A strange town comes to town: Live version of popular podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” opens new tour in Northampton

  • Cecil Baldwin is the longtime narrator of “Welcome to Night Vale,” playing a character of the same name on the podcast and in the live shows. Photo by Whitney Browne/courtesy Welcome to Night Vale

  • The main storyline of the 2020 live show of “Welcome to Night Vale” concerns a house that seems to be haunted while it’s still under construction. Poster by Jessica Hayworth/image courtesy Welcome to Night Vale

  • Meg Bashwiner, a longtime contributor to “Welcome to Night Vale,” and the emcee of the live show, is a 2008 graduate of UMass Amherst. Photo by Whitney Browne/courtesy Welcome to Night Vale

  • Symphony Sanders voices the character of Tamika Flynn, a book lover who hates librarians and leads a child militia in Night Vale. Photo by Whitney Browne/courtesy Welcome to Night Vale

  • Cecil Baldwin, at left, says the live shows of “Welcome to Night Vale” bring a very different dynamic to the story. Photo by Veronica Rose/courtesy Weclome to Night Vale

  • Cecil Baldwin is the longtime narrator of “Welcome to Night Vale,” playing a character of the same name on the podcast and in the live shows. Photo by Whitney Browne/courtesy Welcome to Night Vale

  • The trademark logo for the popular podcast, which began in 2012 and has featured over 160 episodes.

  • Writers Jeffrey Cranor, left, and Joseph Fink are the creators of “Welcome to Night Vale.” Photo by Nina Subin/courtesyWelcome to Night Vale

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 05, 2020

Back in 2012, New York actor Cecil Baldwin got together with a friend and fellow actor, Joseph Fink, over an idea Fink had after hearing Baldwin voice a particular character in a play. What did Baldwin think, his friend said, about becoming the narrator of a podcast he was thinking of launching?

Baldwin, an experienced actor who had performed Shakespeare, Molière and experimental theater to boot, says he had never listened to podcasts before. But when he read the proposed script that Fink had developed with another writer, Jeffrey Cranor, he was intrigued: Here was an unusual story, as he said in an interview some years later, about a fictional small desert town “where every conspiracy you’ve heard is not only true, but it’s part of everyday life.”

Fast forward to 2020, where “Welcome to Night Vale” has become one of the most popular podcasts in the business, the inspiration for two bestselling novels co-written by Fink and Cranor (with a third soon to be published), and the subject of a stage show, “Welcome to Night Vale Live,” that has made multiple tours in the U.S. and overseas.

Now the show that’s been called “hypnotic and darkly funny,” with gothic and absurd twists alike that recall the work of David Lynch and HP Lovecraft, among others, is opening a new worldwide live tour, with its kickoff performance at Northampton’s Academy of Music Theatre on March 12 at 8 p.m.

That tour, which will encompass over 50 shows across the U.S. and in several countries in Europe, will also be the last for Baldwin. In a recent phone interview from New York, Baldwin, the lead character and narrator of “Night Vale” — he plays an announcer (of the same name) at the town’s community radio station — said he’s loved being part of the live performances but is ready to take a break (though he’ll continue with the podcast, which airs twice monthly).

“Living my life on the road for up to six months of the year is definitely a challenge,” Baldwin said. “Sometimes I’d just like to be at home and have a pet or a boyfriend or a plant.

“In fact, I’d settle for a plant,” he added with a laugh.

Yet Baldwin said performing “Night Vale” live, in which he and a few other actors/voices from the podcast are backed by a sound effects team and guest musicians, has been a welcome counterpoint to the podcast, for which he typically has recorded his parts by himself in his apartment.

“There’s no substitute to being in front of an audience,” said Baldwin, who’s active in a number of other theatrical projects. “When you’re doing a podcast, all your concentration is centered on the microphone. When you’re on stage, there’s much more emotion involved, you’re playing off the other performers, you’re responding to the audience — it’s a very different experience, and it’s one that we’re consistently refining.

“Not the script — that’s set,” he added. “But how our characters present themselves, based on where we’re performing that night and the energy we’re feeling, that can change…. We’ve always said we never do the same show twice.”

Joining Baldwin at the Academy of Music next week will be another longtime performer in the podcast and live show, Meg Bashwiner, who voices the character of Deb. Bashwiner, the emcee and tour manager of “Night Vale Live,” is also a 2008 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Alongside her and Baldwin will be Symphony Sanders, who plays Tamika Flynn, a book-loving character who’s something of a teenage super-heroine who destroys librarians. Also on board: guest musician/composer Eliza Rickman.

Funny, absurd and unsettling

If a book lover seems an unlikely person to target librarians, that’s par for the course in Night Vale, a weird place where, as the New York Times wrote a few years ago, “aliens, angels and ghostly apparitions are as commonplace as P.T.A. meetings and yard sales.”

“Something is definitely off in Night Vale,” said Baldwin. “Things happen that can be very funny, that can be absurd, and then there are things that can be truly and deeply unsettling.”

For instance, one recurring “character” is the Glow Cloud, a sort of hovering deity of noxious gas that hypnotizes the townspeople — they’re driven to chant “All Hail the Glow Cloud!” — and which eventually becomes president of Night Vale’s school board. Then there’s a blogger, Hiram McDaniels, a five-headed dragon that at one point runs unsuccessfully for mayor. Four of McDaniels’ five heads are put on trial for attempting to assassinate the winning candidate (the fifth dragon head tries to prevent the murder).

One of the early episodes of the podcast, “A Story About You,” offers a good example of the mix of off-beat humor and weirdness, in which Baldwin describes how an unnamed person — you — one day walks away from a direct-mail marketing job and a fiancé and, after a long, aimless drive, arrives in Night Vale.

With keyboards sounding ominous notes in the background, Baldwin intones “You have a new job now. Every day except Sunday, you drive out into the sand wastes, and there you find two trucks. You move wooden crates from one truck to the other while a man in a suit silently watches. It is a different man each time. Sometimes, the crates tick. Mostly, they do not.”

Over the course of more than 160 podcasts, many regular and guest actors, and both Cranor and Fink, have voiced roles. The live shows use a more limited cast and are built around new, self-contained storylines. The 2020 tour is called “The Haunting of Night Vale”; the plot involves the new house that Cecil and his husband, Carlos, are building for themselves. “Strange occurrences and ghostly encounters are plaguing the construction process,” as publicity notes put it. “[But] how could a house be haunted before it’s even done being built?”

The 2020 tour will have another local connection later this year when Erin McKeown, the Valley singer-songwriter who also co-wrote the 2018 Off-Broadway musical “Miss You Like Hell,” joins the lineup as a guest musician for several dates. In an email, McKeown said she’d met Joseph Fink and Meg Bashwiner after she performed with the indie folk-rock group The Mountain Goats some years back “and it turns out Joseph had been a fan of mine for years … I had never heard of Night Vale, but he invited me to come on the road and [I] thought it sounded like a good adventure.”

She estimates she’s since played about 75 Night Vale Live shows across the U.S. and in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. Guest musicians such as herself perform their own music as an interlude to the stage show’s own background music and sound effects.

“I adore WTNV, the pod but most especially getting to be on the road with them,” McKeown said. “It’s by far the most fun I’ve had with audiences and touring in years. A real privilege.”

Indeed, added Baldwin. “One of the best things about these tours, aside from interacting with the audience, is that it feels likes you’re with family — we have a lot of fun working together.”

And once the 2020 “Welcome to Night Vale Live” wraps up in October, Baldwin figures he’ll still be good for an occasional live performance of the show — just not an extended tour — and of course the podcast. “The story goes on, and Night Vale Live goes on,” he said. “It will just be a little different.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Tickets for “Welcome to Night Vale Live,” at Northampton’s Academy of Music on March 12 at 8 p.m., are available at aomtheatre.com. Tickets and additional information about the show and podcast can also be found at welcometonightvale.com.