projected shots of the bus load of men on tour, until the story took a sudden shift to the personal. One of the singers returned to his home town to confront his parents who remained in denial about their sons’ homosexuality. The expected story — of immediate reconcilliation — failed to materialise at first. As this part of the story unfolded, on strode the man, Phillip Whitely, in drag as Patsy Cline performing ‘She’s Got You,’ and pulling an increasingly absurd selection of items from the cleavage of her dress.
The rollercoaster of emotions was completed with the final act of the show, the projection of the four word text message Phillip finally received from his father accepting the existance of his husband.
I can’t recommend Pop Up Magazine enough. It challenges the idea of what a magazine is while also reinforcing it, which is why it’s our Magazine of the Week. If you ever get a chance to catch it make sure you take it.