Pop-Up Magazine returns with all-star lineup

Douglas McGray’s publishing industry hero story

By Tamara Straus

Examiner arts editor

There are few hero stories in magazine publishing these days. Well before the pandemic, most writers, editors, photographers and designers saw their incomes and options shrink as Google and Facebook swallowed up online advertising revenue and readers retreated to the swiping, addicting content in their phones.

But Douglas McGray, 46, has been an exception. In the midst of a successful long-form journalism career writing for The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and Wired, McGray decided in 2009 to launch a “live magazine” event in San Francisco with fellow writers and artists Lauren Smith, Derek Fagerstrom, Evan Ratliff and Maili Holiman.

The first Pop-Up Magazine events were more rock concert than lecture hall. The onstage and multimedia presentations of filmmakers, photographers, writers, public radio producers and artists sold out in a few hours. Some may remember the surprise of witnessing so many 20- and 30-somethings clamoring to snag tickets to attend the 2,700-seat Davies Symphony Hall.

McGray’s group formed a company, Pop-Up Magazine Productions, in 2014 and began taking Pop-Up Magazine to different cities in 2015. Also, in October 2014, McGray founded a print and digital publication, The California Sunday Magazine, again in San Francisco. His effort was entrepreneurial. Given the death of Sunday magazines in most local papers, his, which went on to win a Pulitzer, was quickly accepted for syndication in the state’s largest Sunday editions: the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and San Diego Union-Tribune. That arrangement did not last and the print magazine ceased in April 2020 and the publication closed in October 2020. But Pop-Up Magazine events have thrived, becoming a trailblazer in new performance culture.

This Friday at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Pop-Up Magazine will kick off a four-city fall issue tour, marking its return to theaters for the first time since February 2020. Contributors to Nov. 12 event include Emmy-winning TV writer Cord Jefferson (“Watchmen,” “Succession,” “Master of None,” “The Good Place”); writers Ingrid Rojas Contreras (debut novel “Fruit of the Drunken Tree,” named a NYT Editors Choice), Jon Mooallem (author of “Wild Ones” and “This is Chance!”), and Ian Urbina (Pulitzer Prize–winner, New York Times bestselling author); radio producer Shima Oliaee (Dolly Parton’s America, Radiolab); and filmmaker Ben-Alex Dupris (director, “Sweetheart Dancers”). The Examiner emailed with McGray to learn more.

What has been notable about Pop-Up Magazine?

One of the notable aspects of Pop-Up Magazine events has been that they are well attended by young adults and often sell out, especially here in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall. Why did that happen? We started out in the Bay Area, a small group of friends renting out a small theater in the Mission and putting on a show. The show grew up here, and then spread across the country. We work really hard to give people an experience that feels special. People come to the show, maybe not knowing exactly what it is the first time, and then they tell their friends. We’re grateful for that.

What makes for a successful multimedia event that performs magazine stories?

Good stories! Surprising stories, unforgettable stories. That’s the most important thing. Then we work with our amazing cast, artists, musicians and other creative collaborators to present them in a vivid, sound-rich, theatrical way.

What are some of your favorite examples of live magazine story telling?

The stories in Pop-Up Magazine are new, created for a live audience. For instance, a writer and podcast host told a story about a man who lost the ability to form memories, in collaboration with a shadow theater company. A filmmaker collaborated with a dancer. We’ve invited audiences to taste and smell and vote on how a story should end. We commissioned art and delivered it to a crowd with a T-shirt cannon. The creative possibilities are endless.

Pop-Up Magazine is more than 12 years old. Why has it endured — and what do you want to do next?

We’re always experimenting, trying to find new ways to tell stories and create memorable experiences. For instance, during the pandemic, when we couldn’t perform live, we released an “Issue in a Box” full of clever, beautiful objects, tiny books and more. We produced an audio experience called “Field Guide,” meant to accompany walks, that Spotify picked as one of the best podcasts of the summer and Apple featured as “New and Noteworthy”— plus an accompanying, limited-edition print journal full of beautiful photo stories. We created a “Sidewalk Issue” that embedded stories in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York — audio at a bike rack, video in a storefront, a food story printed as a takeout menu, a giant graphic-novel mural, an art vending machine, a newspaper zine, secret phone numbers and more. And the table of contents was a map. We’re so excited to be back to making live performances. You can be sure we’ll keep experimenting.

How did your background lead you to the work you do now?

I wrote magazine features. Then I discovered audio and fell in love with the medium. Telling stories in a new way made me curious about what all is possible. I got excited about bringing together people who tell stories in different ways. And their communities — film people, audio people, art people, comedy people. Some friends and I decided to give it a go, and it became this magical thing that I’m grateful to be a part of.

Pop-Up Magazine Fall 2021 Issue

Where: Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland

When: 7: p.m. Friday, Nov. 12

Tickets: $36

Contact: popupmagazine.com

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