The Story Behind Pop-Up Magazine
Imagine experiencing a magazine. I don’t mean reading it. I mean taking it in, live.
The only thing you can bring home after digesting its contents is a little sheaf of paper listing the contributors and the titles of their pieces. The rest – the pictures, the music, the videos, the props, the interviews, every “article” – vanishes after you, the audience, witness it.
Such is the case with Pop-Up Magazine, San Francisco’s experimental “publication.” It’s a collection of multimedia and spoken-word stories delivered to a ticketed crowd. During Pop-Up, taking pictures or recording anything on your iPhone is forbidden. And later, there is no website to follow up on any of the specifics you heard at the event. Each “issue” can be found only on the newsstand of your memory.
I’ve attended twice. Both times I walked away muttering that the idea is so simple and yet so smart. So I decided to get the backstory from editor-in-chief and founder Douglas McGray and learn how this spoken magazine came about.
Pop-Up started as a way to combine the local media that’s typically segregated into distinct formats – radio, documentary film, and spoken word are rarely experienced together. Doug makes a living as a magazine writer, and he realized he didn't know folks from those other fields. So why not create a publication where they can all contribute?
The first issue of Pop-Up went down at the quaint Brava Theater in the Mission in 2009. The fifth issue, this past November, sold out Davies Symphony Hall in an afternoon.
"Our motivation for doing the show hasn't changed," Doug told me. "It’s really just a love letter to the writing and radio around San Francisco."
A night at Pop-Up flows in much the same way as a magazine.
You start with the Shorts section, where authors offer quick, punchy thought nuggets for the audience to ingest.
After an intermission, the issue then moves on to Features, which tells longer, winding stories.
(There are even a couple “ads” along the way. During one issue, Doug came on stage for about 15 seconds, poured himself a beer from Anchor Brewing, and raised a glass to the audience. It was funny. You had to be there.)
Journalist Steven Leckart's hilarious spoken essay on wearing a “sympathy suit” was the perfect shot to start off the November issue. To relate to his recently pregnant wife and her changing form, Steven donned a ridiculous costume that simulated not only pregnancy’s swollen proportions, but also the shifty nature of a bun in the oven. He narrated his long days and nights to the crowd as Jon Snyder’s eagle-eye photography punctuated each moment on the big screen overhead. In a magazine, this would have been a funny piece. Live, it was hilarious. Though Steven is a fine writer, Pop-Up allowed him to showcase his ability to really tell a story.
Later, freelance science writer Steve Silberman presented publicly – for the first time, according to him – Susan Kare’s early sketchbooks of Apple's famous icons. A note of palpable awe set over the crowd. Here were the mock-ups, on graph paper, of the smiley Macintosh face and the copy and paste icons, images just about everyone, especially in San Francisco, had grown up with.
Chinaka Hodge finished the Shorts section with a living crossword puzzle. Somewhere between poetry slamming and free-styling, she narrated what it was like to grow up in a changing Bay Area. Her poignant words gradually filled out a giant crossword puzzle on the screen behind her. When she finished in lyrical crescendo, the crowd rocketed to its feet in applause.
Pop-Up Magazine offers a rare communal learning experience.
Reading an actual magazine is a solitary endeavor. But here, you’re in it with everyone else – laughing, gasping, and having startling moments of realization with people you know. I joked with Doug that walking through the lobby during intermission had been like wandering through Facebook. Essentially, you have those typical online discussions about “a good article I read,” right in the moment.
Part of me wondered how these different little slices of storytelling come about for the authors. So I called my friend Bonnie Tsui, a wonderful travel writer and second-time Pop-Up contributor. Bonnie authored the book American Chinatown, a fascinating historical examination of the country’s five biggest Chinatowns. When she finished her manuscript, she had these incredible old postcards and anecdotes that glamorized the female telephone operators in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1900s that didn’t have a place in her book. At the second issue of Pop-Up she was able to cultivate this little “fragment,” as she called it, and tell the women’s story, with the postcards blown up on the projector behind her.
Doug and his crew take tons of submissions like Bonnie’s and whittle them down to about 20 contenders. Then, over the course of long months, they work with the contributors to nurse them to life, offering feedback and guidance. The ultimate task for the crew, Doug says, is creating that live flow. "We put Post-its of each title on the kitchen wall, stand back, move them around, and make it all fit," he explained. "It matters a lot what's next to each other."
Doug likes to call Pop-Up Magazine “ephemeral.” In the end, it can be a tough sell to say that information is better when it’s impermanent, especially in tech-heavy San Francisco.
But the pieces are never about capturing the news.
They're about people’s lives and histories, and the weird and crazy turns they may take. And on a human level, that is always a true story.
Pop-Up Magazine has no set schedule, but new issues come out about once every eight months. Issue No. 6 goes on sale today at noon and happens on April 25.
Check the website, sign up for updates at email@example.com, or follow them on Twitter and Facebook to be sure you don't miss the next one.
If you feel like sharing your “little fragment,” you can send a submission to firstname.lastname@example.org.