In the Moment with Pop-Up Magazine

Photo by Jon Snyder

Because of the looming specter of death, humans are obsessed with documentation, to the extent that we panic upon realizing we’ve left the house without a device for recording and sharing media. And so Douglas McGray is rightly vague about Pop-Up Magazine, a “live magazine” that presents multimedia stories by filmmakers, photographers, journalists, writers, radio producers, illustrators and musicians. Every perforamnce, like the one hitting Town Hall on Thursday, is unrecorded; the whole point is if you miss it, you miss it. But McGray, one of Pop-Up’s founders, will divulge a few details. 

“You’ll see three things onstage: a mic on one side, a band on the other, and a screen,” he says. “It’s inspired by the classic journalistic magazine. It’s meant to feel like a magazine unfolding.”

Pop-Up provides the sort of shared media experience whose steady, woeful decline began with the advent of the Internet. Analog media necessitated gathering somewhere like a movie theater or concert hall, which brought people together. These days, a vast quantity of media is widely accessible at any time—if you miss a concert, you’ll have 10 phone videos to watch online the following morning. Abundance and accessibility come at the price of community—not just the loss of media-related gatherings but the comfort of knowing your best friends are all home watching the same episode of Beavis and Butthead, thinking of what they’ll say about it.

About eight years ago, McGray, a veteran of  The New Yorker, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired, worked with This American Life, and found his craft of print journalism highly translatable to radio. Given the mediums’ similarities, he was struck by how few writers worked with radio. He wanted to create an event that brought together types of media that don’t normally share a venue, that would involve people gathering in a physical space to enjoy. “The point was to bring a bunch of people out to make something and experience something together,” he says. After its debut in a small theater in San Francisco in 2009, Pop-Up gained popularity, and shows quickly started selling out at nearly the rate they do today (Thursday’s show in Seattle is sold out). In 2014, Pop-Up transitioned from successful experiment to successful for-profit company, and now has a printed sister publication, The California Sunday Magazine.

McGray curates Pop-Up for tonal balance and eclecticism. He fondly recalls New York Times writer Jenna Wortham’s collaboration with Chicago-based shadow puppetry troupe Manual Theater, telling the tale of a man who lost the ability to form memories and his use of technology to navigate life. As on SnapChat, Pop-Up performers enjoy the freedom that comes with producing nothing for posterity. “Many of them are doing something they’ve never done,” McGray says.  “Many of them are extraordinary journalists who have never been backed by a band before or had their stories animated on a screen behind them as they read. It’s exciting, thrilling and scary.”

Because of Pop-Up’s ephemeral nature, McGray says, audiences pay close attention. “People feel we have to record things, without necessarily wondering why, or whether what they’re recording is meant to be watched that way.” Great care is taken to present each act in the most effective way possible, and people watching respond favorably, as they would to an elaborate meal. They watch with the studious attention of storytellers, that retelling the story is the only way to share their experience with people who didn’t attend. After each show, the audience is invited to a bar to discuss with each other and the performers. McGray urged me to come talk to him after the Seattle show, which, maintaining Pop-Up’s delightful mystery, he’d say little about except that it will be at Town Hall.

Pop-Up Magazine hits Town Hall on Thursday, March 9, at 7:30 PM. The show is sold out.