Pop-Up Magazine flyer

Pop-Up Magazine challenges the idea of what a magazine can be, by doing its storytelling on the stage. Journalists perform their stories, accompanied by specially commissioned art, an original score, and occasionally even puppetry. Created by the folks who brought us The California Sunday Magazine, the show isn’t recorded: to experience it, you have to be there. Is this the world’s most ephemeral magazine? Can it really call itself a magazine? We caught up with executive editor and co-founding creative director Derek Fagerstrom and creative director Leo Jung to find out.

What exactly is a live magazine”?

Derek Fagerstrom: It’s a collection of new, true stories bought to you by our favorite writers, filmmakers, podcast makers, radio personalities, fine artists, illustrators, and photographers. We gather up all these people who are seeking out fascinating stories and we work with them to produce those stories for a live audience. It’s a highly-curated, intensely-produced, high-quality, live show.

Pop-Up Magazine live show

What makes it a magazine, as opposed to a live storytelling event?

Fagerstrom: It’s a magazine for a lot of reasons. One is we’ve got a lot of the things that magazines have. We’ve got an editorial staff and an art department that commissions great photography. The words are highly curated and thought out and the images are just as highly produced. It’s not like… We don’t just find stuff on the internet and throw junk up on screen. It’s non-fiction. We do stories about anything—immigration, mental health, food, fashion, technology, sports. All the topics readers would expect to find between the pages of a smart general interest magazine.

Talk us through a typical show.

Fagerstrom: They’re all very different. But a typical show is 12 to 15 stories, between three and ten minutes long. They’re delivered by people from the magazine world, or the documentary world, or the radio world, or the art world. We don’t take a story and have a professional speaker deliver it. It’s all people from a variety of backgrounds. Each one had a different approach visually and different music. We set it up like a magazine. The first thing that happens is the editor’s note. Then we step aside and let the stories unfold. There’s no MC. We hate MCs. We don’t come back after each piece and go “blah blah blah.” There’s no intermission. It’s just story, story, story. The first might be animation-driven, the second might be photography-driven; so it’s a real mix.

What can you do live with a live magazine that you can’t do in print or online?

Fagerstrom: Our story “Tim and Tim” is a classic example. This was a story by documentary filmmaker Tim Hussin about a homeless opera singer he found singing for money on the subway named Tim Blevins. He was this breakout Broadway star who had got injured on stage and became addicted to pain medication. Through addiction he ended up living on the streets in San Francisco. We had all this documentary footage, interviews and clips of him performing. Then the story ends with Tim saying he’s working hard to get sober. Only then, because we’re a live magazine and we can do things you can’t do in a magazine or a podcast, we had Tim come out and perform “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha.

You don’t record the show. Is that just a gimmick?

Fagerstrom: We make the show for the people who are right there. There’s no YouTube, no podcast. We just make it for the audience that night. So it’s very urgent. The show is very ephemeral, it disappears after it’s happened. It means people pay attention, which is so rare now. You read headlines, you don’t read articles; you read tweets, you don’t read books. At Pop-Up the phones are off, the stories are happening right now and you’re super focused. Then afterwards, since people can’t share a link, you have to retell the story. So the story gets passed from person to person. The stories spread in a way that we lose with technology. People say, Oh, it’s so stupid that you don’t record your show, but at the end of the day it’s more important to create an experience. If it was available in other places then the experience would not be as memorable, and the audience wouldn’t have to retell the stories.

How do you create a visual identity for a magazine when it’s a live event?

Leo Jung: As print designers we’re used to a physical object or a framework, whereas we go into different venues and theaters, and we can’t outfit each one with a certain look. As a brand we have a great logo and a standard color. So it’s about looking for the moments where we develop an identity that’s recognizable, like the program and the intro to the show. For the most part the identity comes from the experience itself; from all the stories that are on stage, the experience of listening to the storytellers and the visuals and those things working together. The design is in the periphery. It’s there but it’s not as recognizable or as tangible as things in the print world.

Fagerstrom: There are other fun things that we do, too. Like we do merch, we design T-shirts and bags and limited-edition posters. We try to think of things for people to take away, since we don’t record it.

What’s the art direction process for a live mag?

Jung: It’s very similar to the way a print magazine works. The story comes in as a Word document, as a script. We figure out the right moments to emphasize and the pacing and make sure all the key elements of the story are told. Then it’s much like matching an artist to a story for a printed or digital magazine. We highlight certain skill-sets of people, whether they are a great portrait artist or a great animator or a great cartoonist. Then the mood or the tone of the story really dictates who we work with.

Live must bring its challenges, right?

Jung: The tough thing about live storytelling is you just never know how quickly something will happen. You need to trigger visuals in sync with the storyteller and give the illusion that it’s seamless. We have to work with the artists to create something that can live on the screen and be flexible.

Has working on a live show changed your practice in any surprising ways?

Jung: It’s opened me up to immersive storytelling. With print and digital magazines, you’re competing with infinite distractions—social media, Netflix, a beautiful sunny day. The live show is a captive audience. You have more creative freedom to unfold the story. Controlling the pace and timing of a story is foreign to print and digital magazines. When you have it—and the elements of voice, music, and visuals at your disposal—a story can have a lot more emotional resonance. You connect with people on a far more human level. There’s something really beautiful about that.

And is that informing how you now work in print or digital?

Jung: Since the first issue of California Sunday launched, it has been inspired by the cinematography of film. The masters can convey so much with scale and point of view. Similarly, I think that’s why I’m also drawn to the way stories are told in graphic novels. There’s a beauty to seeing a progression of still images and allowing your imagination to fill in the blanks. Paul Kirchner did this brilliant comic strip called The Bus back in the early ’80s—I love the way he’d always start off each strip like it’s a regular day and then take you to unexpected places. That sense of surprise mixed in with a cinematic quality is always what we strive for.

You’re always pushing the boundaries of what a magazine can be. What would you say are the necessary and sufficient elements of magazine? What does it need to have before it stops being a magazine?

Fagerstrom: We are always looking for new things to do. But I think the key elements are just great storytellers. Great, smart, thoughtful people.