“Pop-Up is a unique thing. Live is a unique medium,” says Pop-Up Magazine’s senior story producer and co-host Anita Badejo. I’ve been grilling her on what makes Pop-Up’s “magazine-inspired” touring storytelling production different from radio variety shows like A Prairie Home Companion or Portland’s Live Wire! Her answers are as follows: (1) Pop-Up’s form draws inspiration from general-interest magazines and therefore focuses on topics like science, memoir, culture, and technology etc. (2) Much, if not all, of the stories are non-fiction pieces, written by journalists. (3) Pop-Up isn’t recorded or streamed. It’s intended to be an experience between the audience and the performers on stage, for that night only.
“Contributors often debut work with Pop-Up that is slated to be published later on a podcast or in print,” Badejo says. “It’s also true that because the show is live and unrecorded it can give people the freedom to tell a story that they wouldn’t otherwise want to tell, whether it’s because of something deeply personal to them or because they don’t want to share it beyond the space of that night’s theater.”
Each city on the production’s fall tour has a different line-up, but Portland’s will include Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler, Call Your Girlfriend podcast co-host Ann Friedman, staff editor at the New York Times Jenée Desmond-Harris, and environment/food writer Rowan Jacobsen, whose story will “engage a sense that Pop-Up has never engaged before, and that the audience will experience together.” That’s just naming a few guests. There are more on the bill, and each has been working with Badejo and the Pop-Up team to make their pieces engaging for a live audience.
Badejo laughs when I ask about that process. “For a lot of our stories the way we’re thinking is, ‘Oh, we’re a magazine. We’re a magazine. We’re a magazine.’ And then three weeks before the show we have to shift into, ‘We’re a theater production!’” She explains that most of the stories that come to Pop-Up are transformed on a case-by-case basis. There isn’t much uniformity to how they’re adapted. She’s also unassailable about what the stories will include (I keep trying to ask), but we talk about a story that was on Pop-Up last year and just played on NPR’s Invisibilia. “Leave a Message” by Cord Jefferson tells a personal tale, with some scientific studies woven in, about Jefferson’s dislike for voicemail messages and how that feeling gradually changed to deep affection.
“Originally the main voicemail only appeared at the end. So we worked on having it unfold throughout the course of the story,” Badejo says. “Then, once we had the script and some recordings, I handed it off to our art department. They commissioned an animator to add visuals. Our composer, Minna Choi, took it and created a score with our band, the Magik*Magik Orchestra. That’s an example of how it all comes together. By the end, your opinion of this voicemail has transformed in the way Cord’s did.”
Finally, I manage to wheedle that Stephanie Foo, a well-known and much beloved (at least by ME) producer at This American Life, will open the Portland shows with “a really incredible story about drunk dials with actual recordings of drunk dials,” says Badejo. Pop-Up, again riffing on a magazine format, likes to start its shows with short, funny pieces. (So if the Mercury were a live show, we would open with a passionate shouting rant from Editor-in-Chief Wm. Steven Humphrey.) “People can expect to be riotously laughing within the first 10 minutes,” Badejo promises.