A Pop-Up Magazine live storytelling event.

A Pop-Up Magazine live storytelling event.

When I first saw Pop-Up Magazine in San Francisco a couple of years ago, I struggled to describe the experience to friends. What do you call a show where you might watch a singer in drag pull a golf club from his cleavage, view the animated history of a man who helped pass a constitutional amendment, or hear how the bald eagle went from symbol to pest?

“We like to tell people it’s like a podcast, documentary film, comedy show, play and concert all wrapped up into one,” says Anita Badejo, Pop-Up’s executive editor and co-host. “When you just say it’s a live magazine, people aren’t quite sure what to imagine.”

The Pitch

In an occasional series, Storyboard examines the elusive art of the story pitch. We talk to writers and editors about their tips, tricks and pet peeves, and annotate some real pitches.

((Read more from The Pitch here))

The show shares a sensibility, and an editor-in-chief, with its award-winning sister publication, The California Sunday Magazine. Pop-Up is similarly focused on telling true stories in the form of shorts and features and assigns pieces to departments like “business,” “technology” or “relationships.” Like the magazine, the show doesn’t do much history or memoir, and first-person narrative is limited in favor of reported pieces.

But with Pop-Up, the audience experiences the stories live and together, with sounds and sights that make full use of the theater environment. Pieces are set all over the world, not just the regions that California Sunday covers. And the stories are ephemeral – nothing is recorded or shared.

The show has toured in more than a dozen cities since premiering in 2009 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater, with seats often selling out in minutes. Tickets for the 2019 Winter Issue—which will travel to Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Austin — go on sale today (Dec. 18). The show plans to expand to new audiences and formats after its publisher was acquired last month by Emerson Collective, the organization run by Laurene Powell Jobs that also owns a majority stake in The Atlantic.

Badejo and I chatted about how to pitch stories for this unique medium and reviewed two successful pitches, from This American Life producer Stephanie Foo and from Helen Rosner, food correspondent for The New Yorker. Pop-Up takes pitches at stories@popupmagazine.com and has a contributor guide. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What kinds of contributors are you looking for?

In every show, we want a mix of writers, filmmakers, radio and audio producers and photographers on stage telling stories. Sometimes we’ll have contributors who are artists, designers, actors, or comedians, and occasionally we’ll have folks who hadn’t considered themselves storytellers at all. We work with people who are green and those who are established and well-known. We don’t care where a story comes from – we just care about it being a good story and having a range of backgrounds professionally and personally.

Given that you’re a unique outlet, what are you looking for in pitches?

The first thing we look for is whether the story lends itself to being multimedia in some way. You don’t have to have thought through ahead of time how to make it multimedia. If you have a great story, please err on the side of pitching it, and the onus is on us to think about how it fits in to the show. But if you come up with ideas that could be enhanced with photographs, animations, audio, video, an original score, or a theatrical performance, it’s helpful to flag that for us.

Every successful Pop-Up story has at least two of these four elements:

  1. It’s informative. The show is meant to highlight works of journalism.
  2. It’s emotional. We like to make people laugh, and when productive and appropriate, we like to make them cry.
  3. It’s beautiful. So much of the stage is taken up by a giant screen, so it’s really helpful if a story lends itself to an amazing visual treatment.
  4. It’s surprising. This can be a cinematic story that takes a dramatic turn, or taking something ubiquitous that people think they know everything about and turning it on its head.

Are storytellers responsible for arranging or supplying the multimedia component, or do you take care of that?

You certainly don’t have to do those things yourself if it’s not in your skill set. There’s a whole production team on our end that can help, and we work with freelance producers in various markets. We expect people to pitch us in their mediums. With writers, we mostly get written pitches. With audio and radio producers, we expect them to send a little tape if they’ve started reporting. With filmmakers, we’d like to see some film, and with photographers to see photos. A helpful way for writers to think about multimedia elements is the same way they might approach a question of access to information or sources. Is there an archive where we can pull visuals for a story? Do you see potential for audio in some way? Do you have access to a character or place but lack the skills to gather that material?

I know Pop-Up looks for stories that are fresh and original. Can the material ever have been published in any form? Is it OK to present a work-in-progress commissioned by someone else?

Stories should be new or not yet widely published or released before the show. If filmmakers have screened something at one festival, that’s OK; if they’ve released a documentary on Netflix, that wouldn’t work. If writers publish a piece on a smaller website or personal blog, we’ll consider it, but if it’s already been in a national publication with a big audience, that would put it  out of the running. We want to ensure that when people walk into our show, there’s very little likelihood they would’ve heard the stories before. It’s common for people to do a story for Pop-Up they’re already working on for another outlet, or that’s part of a bigger project, and for it to be published after the show tours.

Are there topics you’ve gotten too many pitches about, or not enough?

We’re saturated with family histories. In general, we get too many personal stories and historical stories. We always need more shorts, which are 4-6 minutes long and top out at 1,000 words. A lot of people pitch features, which end up at 7-12 minutes on stage and top out at 2,000 words. Our shorts are often structured as lists or a how-to or a piece of advice or criticism, and there’s a lot of room for them to be playful or more of a riff on something. Our features are classically narrative with characters, scenes, and an arc. We want more humor in the show, including things that start funny and end serious. We tend to get a lot of long, dark, serious stories, but we can’t make a 90-minute show that’s only that. I would love to see more stories on sports, lifestyle, architecture, design, or style, and I’d love to be doing more interesting and creative politics stories. Stories that are purely idea-driven, like a meditative essay, can be hard to translate into Pop-Up. It helps to have a character or place to hold onto. People certainly get bonus points if they can pitch stories that take place in the cities we tour in, and we’re adding new ones all the time.

How often are stories pitched versus assigned?

The vast majority are based on pitches. Assigning can be tricky for Pop-Up because stories have to be far enough along in their development or clearly there and accessible. We don’t have room to kill stories, because we work on a tight production timeline capped at 10 stories. We know that people are committing their time not only to report a story but also to go on a multi-city tour, and we’d never want to ask people to do that if there was a chance their story might not be in the show. That’s why there’s a little more pre-reporting involved in our pitching process than with an outlet that can take on more risk.

When should people pitch you in light of your tour schedule?

We tour three times a year: winter (February), spring (May) and fall (September/October). We’re always assigning on a rolling basis. We like to have stories assigned for the next tour at least three months out, but in many cases we’ll assign earlier than that. Sometimes we’ll assign later if we hope to get something in the show that’s particularly timely. Many of our stories are akin to features in that they need a long lead time. It’s not too early right now to think about pitching for the spring or fall of 2019. We confirm tour dates about six months ahead of time and release them to the public about six weeks in advance.

What’s the story development process like once someone gets an assignment?

We like to say we’re a magazine, until a month before the show we become a theater production. The early stages mimic a magazine draft process: We’ll send you to report the story if needed, and you’ll file a first draft. We ask you to write it in a slightly more conversational tone than you might be used to, like you’d tell the story to a friend. You’ll go through multiple rounds of edits with a producer. All the stories are fact checked. Then, we’ll add other elements. If your piece is getting scored, we’ll ask you to record the story and send it to the composer. We’ll send it to our art department, which will want photos of the subjects if they’re animating them. As we get closer to the show, we spend time refining the piece so it’s ready for the stage. Contributors fly in the day before the first show and practice several times in the office before a full rehearsal in the theater. We give people pointers on how to present their stories live, where the mic should go, how to project. And no, you don’t have to stand there with a clicker – there’s a team of people cuing those things for you, and the script tells you when to pause if something is coming on screen.

Why have you chosen not to record the shows and share them more widely?

It’s been part of Pop-Up’s ethos from the beginning. We want to make sure we’re creating a special and unique experience that the audience feels really present for. We want it to feel of a moment. We also don’t record the show because we’d have to stage it completely differently. We’d need multiple cameras in the room, which would affect the experience of the people in the audience.

How do you decide which contributors travel to which cities on a given tour?

We try to keep shows fairly consistent, but availability is one factor. We also want our shows to feel of the places that we take them, so we want to have some local representation as well. It can also depend on whether a story makes sense for a single city or region or a national audience. Occasionally, we bring back stories from previous tours to cities they’ve never been seen in before.

What are your rates?

We pay a flat rate of $500 for shorts and $750 for features. If someone is on a six-city tour, the honorarium is $3,000. On top of that, we pay a per diem for all show and travel days and for travel and lodging. We cover all the expenses if the story needs audio production and you haven’t already taped the interviews, or if you need to get stuff from an archive. We also cover travel costs, but those stories have to rise to a certain bar: We need a clear sense that the story and access are there, and that the writer is the right person to pull it off.

Pop-Up shared two pitches with us: One that a contributor wrote and submitted, and another typed up by a producer based on a phone call. My questions are in red, Badejo’s responses in blue. To read the pitch without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button which can be found below the contributors list on the right-hand side of the web page, or at top of your mobile screen.

Both of these contributors are pretty well-known. Does that matter for you? Not at all. We have people who are super early-career, and people who are super experienced. Some of our greatest hits are by folks that are really green.

Pitch 1, written by This American Life producer Stephanie Foo, premiered in Fall 2016

Stephanie Foo of This American Life doing a Pop-Up Magazine story on drunk calling to liquor manufacturers

Stephanie Foo of This American Life doing a Pop-Up Magazine story on drunk calling to liquor manufacturers

So in my early, broke twenties, I used to love this whiskey called Ancient Age. It was $3 for an entire flask from my corner store in San Francisco, and I remember it being deliciously solid for its ludicrous price. The company that makes it, Buffalo Trace, has a bunch of its fancier whiskeys online, featuring elaborate, rave reviews from many whiskey critics and magazines, talking about delicious caramel noses, toasted oak, deep flavors. Ancient Age has one review too. It’s pretty short. What appealed to you about the opening? The story started out when she was still in San Francisco, which is our hometown. It’s always helpful for a story to take place at least in part in the cities we’re in. One thing she did that is risky for us is to start out personal. In this case it worked, because it went through the anecdote pretty quickly and moved on.

“Recommended.” – Paul Pacult. This is such an obvious laugh line. You could already see the beats of the story in your head and the places where the audience was going to react.

Anyway, point is, I LOVED ANCIENT AGE and drank a whole lot of it. And one night, carrying around my flask at 2am, I noticed there was a phone number on the back of the bottle. I called it, got directed to a voicemail, and I left an impassioned tribute to Ancient Age’s drinkability. I then forgot all about it until recently, when I was going through my friend’s liquor cabinet and noticed most of his bottles had a phone number on the back. This pitch is quite conversational. Is that what you’re looking for? It was right for this story, especially because it’s really funny, which we are always looking for. It helps if people write their pitches the way they’d tell the story to a friend, because that’s most similar to how they’d tell it on stage. Stephanie is a radio producer, so she’s used to writing for audio. John Jeremiah Sullivan, when he was on the show, wasn’t writing in a light, breezy way, but he still wrote in a way that worked for the stage and was true to his voice.

I decided to call a bunch of the numbers – from small distilleries to Coors to Bacardi – to see if anybody else did what I did that night. As it turns out, customer service reps at almost every company walk in on Monday mornings to a treasure trove of hilarious, inebriated 2 a.m. voicemails like the one I left years ago.  And I got a few organizations to send me selections from their treasure troves. Do you expect contributors to have done this much pre-reporting? What’s the minimum she could’ve done? We needed to know she was going to be able to access the voicemails and one of the customer service reps. If she’d had one preliminary call with a rep where he’d anecdotally described a lot of things in the voicemails, guaranteed access to them, and agreed to the interview, that wouldn’t have been enough. She didn’t necessarily need to have listened to them all herself. But the fact that she already had access and mentioned that in the pitch was helpful because the story hinges on it. If it was just, “There are numbers on the back of liquor bottles and people call them and I did it once,” that wouldn’t be a story for us.

One person called Buffalo Trace and sang them a song he’d composed, complete with a mournful buffalo wail at the end. There are a lot of people telling stories about what the liquor made them do. A group of fishermen in Alaska called one company promising they’d send a box of wild Alaskan salmon to the distillery in exchange for some whiskey. Different alcohols get different sorts of calls. People drinking whiskey are often hammered, some of them angry because they’ve drank all their whiskey or dropped it on the pavement. If people are drinking Fireball, they’re always with other people – nobody sips Fireball by themselves. People drinking wine are often housewives at book clubs, giggling about chardonnay. Weirdly, lots of people affect fake British accents when they call drinking wine. People drinking Lagunitas are often crossfaded and start going on rants about the universe and what everything really means. What was effective about going through these examples? It was really helpful because she was outlining the beats of the story. When people pitch Pop-Up, they often have an idea or a topic and start riffing on it. But it’s another thing to have a clear sense of what the beats are going to be and what you’re going to say. If you get on stage and don’t have that, the story is going to fall apart really quickly.

I’ve also interviewed customer service representatives about what it’s like to get these calls. And the delightful part is – if you are ever a customer service rep – you want to be one for booze. First of all, unlike basically any other product, there are very, very few disgruntled customers when you have people who are tanked. Regardless of how the liquor tastes, it’s always, always effective. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do. This topic is quite quirky. Do Pop-Up pitches need a “so what” like most magazine stories do? This is definitely on the lighter side of the stories we tend to do. One of the things that was really successful about it is that it’s pretty surprising. Drinking is ubiquitous, but how often do people think about the number on a liquor bottle and the person on the other end? And this is one type of customer service where you’re not just being berated constantly but have people calling in to celebrate your product. It took something people are familiar with and turned it on its head. Even though it was light, it was informative – people walked away seeing something in a new light. This whole pitch was just really crowd-pleasing. Not every story needs to be riotous with laughter, but we need one or two every show and are always looking for good openers.

And second, it’s kind of delightful to be able to party with people while being totally sober at your desk. If you offer a coupon or a t-shirt to a drunk, enthusiastic customer, you will make their entire night. One guy said that compared to his previous job doing customer service for printers, this was an absolute dream. Was this a short or a feature? It was assigned as a short but got longer throughout the process, partly because she had such a treasure trove of material. The nature of voicemails is also that they’re rambling and long. Her piece ended up about 8 minutes long with the laughter. The audience reaction can definitely change the timing and pacing.

There are a couple other angles to go about this, and it could just be a fun little mashup too, but –  let me know if this sounds like something that might be a good fit for you guys!

What did the piece end up being like on stage? There were three elements: Stephanie’s narration, the voicemails, and animations on screen. In this case, the animations did double duty: In some pieces of audio, people weren’t very comprehensible, so the visuals served as subtitles as well as an accompaniment to the piece. We worked with an amazing design firm that gave the subtitles cool effects, like blurring them and making them move in interesting ways.

Pitch 2 from The New Yorker food correspondent Helen Rosner, discussed via phone and typed up for Pop-Up producers, premiered in Spring 2018

This piece was pitched over the phone. Is that what you prefer? Can people cold-call you? I would definitely advise people not to cold-call us. If you’re interested in pitching, email stories@popupmagazine.com or us individually, and we can always set up a call. As much as possible, it’s great to get pitches in writing.
Roving New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner on stage for Pop-Up Magazine with a story about iceberg lettuce, Donald Trump and immigration politics

Roving New Yorker food writer Helen Rosner on stage for Pop-Up Magazine with a story about iceberg lettuce, Donald Trump and immigration politics

A few months ago, Helen began trying to catalogue everything Trump eats, since he has a very limited and eccentric diet. (His standard McDonald’s dinner order: Two Big Macs and two Filet-O-Fish, no buns.) One thing especially stood out to her: wedge salad, which is famously made of iceberg lettuce. It is Trump’s favorite salad, and more than that, the only salad he has been documented eating. “Now, I find this interesting, because I love iceberg lettuce salad,” Helen said. (A bit different from many food writers, Helen isn’t narrowly focused on fancy food. She actually won a James Beard Award for an ode to the chicken tender.) Then she started to talk about iceberg lettuce. Did the fact that this pitch was about Donald Trump harm or hurt its chances? In some ways, it had an uphill battle to climb, since we were getting a lot of pitches explicitly tied to the current administration. Trump is the most covered figure in the world, and how to write a unique story about him is a real question. How do we make sure we’re not just adding to the noise? A lot of the reporting falls into two buckets: his eccentricities or major political issues with massive stakes. Most stories don’t connect the two. Helen’s piece did that successfully by taking part of his limited diet and showing how it ties to a host of political issues: His beloved salad is in jeopardy because of the policies he himself is enacting. That was really exciting to us.

The Pitch

Helen Rosner’s piece about iceberg lettuce was featured in a Nieman Reports post by James Geary about writing – and thinking – with “wit.”

Iceberg lettuce used to be the dominant lettuce in American salads. That is, until the 1970s, when because of Cesar Chavez and labor politics (complicated), as well as the arrival of new kinds of greens from Europe, American salads rapidly increased in diversity. Arugula, romaine, etc. were introduced to American diets, and sales of iceberg lettuce collapsed. Iceberg lettuce essentially became a meme, a vegetable ridiculed as having “no nutritional value.”

The one place that iceberg lettuce held ground, however, was the steak house, where wedge salad reigned supreme. (It’s still the only salad you can get in most steak houses.) The iceberg lettuce industry noticed this, and in 2000, launched a (failed) campaign to try and market iceberg lettuce as manly lettuce. One initiative tried to position it as “the official salad of Father’s Day.” Helen mentions a few interesting side details about iceberg lettuce, like the fact that it’s so porous, and has such high water content, you have to use very low levels of pesticide, so most iceberg lettuce fields are patrolled by birds of prey, to hunt pests. What stood out to you about the pitch? It starts out light and a bit silly, about this relatively frivolous vegetable that everyone is familiar with and mostly has a not great opinion about. Then it takes a turn and becomes a serious, reported story about immigration policy, labor and the president’s agenda. A lot of our successful stories have that pivot. The specificity of the piece helps it a lot, too. And it was really memorable. It took something you interacted with in the world all the time – lettuce – and made you look at it differently.

Then the story takes a turn. Yuma County, where half of all our iceberg lettuce comes from, has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. It also has the most patrolled, most militarized section of US-Mexico border in the country. It is a major crossing point for undocumented laborers. And a lot of those laborers work in the lettuce fields. Beyond that, 40,000-50,000 guest workers enter the country every day from Mexico to work for iceberg lettuce farmers. Those farmers tend to be highly conservative. But when it comes to immigration politics, they’re hostile to Trump, not just because of their work force, but because many of them are large landowners and their holdings include lettuce fields across the border. So stepped-up border enforcement puts a wall in the middle of their operations. Was this turn necessary for selling the story? What if it was just about Trump and the history of iceberg lettuce? It really hinged on the Yuma County reporting and the fact that it started with lettuce but became a story about the border. Just a story about Trump loving wedge salads and the quirky history of iceberg lettuce wouldn’t have made the cut for us. In the live version, there was a complete tonal shift. That’s something we’re thinking about a lot when reading pitches. A lot of our most successful stories have cinematic qualities and clear opportunities for shifts in music and visuals.

There’s more, but that’s enough to understand what Helen is proposing to do: A topical, funny-pivoting-to-serious, reported deconstruction of Donald Trump’s favorite salad (with reporting from Yuma County). What were the multimedia elements for this story? We weren’t able to negotiate access for a photographer, and Helen is an amateur photographer herself. The first part of the piece, where it appeared light and fun, included silly illustrations by an animator. When the story took a turn, we went into Helen’s photography, and our art director illustrated on top of them. Our music director, Minna Choi, scored the story with original music. Why didn’t it include audio? Pieces don’t always need it. There were quotes from farmers and laborers, but none of them were so long that they merited audio. That requires you to set up and introduce the character in a more serious way, and she was getting perspectives from a lot of different people. Also, getting quality audio would’ve been a challenge because of the nature of their work. Did you assign the story immediately? Helen hadn’t done the reporting yet, so it ultimately hinged on her gaining access to the farmers and laborers in Yuma County. The Pop-Up version ended up being weighted far more toward that: how the people producing the president’s favorite salad are going to do it now that their jobs are in jeopardy thanks to his policies.

Further Reading

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