New Orleans-based novelist Nathaniel Rich didn’t initially grasp what he’d signed up for as a contributor to Pop-Up Magazine.
In each edition of the “live magazine” — a hybrid of a reading and a theatrical performance — writers, photographers, filmmakers, podcast hosts and other creative types share new, true stories accompanied by a live band and dramatic visual content.
Rich, a New York Times Magazine writer-at-large whose latest novel is “King Zeno,” made his Pop-Up Magazine debut Feb. 10 at the sold-out, 2,100-seat BAM Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn, New York, followed two nights later by another sold-out show at the 1,800-seat Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.
He’s done many book readings, but that “doesn’t quite prepare you for walking onstage at the BAM Opera House and performing in the spotlights to a full house, where you can’t even see the upper balcony,” he said this week.
“There were some deer-in-headlights moments. I got the hang of it after the first night. I was much more comfortable in Washington, D.C.”
He should be right at home, then, when Pop-Up Magazine: A Night of Live Stories comes to New Orleans on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. show at the Civic Theatre. Reserved seat tickets are $25.
The Pop-Up Magazine concept originated in California, and is gradually expanding to other markets. The “winter issue” consists of eight performances in February: two in San Francisco, followed by Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Austin, New Orleans and Atlanta.
Each unique show is intended as a one-time, live event experienced only by the audience. The producers post no audio or video content online. The show’s promotion and popularity are driven largely by word-of-mouth.
“The idea of a live performance that is only made for the audience that sees it is exciting, especially when everything is so heavily archived and searchable and repurposed,” Rich said. “For the audience that tends to go to these things — it slants young — that’s a very exciting idea.”
Some of the dozen or so contributors are on board for the entire tour. Others, like Rich, participate in only a few shows. Friday’s stop at the Civic Theatre will be his third and final appearance.
The cast also includes Rolling Stone writer Brittany Spanos, National Geographic photographer David Guttenfelder, New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Jon Mooallem, BuzzFeed News criminal justice reporter Albert Samaha, “30 for 30” podcast producer Rose Eveleth, filmmaker Veena Rao, and local photographer and writer L. Kasimu Harris.
Rich, a New York native, and his wife have lived in New Orleans since 2010; their young son was born here. “King Zeno,” his third novel, was published in January. Set in New Orleans in 1918, it weaves together the city’s infamous “Axeman murders,” the birth of jazz and other historical events of the time.
Unlike many writers who move to New Orleans, Nathaniel Rich never meant to write about the place. “If you’d asked me five or six years ago, I …
His Pop-Up Magazine piece about the unsolved Axeman killings is based on his research for “King Zeno.” He reads the 1,250 words in eight minutes, accompanied by custom animation, lighting effects and a live soundtrack that quotes jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden.
“The whole thing feels like you’re transported back to 1918 New Orleans,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Pop-Up Magazine “articles” include memoirs, cultural explorations, comedy and tear-jerkers. The stories are nonfiction and fact-checked, as they would be for a print magazine.
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the editorial staff of the magazine,” Rich said. “I admire the freshness that they bring to the magazine form. I like the excitement of telling stories in a new way.
“The show is paced really well. The way they handle the material is pretty elegant. There’s a thematic continuity.”
The overall atmosphere is informal. The show “is not heavily directed or coached,” Rich said. “But they manage to create an intimacy that you wouldn’t expect, given the size of the venues.”
Writers stand and read at a podium, but “there’s a lot of other stuff going on," he said.
“Some writers are better suited to it than others. But the way the pieces are presented, it’s not entirely dependent on a theatrical presentation by the writers.”
After the performance, contributors mingle with audience members at an after-party inside the venue.
“A strong sense of community is forged amongst the writers, but also amongst audience members,” Rich said. “Everyone feels they’ve shared a valuable, heartening experience.
“A lot of thought, care and effort goes into making a performance that will only live onstage. Storytelling is as old as Homer. But there’s something about the embrace of an old form in the current moment that seems revitalizing. It feels fresh and new.”