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November 1, 2016

Spotlight: Pop-Up Magazine’s Doug McGray

Daniel Alarcon
Photo Credit: Jon Snyder
Dexter Thomas
Photo Credit: Jon Snyder
Doreen St. Felix
Jon Mooallem
Photo Credit: Jon Snyder
Pop-up Magazine in New York
Photo Credit: Jon Snyder

Photo Credit: Jon Snyder

Photo Credit: Jon Snyder
Past contributor Katy Grannan rehearses her story, "The Nine," at Pop-up Magazine
Photo Credit: Jon Snyder

Doug McGray never set out to launch a live show. A writer for magazines such as the The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, he fell into working for cult-fave podcast This American Life. “I realized I knew millions of writers and hardly any radio people. Why were these worlds so separate?” says the editor. Together with friends, McGray conceived the idea of a show starring writers, radio producers, photographers and filmmakers performing nonfiction stories in a dozen or so acts: Pop-Up Magazine. “Like a live magazine,” he says of the format, which also encourages the audience to meet the cast at a bar afterwards. Launched in April 2009, the show goes on the road three times a year; its next iteration arrives in Los Angeles at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on November 3, followed by the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on November 9 and the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on November 10. Here, McGray pulls back the curtain on the sold-out show and reveals how it comes together.

C: How has the concept evolved since it launched?

Doug McGray: We started mixing media together in really fun and interesting ways, and we started adding a live score, so as performers tell their stories, they come to life on screen with original photography, or animation, or illustration, and we add sound, recorded voices or soundscapes, and a band, Magik*Magik Orchestra, performs an original soundtrack live. And the show grew. We moved from a little theater in the Mission to the symphony hall, and then we started taking the show to Los Angeles, the Theatre at Ace Hotel, and then across the country, to New York, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Portland, and more cities to come.

CWhy do you think audiences have responded to it so well?

DM: Well, we work hard to put on an entertaining show! Also, it’s unique. A bit like watching a great movie, listening to a podcast you love, seeing live music, meeting a favorite writer, and going to a party filled with interesting people, all mixed together.

CWhat, if any, is the connection between the show and California Sunday Magazine?
DM: We make both of them here at Pop-Up Magazine Productions. We launched our weekend magazine, California Sunday, out of the live show. Pop-Up Magazine is for nights out, California Sunday is for weekends at home. Both are dedicated to telling great stories, with beautiful, original art and design.

CHow do you decide who and what to include in your performance lineups?
DM: We get story pitches, like a magazine or radio show, and also we call around to interesting writers, photographers, radio producers, filmmakers and other creative types, and ask for their story ideas. And then we assemble a show filled with as many different kinds of stories as we can find. Politics, art, pop culture, food, business, design, technology, style. Funny stories and serious stories.

CWhat is the process for bringing a story to life on stage?

DM: We work with performers on their scripts. It’s a pleasure; so many amazing people join us onstage. As the stories take shape, our art department starts to think about how to bring them to life onscreen, and our music director begins to compose scores. Then it all comes together live, for the audience.

CWhat do you hope the audience takes away from each show?

DM: We want people to have fun, to have a memorable night. We want people to be surprised, and moved. We want them to meet other interesting people—the shows draw an amazing audience, and performers head out to the lobby after, and to the bar. If you thought someone was fascinating onstage, you can say hello, and learn more.

CWhat are you most excited about for the L.A. and S.F. shows?

DM: It’s just a really fun night, for everyone. There’s nothing like a live show. And we don’t film or record anything to put online, so you have to be there, or you missed it.


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