When Josie Duffy Rice was studying law at Harvard University, preparing for a journalism career covering the criminal justice system, she couldn’t have imagined she’d be touring theaters this winter, telling a story about eating her first hamburger at age 30.
The Atlanta native, who attended Grady High School and lives in Collier Heights, is one of 10 writers who takes the stage at Pop-Up Magazine, a live storytelling event that incorporates film, animation, live music and audio clips. Launched in San Francisco in 2009, Pop-Up Magazine was conceived as a live magazine-style show featuring reported stories about science, pop culture, crime, art, technology and more. It began touring in 2015 and debuted in Atlanta in 2018. It now produces three shows a year, and its winter edition, featuring Rice, comes to Variety Playhouse for a sold-out show Feb. 11.
Titled “Notes from a Picky Eater,” Rice’s story shares details about her many food aversions. She doesn’t have food allergies. She’s not vegan or gluten-free. She just doesn’t like most foods and subsists on chicken fingers, french fries, ice cream and cheeseless pizza. For her Pop-Up Magazine segment, she worked with Atlanta photographer and filmmaker Lynsey Weatherspoon who videotaped Rice’s experience trying an array foods for the first time, including roasted carrots, sautéed spinach, string cheese and finally, a big, juicy burger with all the fixings.
Her anxiety grew as the day of filming approached.
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“I definitely had qualms about trying the foods,” said Rice, a senior reporter who writes about prosecutors and prisons for The Appeal, a nonprofit website reporting on criminal justice issues. “I lost sleep over it for weeks. On the day of, my stomach was in knots.”
Capturing that trepidation and showing an unusual aspect of Rice’s personality is what appealed to senior producer Aaron Edwards, 27, a former Atlantan who interned at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and worked at BuzzFeed before joining Pop-Up Magazine six months ago.
“One of the things I love about working with Josie is people know her as someone who writes about criminal justice, and here she’s doing a story about being a picky eater. I think it’s a cool surprise to show an unexpected layer to her life and her experience,” he said.
Rice’s story had all the qualities that make it an ideal Pop-Up Magazine story, said Edwards, who also co-hosts the Atlanta show.
“It has a quality that pulls the audience into the story and makes it feel like an immersive experience, and it lends itself to multimedia production.”
Accustomed to telling stories about other people, Rice admitted feeling uneasy telling a personal story about herself.
“It is new to be so central to the story. I was nervous going in, thinking, who cares about me? But the audience is so warm and welcoming that all my fears were for naught,” she said after the show debuted in Los Angeles last week. “What’s more strange is telling a lighthearted and funny story, given that my material is usually heavy and depressing. It’s definitely a diversion from my normal focus, but I think having a break from criminal justice stuff is nice. And I’m still focusing on that all day at my day job, so I haven’t left it behind.”
Other stories in the winter edition are more serious in nature, like science writer Ed Yong’s piece on the unexpected fallout experienced by an Ebola survivor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison’s heart-wrenching short documentary on Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl killed by a shop owner who mistakenly suspected the girl of stealing a bottle of orange juice. (Harlins’ death, along with the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police officers 13 days earlier, is often credited for fueling the Los Angeles riots in 1992.)
Journalist Francesca Mari’s story, “Susie, the Accountant,” is a poignant look at a woman who finds new purpose in life by crunching numbers and processing bogus invoices at a daycare center for elderly people who suffer from dementia. And filmmaker Sam Green’s short documentary “For Life!” tells a quirky story about a San Francisco taqueria that started a promotion in the late 1990s offering free tacos to anyone who got a tattoo of the company logo, featuring a man in a sombrero riding a corn cob rocket. Twenty years later, Green reunites a motley bunch of devotees who wear their Casa Sanchez logos proudly and still reap free food, although the restaurant has changed ownership and now sells Salvadoran pupusas.
Pop-Up Magazine’s stories are supplemented by short films, animations and audio clips that help bring them to life on stage. And live music is provided by the Magik*Magik Orchestra, a four-person band led by pianist and conductor Minna Choi, which shares the stage with the storytellers.
The art of storytelling is as old as man. With the explosive growth of podcasts in recent years, as well as the popularity of live storytelling events such as Atlanta’s own Carapace and Write Club, it’s clear people are hungry for a new-old way of absorbing information.
“People right now are inundated with so much of everything 24-7,” said Edwards. “We have news alerts on our phones every second; the worst news possible is happening on a daily basis. It just feels like a deluge of so much content and so many things coming at us. What podcasts and live shows like Pop-Up Magazine offer is an opportunity to pull back from the noise of what’s going on and spend an intimate amount of time with a story.
“I think what Pop-Up Magazine offers is an opportunity for people to sit down in a theater, turn off their phones for a second and get that same rich feeling you get when you listen to a podcast or watch a play or a movie that you love.”
As for Rice’s first taste of the all-American hamburger? She’s not a fan. “Too many textures,” she said. But in a twist that nobody saw coming, she discovered she likes raw oysters. It’s just one more pleasant surprise in an evening that’s filled with many of them.