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Pop-Up Magazine Brings Its Live Storytelling to San Diego for the First Time

The sister to California Sunday Magazine curates a program of live performances of narrative, brought to life with music, illustrations, and audio clips


Photo by Jon Snyder

A lone speaker on a dark stage. Audio clips. Animations projected on a large screen. Accompanying music performed live by on-stage musicians.

That’s the formula of Pop-Up Magazine, an experimental form of narrative media that made its first appearance in San Diego Monday night at The Observatory North Park. Imagine a magazine essay, except that the writer is reading it to you from behind a lectern. Instead of a single graphic, animations appear on the screen behind her, illustrating the story as it unfolds. Audio snippets at times aid in giving brio to the piece. And live music—in this case performed by the excellent four-person Magik*Magik Orchestra, headed by Minna Choi—lends a cinematic drama.

The performative magazine is a sister to the paper-and-ink California Sunday Magazine. Some of the pieces performed were torn straight from the bimonthly publication’s October “Escape” issue. But most of the 10 pieces were revealed for the first time on the magazine’s current tour, which has already made stops in San Francisco and Oakland. Over the next few weeks it will also land in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Washington, New York, and Chicago.

The “escape” theme was loosely defined, interpreted through a diverse array of stories on topics of immigration, travel, out of body experiences, and a jailbreak. The audience heard first-person and reported accounts, both light and somber. Among them were stories of what it’s like to become a meme (by comedian Chris Duffy), the travails of a cow named Betsy who liberated herself (by reporter Clio Chang), and the decades-long journey of a fugitive from justice who made good (by Waymond Hall).

Like in the print magazine, the focus seemed to be on narratives—page-turning stories that draw in readers from the first to last word. The stories may only deliver social or political commentary when it serves the story, though, not the other way around. (Stories didn't seem to suffer from the journalistic imperative of answering the question: What's the point?) The featured pieces were compelling but stopped short of sparking much controversy, which doesn’t disappoint given that the execution of performer, animation, and musical accompaniment is so seductive. The absence of a host (apart from a duo who gave a brief introduction to the show) lends the stories the uninterrupted flow of paging through a magazine in quiet solitude.

Pop-Up Magazine was founded in San Francisco in 2009 by a small group that included Douglas McGray, now editor of the print magazine, and has toured since 2014. With three tours a year, the shows bring in more than 35,000 audience members annually. As grabbing readers becomes ever tougher, journalism and storytelling are increasingly being reimagined, curated and presented on stage in various ways, a la The New Yorker Festival, OZY Fest, The Moth, and The Atlantic Festival (where Pop-Up Magazine is popping up this month). You might even include TED Talks in the category.

Staying true to magazine form, there were ads—three of them, each given the same dramatic treatment as the articles, presented like another bit of content in the night’s program (albeit less thought-provoking) rather than an interruption.

Ticket prices vary with the venue, but generally start at $39.

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