Live nonfiction shows put you in the room with the story
Imagine your favorite magazine came to life. The writers are standing in front of you, telling stories in their human voices. Artwork is tall as a triple-decker, splashed on a giant screen, and more often than not it’s moving; this can happen when a magazine is alive. Music plays, but not just Pandora or whatever you listen to while scouring The New Yorker. Before you is a small orchestra performing a score composed especially for the story about national security or breakfast or fog in which you are quite literally immersed.
Afterward, you and the entire masthead go out for drinks. Then — here’s where it gets really crazy — nothing. No sharing, posting, tweeting, or linking. Nary a photo or a video clip has been shot. You really did have to be there.
Welcome to Pop-Up Magazine, the most ephemeral entry in the exploding genre of live storytelling shows. Their ranks span memoir-driven events like “The Moth” and “Mortified,” the uber-literary WordTheatre, staged versions of radio shows like “This American Life” and “Radiolab,” the science-based “Story Collider,” and local groups such as Massmouth and humor-heavy Wild Memory Nation. There’s “Flatball Radio,” an Ultimate Frisbee storytelling series, and “Slant,” a live queer storytelling series. Particulars vary, but they all share the fundamental aim of gathering people together to share true stories.
“It’s almost like sitting around a campfire,” says Scott Kremer, a comedy writer and performer from Waltham who participates in Wild Memory Nation events. “It doesn’t matter if the stories are funny or serious. You feel a connection.”
That last word comes up a lot talking with people in the live storytelling community. As vast and alluring as our connections on social media can be, there’s an intimacy they lack — an experience of simply being in the room together. It’s no coincidence that, in a digital world, audiences are seeing the appeal of the most ancient form of communication.
This is why particle physicist Ben Lillie launched “Story Collider,” which presents around 50 lives shows a year as well as a weekly podcast, with contributions both from actual scientists and people who haven’t thought about science since high school chemistry class. His mission is nothing short of helping people feel “an emotional connection to science.”
“That’s the way most people process things, the way they relate to the world,” Lillie says. “Science is such a big part of life and culture and everything happening around us, but so many people are cut off from it. The storytelling medium is as primal as you can get.”
Pop-Up Magazine explores that notion as well, leaving no digital trail whatsoever. The group, which since it launched in 2009 has gone from selling out shows in its hometown of San Francisco to touring cities across the country, holds its first Boston event on Nov. 15 at the Wilbur Theatre. Contributors will include writers Jordan Kisner, Jessica Hopper, and Mychal Denzel Smith, visual journalist Lam Thuy Vo, radio producers Tina Antolini and Stephanie Foo, photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva, and the Magik*Magik Orchestra. The show is structured like a general interest magazine, beginning with an editor’s note and then proceeding to short, “front-of-book” dispatches — brief reviews, mini-profiles, infographics — and longer, in-depth pieces that are like full-length magazine features. Beyond that, if you haven’t been to one or know someone who has, that’s all you’ll know going in, and that’s the point.
“Philosophically, we have nothing against recorded live events,” says cofounder Douglas McGray, who has worked as a magazine writer and contributor to “This American Life.” “But as we started making the show, we realized there’s something interesting about not recording it. You pay attention differently if you know you can’t go home and share a link. There’s something very exciting about seeing something that will happen once and never again.”
Exciting and somewhat transgressive, given the prevailing view that growing your audience, your brand, and your revenue stream in the digital space is the modern recipe for success. McGray’s strategy is twofold. First, get money flowing from a few different sources — Pop-Up Magazine Productions also publishes an actual print magazine called the California Sunday Magazine and creates branding campaigns for the likes of Google Play and Lexus, as well as teaming up with ESPN, indie publisher McSweeney’s, and the musician Beck for various events. Second, “be scrappy” — not just in terms of a business model, but by drawing, like most live storytelling groups, on nonprofessional performers to deliver the goods.
“You know people who have had some hilarious experience, or are back from a war zone, or met a surprising person, and when you talk to them at dinner or at a bar they’re fascinating,” McGray says. “A big part of what we’re thinking about is, how do we translate that to the stage?”
Jordan Kisner, a soft-spoken essayist who lives in New York, is a first-timer on the current Pop-Up Magazine tour. Talking on the phone the morning after her debut at a Los Angeles event, she still sounds surprised.
“As a writer and as a reader, you always experience stories in solitude,” she says. “I mean, you can approximate something collective after the fact on social media. But having that experience around other people, with the audience itself contributing to what’s happening, it creates a feeling in the room. I was struck by how powerful the collective experience is.”