Stories Don’t Argue With You: An Interview With Doug McGray of Pop-Up Magazine

By Sean McCoy

When I found Doug McGray after the Pop-Up Magazine show in Los Angeles on November 3, he was surrounded by a queue of eager attendees. They approached and he shook hands in bunches, chatting and fielding questions. His voice was hoarse by the time I pulled him aside, but what he lacked in his vocal cords he made up for with enthusiasm, seeming to channel the energy around us — the throng pressing close, vibrating with cheer, while people threaded the lobby in search of friends, performers, another drink from the bar. 

Pop-Up Magazine is a live magazine in every sense of the word. A cast of writers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers, and radio producers join each other onstage to create a performance that follows the same loose outline of a magazine: short front-of-book stories lead off the show, followed by photo essays, interviews, and reported features — all interspersed with advertisements. The L.A. show brought together a thoughtful and entertaining medley of performers. Stephanie Foo shared a selection of hilarious, foulmouthed drunk voicemails received by customer service departments in the whiskey industry, Mychal Denzel Smith delivered a personal essay about the importance of the black aesthetic, and Tim Blevins — a homeless ex-Broadway singer from the streets of San Francisco — capped the evening with a soulful opera solo. McGray is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the whole operation, which includes the sister publication, The California Sunday Magazine.

Since that evening in L.A. at The Theater at Ace Hotel, McGray and his Pop-Up entourage have been traveling the country, putting on shows in the Bay Area, Chicago, Boston, and Brooklyn. We spoke by phone and discussed the origins of his two publications, breaking boundaries in live storytelling, building community among the audience, and how to produce stories in a shifting media landscape.

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SEAN MCCOY: You’ve been running around a lot — how are you? How has the tour been so far?

DOUG MCGRAY: It’s been really great. We’ve found incredibly warm audiences everywhere we’ve gone. We’ve been getting standing ovations. We hang around after the show if there’s a bar at the theater and people come up to us. I’ve been hearing just wonderful things about the show and how people are surprised and moved by the stories. We keep hearing from people that have just gone to a show for the first time, who say they want to come back and bring friends next time. So it’s been great.

Where did the idea for Pop-Up Magazine come from? And what did it take to make it a reality?

I was working as a writer and doing mostly long features for magazines like the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, and then I fell into doing a little bit of work with This American Life. I really loved that, and so I got some radio gear, and soon I was dividing my time between magazine features and radio. I started thinking about other forms of nonfiction storytelling. I started thinking about the events we go to — how artists have their galleries and writers have their readings and musicians have their music festivals. I thought it would be interesting if we tried to bring all these worlds together and make something.

So some friends and I had this idea of a live magazine, where writers, radio producers, photographers, and filmmakers would perform reported stories live. Then after, we would go out for drinks and we’d get to meet the audience, the audience would get to meet the performers, the performers would get to meet each other, and we’d maybe bring these worlds a little closer together. We realized some things the night we produced our first show: one, the show drew a fascinating crowd — not just the people on stage, but the audience too. And everyone stuck around late afterwards and we had so much to talk about. There was this real sense of community. And we also realized that, as a medium, being live was really exciting.

So we decided to do another one, and we started mixing the media together more and more. At the very first show, the writers would read and then photographers would show photography. Now when we put on a show, we’re mashing it all together. So there will be a narrator on stage, and the story may come to life with some animation or photography on the screen. We also started working with musicians more: we’ll have live scores commissioned, like a movie soundtrack performed underneath the narrator. So what started as a way of bringing these different creative communities together turned into a really interesting and unique format — an interesting way of telling stories by taking all the stuff we do and mixing it.

You’re mixing media — the reading, the sound, the visuals — and you’re also breaking the traditional author-reader divide. Usually the writer writes a story and then the reader sits alone to read it. They’re not in contact with one another. What has your experience been with breaking down these barriers?

Well, you know, there are a couple of things here. One is bringing people together, and two is the mixing of media. I love to read a great story on my couch beneath a sunny window, or on my phone at the beach. There can be great solitary experiences with a story. Everyone who loves reading appreciates those times. Stories also have the ability to bring people together and that is something I’ve come to appreciate while making Pop-Up. We bring people to see our show and then everybody sticks around in the lobby afterwards. You can go find the person who told the story that really moved you, and you can go meet her and ask her questions and learn more. That’s a really special and memorable experience.

As far as mixing the media together, it’s something that live really allows you to do. There’s no template for it. There’s not a real model for live multimedia journalism, you have to figure it out as you go. We did a show a year ago where we partnered with this really innovative shadow theater company from Chicago, Manual Cinemaand there isn’t any template for shadow-theater journalism. Mixing a really moving reported story with shadows is exciting. It’s really exciting for the people who are on stage and it’s surprising and interesting and memorable for people in the audience. So I love the way that this stuff can bring people together and I love how creatively open-ended it is — that you can mix sound and illustration and film and music and stories.

I also enjoy the community aspect of Pop-Up. In many ways it seems like you guys have merged these two old elements of civic culture: story telling and drinking. The bar really serves this civic purpose to bring people together to discuss the stories you share. Do you find that the people afterward are pretty eager to talk to the writers? How does the physical gathering after the show help build the Pop-Up community and add to these stories?

I think community is incredibly important. It’s a really nice complement to our digital lives. You know, we’re all on social media. We’re online all the time, and I’m grateful for the way you can meet people and encounter people’s work that you’ve never seen before. As another component of that, it’s really nice to be in the same room with people, and meet people who you’ve only heard about, or meet friends of friends and have a beer together. I think it’s fun and valuable, and you feel really good at the end of a night.

How is the listener’s or the audience’s experience different when they hear these stories live? What does it mean for someone to hear these stories while they’re surrounded by other people?

There is something really interesting here, and I’m sure critics and people who’ve thought hard about theater for their career can describe this better than I can. There is something about sitting in a room full of people…the lights go down, something appears in front of you, and you’re all going to experience it together. When something is funny you all laugh, and when something is really sad or moving you all feel it. You’re not having this experience alone. There’s a sense of community in the room, even if you’re not talking to anybody. There’s a real intimacy there. There’s intimacy because someone has brought you this story — whether it’s a fast and funny story or whether it’s really serious and moving — and you can tell that they made it for you.

How does that difference in experiencing a live show factor into your decision-making for what stories you choose? Meaning, do you have different criteria for the stories you guys run in Pop-Up versus The California Sunday Magazine?

We think a lot about medium. Stories for a live show and stories for a weekend magazine often have different requirements. There may be a story — an incredible yarn with a lot of twists and turns, and some complicated stuff to explain —maybe it’s set in a prison, maybe it’s a story where you really need to spend a lot of time with the protagonist — which may lend itself to a feature, to writing and photography in a weekend magazine. There are other stories that we’ll hear and they have that quality where you immediately want to retell them. Or maybe it’s something that doesn’t require a long magazine feature to explain — you can do something that’s a little more compact, and it’s something that maybe takes advantage of the different media we have to offer.

For example, we might get a story proposed to us by a writer and that story really lends itself to hearing some sound in the theater. Or someone will propose an idea and we can immediately see it animated. Or there’s something about the story that will make it especially powerful to watch in a dark room with other people. When we’re considering an idea for a show we imagine it on stage. We imagine ourselves in the audience. We imagine the performer on stage and we try to think about what are we seeing, what are we hearing, and we trust our gut to say, “this feels like a live story,” or, “this feels like a magazine story.”

How did California Sunday emerge out of Pop-Up?

Pop-Up Magazine got to this point where it had become a really unwieldy hobby. We had just done this really big show, a complicated music special in collaboration with Beck and McSweeny’s, and it was a really wonderful and ambitious night. I was thinking about what to do next with Pop-Up Magazine and one possibility was to say: this has been a great experiment, and now we won’t do it anymore. Immediately that seemed wrong to me. It seemed like there was so much more to do.

Around that time, I had another idea. One of the things that always struck me about Pop-Up Magazine was it seemed important to do it at night. There are so many media companies that fight for tiny slivers of our attention during the daytime. They want your twenty-seconds while you stand behind a person in line at a cash machine, or when you’re waiting for coffee. Maybe you start to read something and you get part way through it and you get interrupted and you forget it. The next day, will you remember what you read or will you just remember that you were looking at something? Nighttime is different: we have more attention to give. We come home from work, and maybe we go out and have a long dinner with a friend, or maybe we watch two or three episodes on Netflix, or we can curl up with a book and really read. At night we have more sustained attention to give, and if you’re making stuff for people, that’s a really interesting time to reach them. When we’re making Pop-Up Magazine shows, all the people in the audience, who were so distracted in the daytime, show up at the theater, turn their phones off for 90 minutes, sit in the dark, and watch something, and then they spend time together afterward. That seemed really powerful to me.

The other time like that is the weekend. I was thinking about what Pop-Up Magazine might be and do, and I thought it would be interesting to make stuff for the weekends — to be a nights and weekends media company. So I started thinking about the idea of a Sunday magazine. We could make shows for nights out and produce a Sunday magazine to read at home on the weekend. And it was a really appealing idea, especially because Pop-Up Magazine got its start on the West Coast. We’re proud of that. And if you’re making media on the West Coast, especially the kind of feature stories that we’re doing, you’re very aware of how much national media gets made on the East Coast. It seemed like a missed opportunity because when you live on the West Coast you feel very much at the center of things.

We thought it would be interesting to make a new weekend magazine that would reflect that. This was around that time when the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times were getting out of the magazine business — and it made sense for them, as news organizations, to put their resources into news. So it occurred to me that now, maybe, we could make that. We thought this community we’d built through Pop-Up Magazine — of photographers and writers and creative people — would be a great place to start if we wanted to make a really great Sunday magazine rooted in California, rooted in the West.

How do you view your two publications — Pop-Up and The California Sunday Magazine — fitting in to the current media landscape and other modes of journalism and storytelling?

I think stories are a good way to understand the world. They’re a good way to share ideas and to explore ideas. And they have a way of cutting through people’s preconceived notions. You know, stories don’t argue with you. Stories take you into a world. They help you see something through other people’s eyes, let you understand somebody else’s life, somebody else’s reality. And all of those things are important now. They’ve been important forever. These are fundamental values. I think they help us live together and as a society they help us have good government. So if you’re making media it’s important work and we need to work hard to do it well.

How have the changes in our media consumption, both online and in print, affected your approach to your two publications?

You know, I would say that they were both born of this moment. This isn’t a case of needing to change something that has existed for a hundred years. This is a simple thing, but if you look at how we produce California Sunday, for instance, I think one thing that’s true now, that wasn’t true ten years ago, is that people read in all sorts of different ways. There are people who love print, there are people who never touch print, there are people who only read on their phones, there are people who really like a tablet, there are people who don’t get tablets at all and think phones are too small and read on their laptops.

So one of the things that we thought about from the very beginning is how do we design something that’s a great experience everywhere. So part of the magazine is that it’s really beautifully designed but fairly simple in its architecture. We don’t have lots and lots of tiny bits of content that have to be redesigned on different platforms. It’s a magazine of stories and big beautiful art. That’s a great reading experience on a phone. It’s a great reading experience on a laptop. It’s beautiful in print. So when we we’re thinking about the way that we should package our stories and the kind of stories we should do, that fact that people read all kinds of different ways was absolutely on our minds.

Is there anything more you’d like to say about you experiences with Pop-Up and California Sunday?

I might also mention our most recent issue of California Sunday, the sound issue. It’s a good example of the spirit of trying new things that we care a lot about. We had wanted to really explicitly make something together with Pop-Up Magazine and California Sunday. So we decided to do something on sound: what do California and the West sound like? And we produced a live Pop-Up Magazine show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and we made this special issue of California Sunday, which has stories about all different kinds of things that share the theme of sound. We created this feature for it, audio footnotes, so if you’re reading the print issue you’ll see a series of footnotes, roughly a hundred of them scattered throughout the issue. And we made a little web companion for your phone so that, as you’re reading, you can have these footnotes on your phone and you can tap number 64 when you get to that moment in the story, and you can hear the sound that you’re reading about, or hear a sound that deepens that part of the story. It was a lot of work, but it was really fun to work on, and it’s a good example of the kind of media that we like to make.

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