We interviewed Pop-Up Magazine's co-founder Chas Edwards on what's in store at this year's ephemeral live magazine show

Switch off your smartphones, everyone—the magazine is about to begin. Yes, that’s right, I said magazine, and yes, I’m serious about the digital detox. Unlike other shows where you’d be fighting camera flashes and your own temptation to take selfies, when Pop-Up Magazine takes the stage, you won’t see or hear a camera snap within earshot.

Human beings are obsessed with capturing every moment, to the extent that we feel naked if we leave the house without our iPhones attached to our arms like conjoined limbs. It’s this very idea that spurred Chas Edwards and his team to create Pop-up Magazine in San Francisco in 2009, as a way to actually hold people’s attention and get them to interact with stories in an completely engaged and in-the-moment way.

Simply put, Pop-Up Magazine a magazine performed live by writers, radio producers, photographers, filmmakers and musicians. The shows feature true, never-before seen or heard multimedia stories alongside photographs, animations, illustrations, film or music performed live by Magik*Magik Orchestra. Currently produced two to three times a year, the shows routinely sell out.

Because of the shows’ ephemeral nature, audiences pay close attention, like how they would mindfully indulge in a 3-star Michelin restaurant meal soaking up the restaurant decor, tableware and overall ambience, as opposed to quickly chowing down a McDonald’s cheeseburger. After each show, the audience is invited to a bar to discuss the stories with each other and the performers.

Although they keep most of the details under wraps, PSFK got an exclusive scoop from Co-founder, President and Publisher Chas Edwards about what we can expect from their upcoming show.

Emily: For those people out there who are not so familiar with the Pop-up Magazine concept, could you please provide a lay of the land into what it is and how the concept come about?

Chas: Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine that brings together journalists telling original stories in a package. In our case, instead of being printed on paper and mailed to you, that issue is one evening that takes place inside a theater. Because it’s live, it’s quite multimedia. The contributors are writers, photographers, radio producer, podcasters, filmmakers and musicians. They all perform stories on stage, so its multimedia in terms of their backgrounds. It’s also a multimedia in terms of the way that we can deliver the stories to an audience. The journalist is standing at the mic on stage. Above the journalist, on the giant screen is original photography or animation or film to bring art and media to the story. Also on stage is our house band ,the Magic Magic Orchestra. They compose original scores that they perform live for each of the stories on stage.

Given the popularity of live podcasts and storytelling nights, what distinguishes the show from these other mediums?

There are a couple of things. If you think about what a magazine does, it brings together journalism around a range of topics and it brings you, as a reader, on a ride. A ride that, in some stories, makes you laugh really hard. In other stories, gets you angry. In some stories, you might even cry. That experience with original, scripted stories is something that’s different from a lot of the live story nights where people are picking up a microphone and telling a wonderful story.

These are stories that are edited with our team here. Like a magazine, it’s a pretty polished version of stories, really brought to life by music and multimedia. Sometimes, in Pop-up Magazine, there are stories that even come off the stage into the audience in unexpected ways.

For example, there’s a story that we did at Pop-up Magazine by the chef and food writer Samin Nosrat about war displacing food. Obviously, war displaces people, but the same thing happens to food. She told the story of Aleppo pepper, which, because of the civil war in Syria, cannot be cultivated in Syria anymore, so the seeds are taken to Turkey and China. Aleppo peppers are still grown and sprinkled on our fancy avocado toast in New York and San Francisco and LA. It tastes different though now because the soil is different and the climate is different in these regions.

A second example that she gave in the story was about cinnamon. Our grandparents all grew up eating cinnamon that came from Vietnam called Saigon cinnamon. From 1965 to 1999 in the United States, you could not get cinnamon from Vietnam. Cinnamon was grown in southern India, in Ceylon, and the taste was different. In everyone’s programs at the show, there was a little plastic bag with two small pink marshmallows. One seasoned with Saigon cinnamon and one seasoned with Ceylon cinnamon. So, while it was being performed for you on stage, you were tasting what she was telling you in that story.

And could you taste the difference?

Yes, there was a very stark difference between the two! Obviously you never know it if you were just eating one or you sprinkled it on your toast.

Can you explain the importance of why the show is never recorded or streamed?

There are two parts to this. The fleeting element is important because when you’re at an event that you know will not be on YouTube the next day, it does something interesting with your attention and engagement. What we find at Pop-up Magazine is that because people know the stories they’re seeing that night will only be performed that one night for them, they pay immense attention.

They turn off their phones, they stop talking and it’s a packed theater that’s utterly silent with 2,000 or 3,000 people completely engaged in those stories. So it’s about giving people permission to pay attention in a different way.

The second thing is about creating something that is optimized for the live experience. If we were filming or recording the show, we’d have to do different things with light in the room. Cameras would be getting in between the audience members and the performers on stage. Essentially we want to create stories that are perfectly designed for enjoying with friends in a darkened theater.

We’re living in the ‘clickbait’ era. Obviously the show was created to counteract the fact that people aren’t devoting enough time and attention to real journalism stories, but then it seems counterintuitive to get people to go to the effort of going out to theater to see it. Why do you think it works?

I think that part of the explanation is that so much of our life and the time we spend with media and stories, is done on our phones, is done on our laptops, is done when we’re at work or when we’re on the train.

We found audiences are delighted for the opportunity to get out and spend a night with like-minded people, see old friends, meet new ones and do all of that around stories. We found that, particularly for the younger segment of our audience, the scene is quite novel.
And afterwards, you can meet some of the storytellers and journalists who have been on stage that night.

This “performed journalism” genre uses the old and decidedly non-digital methods of the theater to draw people in. So in some ways, the live show fill the newspaper’s historic role as being a focal point for the community—a role that has faded as information sources have grown more diffuse. News today is scattered across digital platforms, where two people rarely read the same compilation of stories every day, and readers no longer feel as loyal to a particular news organization as they once did. What is your opinion on how segmented the media world had become?

So many of us are getting our daily news headlines through Twitter and through Facebook and social media. On the one hand, it’s very brutalized, and maybe that’s a good thing but on the downside, that is, we have lost that communal, shared experience of news stories and facts. Especially in the news space, we’ve seen a lot of downside to that.

Pop-up Magazine and California on Sunday do as much as a newspaper would. We’re much more like a magazine in that way. I do still think the opportunity to share magazine journalism with other people at the same time is powerful and unusual.

When you’re reading a short piece in one of your favorite magazines that makes you laugh, you’re laughing by yourself. In the experience of Pop-up Magazine, with the funnier stories, you’re participating in a communal moment of laughter. That contagiousness of pleasure and enjoyment around a story is palpable and makes the story more affecting. It’s a shared experience.

Also, when you’re reading a magazine on your phone or on the Internet, the story is just touching your eyes and your eyes are having to filter the experience. At Pop-up Magazine, the story is coming at you through your eyes, ears, fingers and toes. It’s a very immersive experience and I think the communal aspect heightens that experience.

We’re living in an experimental time in media. What are your predictions on the future of storytelling in terms of how people will tell stories and bring people together around these stories?

Over the last 5,000 years, storytelling has been central to community, society and civilization, so I don’t think we’re at risk of losing storytelling or storytelling is at risk of losing its importance to us as humans and citizens.

I think what we’re seeing right now is the proliferation of new kinds of technologies to share these stories. At Pop-up Magazine, even though we’re doing it in the theater, the technologies in everyone’s pocket allow us to bring stories to people in new ways.

While there’s the analog aspect of what we do, there are great opportunities for technology to enhance the experience. We did a story at a Pop-up Magazine show a couple of years ago about how virtual reality was changing the way we make documentary films and what that does to the experience of watching a documentary film. We performed it on stage and to the left of the theater, we had set up an opportunity for people to dive into an aspect of that story in VR goggles. I think that there’s opportunities to bring together by combining more analog, traditional approaches to storytelling with cutting edge, technological innovation.

How have you seen the stories evolve over the last nine years, especially in the past year, given the current political climate?

One aspect of the evolution is that they’ve gotten more multimedia over time. In the early days of Pop-up Magazine, not all of the stories had music with them. Some of them didn’t have anything on the screen. Now all of the stories are very rich, and multilayered with media, music, film, animation, motion and sound.

The other evolution is as that in the beginning, we were in quite small theaters. We now are in much larger theaters. It’s made the experience of being in the theater more fun because there are a lot more people sharing that story with you.

Also, a big part of the event is what happens right after the show. We all go out into the lobby at the theater—all of us at Pop-up Magazine, all of the performers and all of the attendees—and we have a drink together, mingle and talk about the stories. That aspect of the after party has become even more important to us over time.

To your question about the political moment, it’s interesting for us. Last fall, we had put together a Pop-up Magazine show that kicked off right before the presidential election. Then there were several shows were after the election.

The stories that were in the show did not change. The scripts had been edited and finalized before the election happened. What was very interesting to us was that the stories ended up feeling quite different to an audience after November 8 than they did before November 8.

We assigned a bunch of stories on a bunch of different topics—on nature, health, immigration and music. 

Every one of our shows covers a broad range of topics but on that tour last year,  people saw new meanings to stories, that we hadn’t inserted at all. It was just the change in political climate in the United States the affected the way we thought about stories of health or immigration.

Which stories are you most excited about at the upcoming event?

There’s a hilarious story about summer jobs by Lester Yassir, who’s most famous for being a writer and actor on Girls. He has a really, really funny personal story about summer jobs and the ups and downs of being a teenager trying to keep a job.

Then, we have some stories that are really full of pathos. There’s this story by photographer and filmmaker Carlos Javier Ortiz who’s performing a story about a crime that befalls a young man in Chicago. It’s a story where you think you know the ending, but it takes a very unusual turn.

We also have some stories about new ways of thinking and treating mental illness. We have a funny tech story about a part of technology that all of us interface with hundreds of times a day.

Hopefully, some stories that will make you laugh hard, some that will pluck your heartstrings and a few might just be delightful and unexpected.

If there was one thing you hope people get out of the Pop-up Magazine, what would it be? 

We hope take you on a ride and make you feel like you’ve had an evening full of laughs, power and inspiration.

What is on the horizon for Pop-up Magazine? How will it continue to evolve?

On the pedestrian level, one way that we’re evolving is that we’re growing. We used to just do it in San Francisco, now we do it nationally. Last year, we did two shows that we brought on tour. This year, we’re going to go on tour three times and going to new cities. We want to bring our live magazine to more people.

The other thing is that we’re always experimenting. We like to do the big show in big theaters but we also like to play with something that’s in an unexpected venue or try a themed show or try something we haven’t done before. Those kinds of experiences end up teaching us how to make a more interesting big show.

For example, we had a visual artist design custom dinner napkins for us. He wrote word poetry and art that was printed onto the table napkins. That was a story in itself.  At the time, there was a big drought going on in California, so we used people’s water glasses as an opportunity to create an infographic about the drought. Each glass was different and represented a different reservoir in California. That was a way to get people talking about the topic in a more accessible way.

Thanks for your golden nuggets of insight, Chas! 

If you’re interested in attending a Pop-Up magazine in your city, head to their website to buy a ticket before they sell out!

Switch off your smartphones, everyone—the magazine is about to begin. Yes, that’s right, I said magazine, and yes, I’m serious about the digital detox. Unlike other shows where you’d be fighting camera flashes and your own temptation to take selfies, when Pop-Up Magazine takes the stage, you won’t see or hear a camera snap within earshot.

Human beings are obsessed with capturing every moment, to the extent that we feel naked if we leave the house without our iPhones attached to our arms like conjoined limbs. It’s this very idea that spurred Chas Edwards and his team to create Pop-up Magazine in San Francisco in 2009, as a way to actually hold people’s attention and get them to interact with stories in an completely engaged and in-the-moment way.