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In 2008, Marin Cogan moved to D.C. for a job with The New Republic. She’s been here ever since, working in journalism at various outlets—she was a Hill reporter at Politico, a 2012 election correspondent for GQ, and she’s worked for ESPN the Magazine and New York Magazine. Since July 2018, she’s been a senior producer and co-host for a new kind of journalism with Pop-Up Magazine, a touring show that presents true, magazine-style stories told aloud by a diverse host of contributors—journalists, musicians, comedians, etc.—with multimedia backing, including a live band and original art, animation, photography, and film. The only way to see it is live; Pop-Up stories never go online. Pop-Up‘s upcoming tour departs from its typical format: For the first time, all the stories prepared for the stage revolve around a single theme, “escape.” City Paper chatted with Cogan about Pop-Up, what she loves about D.C., and her work moonlighting as a matchmaker for the Washington Post‘s Date Lab.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WCP: This is Pop-Up‘s first themed tour, centered around “escape.” What does that mean? And what kinds of escape stories can we expect?
Marin Cogan: Our shows are generally about a variety of topics; it’s sort of like a general interest magazine, but we really wanted to try something different this time, so we landed on “escape.” It just felt like such a relevant theme to the era that we’re living in right now, and it’s nice in that it’s broad enough that it can encompass all of these different types of stories. It really is covering a bunch of different topics, but everything ties back to the theme of escape in some way.
We never cover politics head on; we always touch on things from a very human-interest angle. We’re going to hear from some really interesting contributors and their interactions with the criminal justice system. There’s an immigration story that’s really interesting, and there’s a story about sort of escaping your life on the internet, which I think will be very relevant as well.
WCP: Coming from a traditional journalism background, what is it like to work on Pop-Up?
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MC: It’s super fun. I had spent basically my entire career working in written media, whether that’s print or digital—it was a format that I was very used to. Then, getting to go on tour, I got to work with people who were brilliant artists and musicians, and people who are amazing with lighting, tech, and all of these different things, all of these theatrical elements that I had never had any experience with before, and it was so cool to see everybody combining their skills and their talents and making this bigger thing. I really wanted a chance to learn what it was like to edit with music in mind, or to edit and think about whether a piece should have a dancer in it right or a singer in it. It’s just a chance to work in this very unique format where we’re taking all of these forms of media that aren’t necessarily new, but we’re combining them and mixing them in a way that feels really new.
WCP: D.C. is one of Pop-Up‘s “core cities”—you come here every tour. What is the audience like here? Is that audience different from other cities?
MC: I think it’s similar—and that it’s very word of mouth. What usually happens is some people go and then they like it, and they tell their friends, and they bring their friends with them the next time, and then those people go and get to see it, and they tell their friends. D.C. is filled with really smart and cool and passionate and interesting people … people who are interested in all the subjects that would be covered in a general interest magazine, but we’re trying to give a human interest side to these stories and I think that they can be really compelling in a live format. It ends up being a really nice mix of different ages and interests and professions and that sort of thing.
WCP: You’ve been here for 11 years. Why stay? What do you like about D.C.?
MC: I honestly think that it’s the people that really make me like it. I feel like those of us who live in D.C. are very used to being the butt of a lot of jokes from people living elsewhere. But I think the people that are drawn to D.C. are really cool and interesting, and also the people who have lived there and spent a lot of time there are really cool and interesting people. Those communities of people, and, you know, my own group of friends, are really what make me want to stay in D.C.
I’ve lived in Columbia Heights on and off basically since I moved. I spent a few years in Dupont and then I spent a year in Adams Morgan/Lanier Heights, but other than that, I’ve been basically just hopping from Columbia Heights place to Columbia Heights place for most of my time.
WCP: That’s a long time to have been in Columbia Heights. What’s changed?
MC: Oh my gosh, everything. Everything has changed. I can’t even imagine—I’ve been here over a decade, but for people who have been here even longer, the change has to feel so major.
I mean, I like it. Even though a lot has changed, it still feels like a really diverse and vibrant neighborhood. There are all sorts of great restaurants near me. Everything is sort of within walking distance, and I like how alive it feels.
In Columbia Heights, I would say Thip Khao is a favorite of mine for sure. I am super interested in their whole project; the whole Lao food movement is super cool. There’s a place called Tequila Mezcal that just opened near me, which I like. I love Red Derby. I love Lyman’s. I love Little Cocos. There are almost too many good places.
MC: That was my first Date Lab!
WCP: Are you in charge of matching the couple?
MC: So sometimes I match them, and sometimes I don’t. It just kind of depends on the assignment. But yeah, I loved doing that. I’d written for the magazine a few times before, but I had always read and loved Date Lab. That couple that you reference, I just adore them, because they both were convinced that they weren’t going to be picked. They were like, ‘they’re going to pick some people in their 20s,’ and they were a little bit older. But they were just such a good fit for each other, and they hit it off right away. It was really it was kind of awesome reading the comments. I just love how devoted the commenters are and the people who read Date Lab [are]. Like, they have such strong opinions. So it was really fun watching them celebrate a happy pairing for once.
I feel like you read them and a lot of them don’t work out, but then I’m also like, that’s maybe just dates, you know? I feel like most dates are fine experiences and then they don’t go anywhere. I just have so much respect for the people who do it because … first dates are nerve wracking enough, right? And then you’re agreeing to have it written about in the Washington Post. It’s a really brave thing to do.
WCP: We talked a little bit about your favorite spots in Columbia Heights. Are there other things in the city or the region at large that you care about a lot?
MC: I’m obsessed with this cocktail bar in Adams Morgan called The Green Zone, and it’s all Middle Eastern theme cocktails and small bites. I feel like the flavors that they bring are so great and so distinctive. So I try to go there whenever I can.
Another thing I am trying to get into more is the theater scene. Because now that I work for a live theater company, I want to know what’s out there better and understand theatricality better, and the thing I’m discovering is probably very obvious to a lot of people, but D.C. has an incredible theater scene. Getting to check out live shows is something I do a fair amount of, but I want to do more of.
WCP: In keeping with the theme of the upcoming production, is there anything that you’re trying to escape in D.C.?
MC: I think this actually ties into part of why I joined Pop-Up. I’m sort of a general interest writer; I’ve always had a hard time picking one specific thing to cover, because I’m interested in basically everything. But I did a lot of political reporting in my time in D.C. And I think around the time of the 2016 election, I was sort of thinking about what kinds of stories I wanted to tell. And something that I really loved about Pop-Up was that we were telling human interest stories, and we’re sharing perspectives that I felt like I didn’t always see in national political reporting. So it’s been a sort of interesting escape for me in that way, getting to tell stories that I feel really passionate about.
WCP: Earlier, you said that you feel like people living in D.C. can be the butt of a lot of jokes. When people make jokes, what do you say or think in response?
MC: Maybe it is jokes about people who live in D.C., but they’re mostly just about D.C. being a horrible city, right? Which I think are based on presumptions about the types of people that live in D.C. It’s always interesting to me, when people say things about D.C., who they’re perceiving actually lives there. I think we’re a much more diverse city than then those comments ever give us credit for.
Pop-Up Magazine comes to D.C. on Oct. 7. 8 p.m. at The Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. $29–$39.