Surreal podcast phenomenon brings live show, charming heebie-jeebies to Fox Theatre, Tue/21. We interview Cecil, the show’s perfectly unreliable narrator. 

Welcome to Nightvale | 48 Hills

By Marke B.

BAY STAGES The enormous glowing cloud that saves as president of the Night Vale School Board announced a five-year strategic plan for the school district. The plan, put together one the past year by the 12-member board, lays out new curriculum goals, organizational restructuring, and a comprehensive outline of eternal penitence before the Mighty Glow Cloud.  

Everyone at the press conference fell to their knees and praised the Glow Cloud, their eyes solid white, gray smoking wisps swirling from their chanting mouths, hands clapping loudly in unison as miniature glowing colorful clouds swept about them. “CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE,” the Glow Cloud said. 

If you’re not familiar with the Glow Cloud; or the mysterious, super-festive Monolith that explodes into free gifts (despite the fact that the unfortunately fictional Night Vale has banned materialism); or the faceless woman who lives in your home and rarely speaks to you but really wishes you’d clean your closet; or hordes of malevolent, escaped Librarians, then you should acquaint yourself right now.

Long before Serial staked its claim to the podcast throne, Welcome to Night Vale had mapped a dark, poetic, hilarious urban territory of the American Mind, mixing Twin Peaks and The Shadow with a healthy dose of contemporary surrealism and Southwest American mythology.

Welcome to Night Vale
Fan art of Cecil by Jackie Lyn

Told every couple weeks in the form of a 20-minute newscast (now on its 66th episode), and anchored by sonorously-voiced anchor Cecil, the two-year-old “Night Vale” has been phenomenally successful, pulling in hundreds of thousands of listeners and fans, and inspiring legions of online fan art. A just-announced book shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, based on pre-orders alone. (It’s not being released until September).

Now it’s coming live to Fox Theatre Tue/21. I talked with Cecil, played by NYC-based author Cecil Baldwin, about Night Vale’s ties to the Bay Area, what to expect from the show, and if he ever was going to find the old oak door leading to the parallel dimension where his boyfriend Carlos has been working.

48 HILLS Hi Cecil! I want to start in right away by asking the question on everyone’s mind who’s been listening to the show. Cecil’s scientist boyfriend with the perfect hair, Carlos, has been trapped — I mean “working” — in a parallel dimension for several months now, although he’s been able to call in to the Welcome to Night Vale radio show and adorably, passive-aggressively beg you to visit. Cecil has been talking about trying someday to find the portal to his dimension and visit him. Will Cecil and Carlos ever get back together? 

CECIL BALDWIN Well, I can’t tell much about the future, although I know that this is a storyline that, in true Night Vale tradition, is going to be stretched into every interesting direction it can be. We’re so conditioned in recent mainstream narratives about gay couples that a romance like this is going to end in either a wedding or some spectacular reality show break-up. With the Carlos and Cecil story, [Night Vale writers and creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor] are approaching the storytelling from a subversive angle — drawing out listeners’ expectations in a completely different way, and writing around the usual gay romance endgame.

That’s the advantage of long form storytelling like this, you have the freedom to write around obstacles that would normally seem impossible or typical in sitcoms or other shorter forms. And of course Night Vale is able to address things on a metaphysical level as well. But I think the story of Carlos and Cecil is really grounded in a reality everyone can relate to: This is a long distance relationship between two characters that we’re all really invested in. It’s just, well, a unique kind of long-distance relationship. In a parallel dimension.

The actual Cecil, reading on stage from the last live 'Night Vale' tour, 'The Librarians'
The actual Cecil, reading on stage from the last live ‘Night Vale’ tour, ‘The Librarians’

48H This tour is huge for Night Vale — you’re going to something like 26 cities over a couple months. Can you tell us a little bit about what to expect from the live show? The last time you were in the Bay Area, I caught the show at the Victoria Theatre and it was spectacular. You guys really translated the eerie-fun feeling of the podcast into a live setting. It was like watching an old-time radio drama being recorded. And it was such a treat to see so many characters from the podcast live! 

CECIL  Yes it’s definitely a kind of whirlwind, but I think we’re all just grateful and actually overwhelmed by the opportunity to do this, and the response of Night Vale listeners. On our last tour, something like 80,000 people ended up seeing our show, which was phenomenal. We played everything from small community theaters in Alabama to huge, old Irish music halls.

As for the show itself, we made the conscious decision to stick with the “live radio” format and feel of the last one, sort of Prairie Home Companion meets Thrilling Adventure Hour. We’ll have 6-8 special guests in each performance, and they’ll rotate in and out as we travel around. Also like before, we’ll have very minimal props, live guest musicians (in San Francisco that will be future-folk singer-songwriter Mary Epworth), and some sound and light design.

We want to honor the the radio drama tradition by letting the audience do the heavy lifting with their imagination — and we’re fortunate to have an audience with an abundance of imagination. Who knows, one day there may be a full-fledged Night Vale musical. But not right now.

48H What about the forthcoming novel? It will seem kind of weird to have an iteration of Welcome to Night Vale that doesn’t depend on Cecil’s rich baritone. 

CECIL Well, I can’t say much about the novel , but I’m sure Joe and Jeff have come up with something brilliant that keeps the Night Vale ethos growing. And I’m definitely doing the audiobook. So you won’t be completely free of me.

48H After 66 episodes, countless extras, and hundreds of gnomic Facebook updates, Night Vale manages to remain astonishingly fresh, especially since it pretty much retains the same format week after week: your voice and persona, a familiar if ever-growing cast of characters, the vivid yet contained Night Vale landscape, a “weather report” that features the music of an independent band …. 

CECIL Again, I think that’s one of the true advantages of telling a story like this. You get to develop it over such an arc of time that it acquires more resonance as it goes on. Joe and Jeff write each episode specially to be performed live, and we kind of interpret it together in terms of how each line will be expressed, so that gives it a bit of a collaborative momentum. But we’ve found the format is endlessly expressive, and the Night Vale tale just keeps growing.

You mentioned my voice being the anchor, but there have been times that we’ve stepped outside of that. One of the most recent podcasts, “Voicemail” didn’t have me in it at all — it told a story and enlarged our cast of characters completely through a series of increasingly strange and affecting voicemail messages left for the Night Vale radio station.

Another of the great things about the show is that Cecil isn’t quite a reliable narrator.  There’s an episode called “Cassette,” for example, where Cecil discovers a box of cassettes in his bedroom that he supposedly recorded when he was 15 and a radio intern. But he doesn’t recognize his voice, or remember the internship — or even that he once apparently had a younger brother. Then a strange flickering light behinds to appear in the corner of Cecil’s eye, which follows him around and eventually ensnares him in some way. Screams are heard. But later we hear nothing of this, and everything is back to ‘normal.’

48H Night Vale has a special relationship with the Bay Area. I remember you telling me about your first appearance here. 

CECIL Yes! We started doing the show in 2012, but in 2013 we went for one of our first live “readings” to Booksmith in the Haight. We knew that the podcast was popular and that people were starting to really get into it in a cultural way. But this was the first time we actually saw that and it really began to sink in. There were hundreds of people lined up just to see us, and they were all dressed up in their interpretations of the characters. It was a pretty magical moment. I can’t wait to see what how people come dressed this time.

WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE LIVE
Tue/21, 8-m, $27.50-$32.50
Fox Theatre, Oakl.
Tickets and more info here.