Who Says Longform Journalism Is Dead?

Pop-Up Magazine, a live production of longform journalism, is back for another sold-out show in Oakland.

In our increasingly digitized world, wonder is hard to come by. Each day, we’re bombarded with news across our devices and with the push for clicks and the struggle to combat dwindling attention spans, it’s rare that a story lives past the headline.

Pop-Up Magazine, a live production of longform journalism, pushes back against the notion that the market for in-depth feature reporting is gone. In fact, the Oakland stop of its winter tour sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale.

When the show debuted in 2009 at the Brava theater in San Francisco’s Mission district, Douglas McGray — who would later found the print publication, the California Sunday — and co-creative directors Derek Fagerstrom and Lauren Smith only planned for a one-off event. But with an audience captivated by the novelty of a night of an amalgamation of storytellers, the project kept expanding organically. A decade later, Pop-Up books theaters that seat thousands, mounts national tours three times a year, and routinely sells out shows.

“Almost all of the people who come to see Pop-Up come to see it by word of mouth,” explained Pop-Up Magazine executive editor and host Anita Badejo. That’s partially because a crucial premise of Pop-Up is that the show is never recorded or posted online. It relies on a sort of communal ephemeralness that’s increasingly hard to come by in our digitized world.

Each Pop-Up Magazine show is set up like a real magazine. It opens with an editor’s note, followed by a few shorter, “front-of-book” pieces, then a series of longform, narrative-driven stories. Presenters run the gamut in terms of craft, as any given issue will feature a healthy mix of writers, radio producers, podcast hosts, filmmakers, or poets. There are even advertisements, by way of commercials that separate the pieces.

The stories leap off the stage with the aid of a variety of mediums — from animations, photos, and video clips to an original, live score performed by the Magik Magik Orchestra at every stop.

Through the years, Pop-Up has pushed itself to go beyond the conventions of storytelling and engage all the senses for the viewers. A recent tour featured a scent sample of an extinct flower and a mid-show snack to punctuate a piece that was only marginally about a cookie.

“Everything we do is rooted in story,” Badejo said. “And anything we do has to be because it makes sense for the story and is aiding the story in some way. We never want to do anything for the sake of doing it or to add a lot of bells and whistles that don’t make sense.”

The first time the vast potential of the medium clicked for Badejo was in 2016, with a love story. Will Butler, then-director of communications at the San Francisco-based LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (and a former Express staffer), was working on a literary magazine for people at LightHouse to publish essays and articles. One of the essays, the story of the romance between Ben and Rhonda Partine, made its way to Badejo and McGray.

Ben and Rhonda met in Carrollton, Ga. on a blind date while in college. They quickly fell in love and built a life together. Rhonda had been blind since birth, and in his 40s, Ben was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy and began to lose his own sight, too.

“Rhonda taught him how to be a blind person.” Badejo said. “It was really, really just a beautiful love story between these two people, and we assigned it for the show.”

Because Ben had written the essay for the literary magazine, he was slated to be the sole presenter for the piece until one day out of the blue, Rhonda emailed Badejo with her own account of the story.

“Reading their two drafts side by side, I was like ‘There’s no way we could have one person narrate this piece. It has to be both of them together’” Badejo said. The next move was clear, and Pop-Up decided to take them both on tour.

“Hearing their story on stage with beautiful animations illustrating it and this beautiful score that also highlighted the cinematic and epic nature of their love story is just a really incredible experience,” she recalled. For Badejo, it was clear that Ben and Rhonda’s story could not have existed as fully as it did without the ability to pull elements across mediums to tell it.

It’s not the most complicated use of technology or media a piece has implemented — the production has employed shadow puppets to tell a story about memory, asked a dancer to embody a filmmaker’s piece and twice toured with live opera singers — but like most Pop-Up Magazine stories, it has an unshakeable emotional core that’s underscored by the live medium. It’s what the team calls the “Pop-Up pivot.”

“Some of our most surprising or emotional stories will start relatively light and humorous,” Badejo said. “People will be lulled into thinking they’re hearing about something they’re pretty familiar with, and all of a sudden there’s a sharp turn and it becomes really emotional and people are crying.”

Badejo couldn’t say much about what lies in store for the sold-out show at the Paramount on Feb. 1, other than local institutions and figures will be highlighted. But if you were lucky enough to procure a ticket, you’ll hear from Will Butler of indie rock darlings Arcade Fire and senior writer for The Ringer Jason Concepcion, KQED’s Sam Harnett, and Josie Duffy Rice, a lawyer and journalist covering criminal justice issues, among others.  

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