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The Magic of a One-Night-Only Show

Photo: Pop-Up Magazine

People today often post every detail of every day online and live-stream events to followers the world over. But Doug McGray wants to provide something different, something that’s now a rarity: an experience solely for those present.

McGray is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Pop-Up Magazine, a “live magazine” where prominent and emerging writers, radio producers, photographers, and filmmakers perform new, mostly reported stories for an audience. With the aid of illustration, animation, photography, and other visual elements, the performers tell stories about science, politics, pop culture, social issues, crime, technology, and more.

The idea for Pop-Up Magazine began when McGray was a fellow at New America and realized that creative minds might work alongside one another but never truly collaborate.

“Writers, filmmakers, radio producers, and photographers would gather for events, but the worlds were weirdly separate, considering we’re all in the storytelling business,” McGray told me in an interview. “Filmmakers have their festivals, photographers have galleries, writers have things in bookstores. We thought it would be interesting not only to introduce these creative people to each other and see what collaboration and multimedia stories would emerge, but also to give an audience the chance to see those worlds mixed together.”

So what does it look like when minds mix?

When you attend a Pop-Up Magazine show, you’ll notice three things onstage: a band on one side, a microphone on the other, and a screen in the center. It’s these pieces that allow the performers to create immersive, unique experiences for the audience—experiences not to be recorded or rebroadcast.

“Something interesting happens when you don’t record and rebroadcast something,” McGray said. “When you know you’re seeing something live, and it’s the only time you can experience it, we all pay attention and remember things in a different way. And not filming allows us to have experiences in the show that would be really difficult to film.”

He continued: “If you’re making something for someone to watch on their phone, you have to make something with that in mind. But our medium is the stage, and we’re making something for the people who came out that night. We’re doing things in this show that would be nearly impossible to film, but they’re magical experiences for those in the venue.”

The show has grown largely through word of mouth. Originally touring around California, Pop-Up Magazine now hosts shows across the country and routinely sells out 3,000-seat venues.

“We’re constantly trying to find ways to create this cross-pollination among people who tell stories in different media and a cross-pollination among fans of different stories,” McGray said. “As the show has gotten bigger, it’s enabled us to do more and more ambitious things. We can have more ambitious art direction and make sure it’s a magical experience for the people in the very back.”

Although you can’t rewatch the unexpected collaborations between dancers and journalists or filmmakers and photographers, McGray has noticed it doesn’t affect the show’s impact.

“One of the things I hear most often from people after the show is that it makes them want to go home and make things and do things,” McGray said. “Some of them are journalists, some of them are artists, designers, architects. There’s something about this format that makes people excited to create.”

Tickets for the Fall Issue of Pop-Up Magazine are now available. To get in on the magic, see here.


Catherine Wilson is an events associate at New America, where she supports the production of more than 200 events each year. She interned in the editorial and communications departments at New America before joining as an events associate.