A Streetcar Named Wired? The Real Inspector Horse & Hound? In San Francisco, periodicals are leaping off the page and onto the stage with Pop-Up Magazine. Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, the 7th "issue" was performed before a privileged and proactive audience— the 2,740 available tickets sold out in around half an hour.
The men and women on stage were not actors, or even “well-known literary performers,” but the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, a technology writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, an illustrator whose work has appeared in The New York Times, an international correspondent for Vanity Fair, and… you get the point.
Pop-Up Magazine is journalism, performed. In each issue, contributors who have made careers out of writing, producing radio, taking photographs, or making documentary films present “short moments of unseen, unheard work” before a live audience.
It calls itself the “world’s first live magazine,” and while the set-up may sound similar to a more dynamic, quirkier version of TED, with a dash of Walrus TV— a Canadian initiative whereby original documentaries are created around feature stories from The Walrus magazine— there does not appear to be anything else quite like it.
“It’s kind of the experience of reading a great general interest magazine, only live there in the room. And then we have a party afterwards with drinks,” said Editor-in-Chief Douglas McGray as he introduced the concept during the Southern Exposure "Art Publishing Now" summit back in 2010.
McGray, a past editor of Foreign Policy magazine and radio producer for This American Life, who has written features for the New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, first came up with the idea to stage a live magazine in late 2008, against the backdrop of a publishing industry in turmoil, according to Mother Jones’ Michael Mechanic.
The plan came together with the help of collaborators Derek Fagerstrom, Maili Holiman, Evan Ratliff, and Lauren Smith, and by April 22, 2009 the curtain was going up on the first issue of Pop-Up Magazine at the Brava theatre in San Francisco. “We thought it was a ludicrously huge space,” McGray told Mechanic of the theatre— but all 350 seats were filled, and three years later Pop-Up Magazine remains one of the most coveted tickets in San Francisco.
Each evening is different, with each new lineup kept secret. The features— which start out short and get longer, as in a magazine— can include music, interviews, demonstrations of strap-on pregnancy suits for men, and even a recipe for pickled mustard greens complete with a grandmother-singing-gospel impression— are not rehearsed. More astonishingly, “everybody gets paid,” according to Mechanic. There are even ads— “which tend to involve cocktails” (Skyy Vodka and Anchor Brewing are sponsors). In the lobby after the show, audience members and contributors are invited to sip and mingle late into the night.
Along with tangibility, one of the major differences between Pop-Up Magazine and its print (and mobile) counterparts is transience; audiences are forbidden from filming, photographing, or live-tweeting the performances. As Fagerstrom puts it in the following video: “You’re there, or you miss it.”