Journalistic phenom Pop-Up Magazine brings its novel storytelling to Variety Playhouse

Producer and host Aaron Edwards describes it as "a podcast, a play, a live show, [all] wrapped up in one”

Pop-up Magazine Atlanta
Atlanta lawyer and journalist Josie Duffy Rice speaks at a Los Angeles Pop-Up Magazine show.

Photograph by Jon Snyder

National award-winning California Sunday Magazine brings its live show, Pop-Up Magazine, to the Variety Playhouse on February 11. In the last 10 or so years, the San Francisco-based production has played at venues from New York’s Lincoln Center to the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles—building a bit of a cult following, especially among artists and journalists.

Aaron Edwards, a producer and host of the current winter 2019 edition, says, “It will be a night of storytelling, of live music. It will feel kind of like a podcast, a play, a live show, all those things wrapped up in one.” Why call it a magazine? “The whole cadence of the show feels like you’re sitting down and spending time with stories, which is kind of the experience people have when they sit down with their favorite magazine. [It’s] an intimate moment where you get to tune out everything else and focus on a great story.”

In addition to deeply reported and personal narratives, past multimedia presentations have included shadow puppets, live illustration, animation, film, choral music, photography, and other artistic forms. As in many podcasts, the stories are scored with live, often original, music performed by the in-house Magik*Magik orchestra. Sponsor segments are also presented on stage, though are clearly identifiable as ads and are produced by a separate studio.

Pop-up Magazine Atlanta
James T. Green speaks at a Los Angeles Pop-Up Magazine show.

Audience participation is part of the drill. Last year, viewers used glow sticks to interact with storytellers. This year, Edwards won’t give away any stunts, but admits, “the one thing I can say is that people should be open to smelling something they haven’t smelled before.”

Pop-Up Magazine’s cast has included Oscar-winning filmmakers, New York Times best-selling authors like Alice Walker, and familiar radio voices such as NPR’s Kelly McEvers. This year’s performers include Will Butler of Arcade Fire, Stephanie Foo of This American Life, and Atlanta lawyer and journalist Josie Duffy Rice.

Impressed by last year’s performance at the Variety, the troupe’s first visit here, Rice offered to participate—suggesting a long list of topics around her usual beat, criminal justice. Then, she says, the producer asked Rice to name something “totally random” about herself. After some thought, she admitted to being a notoriously picky eater who had never eaten a hamburger, and the rest was history. In the winter edition, Rice says her live confession is now accompanied by “extremely embarrassing” footage of her tasting various foods for the first time—a burger, spinach, string cheese, carrots, oysters. Such surprises are part of the fun, as the show romps playfully and poignantly from politics and science to pop culture and art. This year’s topics range from the ethics of Alzheimer’s treatment to the father of the electric guitar (who happened to be related to Butler).

The company adds local performers like Duffy to customize the show for each city. “We really care about making the show feel like it was made especially for that audience and for that city—that it doesn’t feel like we just parachuted in,” says Edwards, who actually lived in Atlanta as a teenager.

Pop-up Magazine Atlanta
Francesca Mari speaks at a Los Angeles Pop-Up Magazine show.

Photograph by Jon Snyder

Perhaps most unusual of all, Pop-Up Magazine does not record its performances or post them online. Literally, fans must be present to win. “You and the other people in the theater will experience something that no other group of people will be able to say that they experienced,” Edwards says. “We’re asking people to take a step back from the craziness of day to day, enjoy some really good stories, and hopefully learn something that they’ll be able to talk about with other people.”