Pop-Up Magazine coming to Austin for storytelling with a twist

A “live magazine” comes to Austin this month to showcase its winter issue, and while magazine may be in the title, this is no ordinary newsstand periodical.

Rather than a print edition, each issue of Pop-Up Magazine is a live show that portrays the work of a variety of individuals and is performed in front of an audience. Co-founder and editor-in-chief Douglas McGray, who has previously done work for The New Yorker and “This American Life,” says the inspiration derived from the desire to collaborate with storytellers from different mediums who don’t normally work together.

“Film people have their film festivals, and photographers have gallery events, and writers have their readings,” McGray said. “So I gathered some friends, and we had this idea that we could bring all these worlds together and make something for fans of all of this stuff.”

Pop-Up Magazine’s stories cover a range of topics that might appear in any general interest magazine, from politics and science to sports and pop culture, expressed through photography, film, animation, music and more. The show goes on tour three times a year, visiting multiple cities for its fall, winter and spring issues.

Though February marks the release of the winter issue, the process of putting together a show often begins far earlier.

“It usually takes a couple of months, and sometimes I’ll be talking to a storyteller for a year or two before we finally land on an idea that makes sense or find that the timing is exactly right,” senior producer Haley Howle said.

All the stories are original and unpublished, with no particular theme connecting them other than a shared curiosity about the world, McGray says. 

“We look for people who are doing interesting things and who are making exciting, new, groundbreaking work, and we reach out to them,” Howle said. “We have a conversation with them, and a lot of times it starts with, ‘What are you interested in right now? What stories do you want to be telling?’”

Once the storytellers have been established, the show begins to come together, and contributors work on their collaborations. No story is told through a single medium; at Pop-Up Magazine, a writer might be paired with a photographer, musician, filmmaker or animator. A live band is also present throughout the event.

“It’s all kind of stirred together,” McGray said. “Something that’s a little bit like reading a great story, a little bit like film, a little bit like live music, and a little bit like theater, all mixed together.”

The only thing is, you have to be there to see it. There are no recordings of the show, so once it ends, that’s it until the next issue.

This month, Pop-Up Magazine will be making stops in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Atlanta in addition to Austin. Contributors include David Guttenfelder, a photographer from National Geographic, and Cord Jefferson, a TV writer for “The Good Place.”

The Austin show will have its own unique element: Adrian Quesada, founder of Grupo Fantasma and a Grammy-winning musician, and photojournalist Kirsten Luce have teamed up to create a piece about life in the Rio Grande Valley. Quesada grew up on the Texas/Mexico border, while Luce has spent years working within that area, so each is bringing something personal to the story. The event will feature Luce’s photographs alongside Quesada’s composition.

The Austin show also will include audience participation. From karaoke-related activities to moments when audience members will actually guide the story, the show provides an opportunity to actively experience the evening.

The live music aspect may especially appeal to Austinites. Aside from the musicians brought in for different pieces created for each show, Pop-Up Magazine has a house band called the Magik Magik Orchestra. Since their debut in 2008, Magik Magik has cast musicians who have collaborated on a number of projects with artists including Weezer, Sting and Chicago. 

Most of all, though, among the different stories and works of art shared that evening, Pop-Up Magazine hopes to provide audiences with an experience like no other. 

“You’ll oftentimes find that at the end of a show you feel like you’ve been transported somewhere,” McGray said. “That you’ve experienced a bunch of different things, felt a bunch of different things, and even though all the stories are distinct from each other, they’ve taken you somewhere.”

The night doesn’t end there, however. Once the show finishes, the bar opens up, and everyone from audience members to contributors to Pop-Up Magazine editors and producers have the chance to meet each other, hang out and further conversations about the night’s topics.

So while the show may be a live event not recorded or shared online, what happens at a Pop-Up Magazine show can open a dialogue that lasts long after it is over.

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