Aspen Ideas Festival: Pop-Up Magazine brings stories from page to stage

Vann R. Newkirk II presenting at a Pop-Up Magazine event.
Courtesy photo


What: Pop-Up Magazine at the Afternoon of Conversation

Where: Aspen Ideas Festival, Benedict Music Tent

When: Wednesday, June 26, 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Tickets: Sold Out

A Pop-Up Magazine story begins, more or less, like any piece of narrative nonfiction or journalism.

“It’s a producer reaching out to someone and asking, ‘What are you thinking about lately? What do you want to write about that you haven’t had the opportunity to? What’s on your mind?’” Pop-Up senior producer Haley Howle said Tuesday morning on the Aspen Institute campus.

But then it evolves as the Pop-Up team soon starts to give the story a performative spin.

“In the beginning we operate like a traditional print magazine, but a month out we turn into a theater company,” she explained.

Once they have a writer’s story script in shape, the Pop-Up team commissions collaborators — animators, photographers, musicians and singers, actors and set-builders — to build the story into a live experience like the one planned for this afternoon at Aspen Ideas Festival.

“We are always thinking about, ‘How can we take this story off the page and activate it?’” Howle said. “How can we take advantage of the fact that we are in a space with an audience?”

So the story event production company is an ideal partner for the Institute’s Ideas Fest, which takes ideas and newsmakers from a wide array of fields and brings them to a live audience. At today’s “Afternoon of Conversation at Ideas Fest,” Pop-Up will present stories including one told in song by opera singer Emily Birsan, a story that will “resurrect a scent from the dead,” one from the Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II, a short film by Sophia Nahil Allison, another from comedian Mohanad Elshieky — all of them complemented by a live band and massive LED screens installed in the tent for a rare daytime Pop-Up Magazine event.

The Afternoon of Conversation is the centerpiece of Ideas Festival, bringing its largest expected audience to the Benedict Music Tent for a program that also will include the rapper and author Common and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The event is open to the public but tickets are sold out.

Pop-Up’s producers have made something that aims to harness the storytelling power of forms like a podcast, a documentary film, a magazine, a concert and comedy show all in one interactive and social experience.

“The elements (a Pop-Up Magazine story) should have is that it should be reported in some way, it should be surprising, and the audience should walk away having learned something or felt something that they weren’t expecting,” Howle said.

Some are funny, some tear-jerking, none are quite the same. The magazine curates a group of stories that form a dramatic arc of an experience from start to finish.

“We think about what our audience will experience from the first second to the last second of the show,” Howle said.

The show curated for Aspen is a collection of stories produced over the past year and aimed at the global audience that is gathered here for Ideas Fest.

“We’ve thought a lot about what we are going to bring to Aspen and what we are going to bring to such an interesting gathering of audience members,” Howle said.

As platforms for storytelling and journalism rapidly evolve, Pop-Up is combining the legacy of longform narrative journalism with the intimacy of live storytelling in an attempt to bring people together.

“We are so used to consuming content in isolation online,” Howle said, adding that Pop-Up doesn’t record its shows and that audiences are asked to put away their phones. “You are in it with the people around you and the sequence of stories is only happening for you and this group of people at this moment. There is something magical and unexplainable that happens.”