Sundance 2019: Pop-Up Magazine

By Sophie Silverstone

I’ve always wondered what a magazine would look like live. How to bring the stories to life, but still capture the audience with the same intimacy between the writers’ words and the reader? Pop-Up Magazine was a fun, multi-faceted manifestation of this.

Using film, animation, photography, live music, live art, and performances by the writers and other characters, Pop-Up Magazine had a special showing at the Egyptian Theater on Monday, January 28 at the Sundance Film Festival. In each “article,” the writer entered the stage and began by reading their story. Accompanying their words at the proper moments, images and animation were projected on a screen behind them, and music by their live band onstage, the Magik*Magik Orchestra, was played to match the mood and help guide each story.

The lineup was a collection of seven writers from The New York Times, National Geographic, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, and others. This Sundance showing was sort of an “all-star tour” says one of the writers, Vann R. Newkirk II. Vann is a politics writer for The Atlantic. He wrote and performed his popup piece called “The Tar River Refugees.” It covered the climate change refugee crisis occurring on the Atlantic coastline of the U.S. as a result of heavier floods and tropical storms in recent years, calling attention to the environmental racism that established those primarily black and towns in danger zones in the first place. Since the abolition era, the town of Princeville, North Carolina, has always been dangerously close to the Tar River. The recent uptick in storm severity brought on by climate change is threatening to sweep Princeville away by the river for good, taking with it the history of an incredibly resilient black community, unless we can help it. “It could happen to all of us,” says Vann. The story of how an entire town’s history is literally on the brink of being washed away is powerful in of itself, but to hear the writer admit to the audience that he grew up just 10 miles away from this town, and his own experiences with disastrous flooding, brought us in closer. All huddled in an auditorium together at one moment in time, there was no room for the audience to separate ourselves from our empathy for the writer and that community.

The other stories presented had a little bit of everything: a hopeful aid worker woman amidst the gang violence in El Salvador, the life of one of the earliest inventors of the precursor to photography, “Customer Slurvice”––a comical curious prod into the customer service center for Ancient Age whiskey and other various alcohol distributors, a lifetime friendship between two WWII nurses, a Filipino rockstar who prefers working a blue collar job in the safety of the U.S. to his fame and fortune in the Philippines, and the story of one of the singers from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and his quest for acceptance from his family. Primarily Millennial writers covered issues across diverse communities: African Americans, seniors, LGBTQ and immigrants. There was even live art and a drag performance.

Yet there is a catch: None of the stories will be shared online after the performance. Even recounting the stories in this much detail feels sacrilegious—all are meant to have an ephemeral quality.

Also different from reading a magazine at home by yourself: We were sharing an experience as a community. It’s the little things about having that group experience that connect us. It was the three kind ladies I stood next to in line who shared half of their Toblerone chocolate bar and excited conversation with me as we waited in the cold. It was vicariously feeling the joy of the two women sitting next to me squeal as they absorbed and related to the story of the two friends who lived to be 100 together, the WWII nurses––best friends forever! It was the pure absurdity and hysterical laughter that erupted in the entire room as the drag queen sang an impassioned version of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” as she emptied out all the “little” things from the bust of her dress, from a telephone to an entire pitchfork.

As was customary, Pop-Up Magazine ended with the audience and the performers chatting in the theater and around the bar. The one-on-one personal interaction with the writers makes the stories and their experiences that much more tangible.

This year was the first time Pop-Up Magazine was at Sundance. Pop-Up Magazine, launched in 2014, is based in San Francisco. They typically do three productions a year and publish a print magazine, The California Sunday Magazine every other month. They launch their winter tour on January 30, visiting Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, D.C., Atlanta and Austin.

Every year Sundance programming includes a special event that looks to the new horizons of how we consume news media. In 2016 The New Yorker’s mini magazine video series: The New Yorker Presents was entertaining, but was just another thing to watch. The stories didn’t sink in any differently than any other docu-series video on the internet. The magic with Pop-Up Magazine is that it’s the next step; something we watch, feel and share as a community.

Reading magazines has a way of making us feel more connected with the world. But how connected can you really be with the world by simply reading words on a page in isolation? Pop-Up Magazine brings a magazine to life as a shared experience by audience members. In this day and age with the idea of walls, nationalities and boundaries threatening our togetherness as a human race, these live shared empathy-inducing experiences are the glue that will hold us together.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.