Thursday, July 6, 2017

All Hail the Voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin

Posted By on Thu, Jul 6, 2017 at 11:00 AM

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What in the world is going on in the sky high above the Arby's sign? Who are the mysterious hooded figures milling around in the town dog park? What's the real deal with Carlos, the beautiful — maybe too beautiful — new scientist in town, with his teeth so white and perfect like the gravestones in a military cemetery? And what's up with that glowing cloud moving in from the west? You know, the whistling, glowing, color-shifting cloud that may change in appearance from observer to observer. Perhaps some of these questions will be answered when Welcome to Night Vale, the enormously successful podcast and long-running experiment in dread, brings its touring show "All Hail" to Germantown Performing Arts Center. But probably not.
Welcome to Night Vale is a dark, listener-supported satire of community radio broadcast from a fictional desert town where ghosts, aliens, and all manner of odd characters and conspiracies are just a common part of everyday life. It's a surreal kind of place where math and English might switch names. It's a friendly spot where old woman Josie, who lives out by the car lot, might sell you a burned-out light bulb that was changed by an angel. She'll give you a real good price, too.

The format for "All Hail" is similar to that of a typical Welcome episode. Cecil Baldwin, the dulcet voice of Night Vale community radio reads news and PSAs while tense music builds in the background — hypnotic, terrifying, hilarious. Live shows also feature musical performances, special guest appearances and audience participation, if you dare.

And now, an interview with the voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin.

click to enlarge Cecil AKA Cecil.
  • Cecil AKA Cecil.

Fly on the Wall:
I know, for a while, you were doing Welcome to Night Vale and still performing with one of my favorite theater companies, the Neo-Futurists. Now that Night Vale has blown up with all these different components, do you still do both?

Cecil Baldwin: I do. I'm no longer a full-time [Neo-Futurist) company member. The traveling involved with Welcome to Night Vale is too intense to do both jobs simultaneously. But I try to go back whenever I can. I'm actually going back and doing a few shows with them later this summer, but it's more of an informal capacity kind of a drop in drop out thing.

That's such a creative and collaborative group. I know with Night Vale you work primarily as talent. I was wondering what you did these days when you had the urge to write or make something.

The Neo-Futurists is always a great place because you're kind of a writer. performer, and director. I try and do that whenever I can. When I'm back in New York I'm try to work on web series or other podcasts. One of the things I've fallen into doing Night Vale, I started guest hosting on NPR's Ask Me Another which is a lot of fun.

Everything about Night Vale started small. And now it's enormously successful with tours and publishing. Can you just maybe talk a little about the show's evolution?

 Joseph Fink had an idea. He was trying to make it as a writer and he was having a hard time getting published. Then he realized, "well I love podcasts." The threshold for entry is low. And it's low financially. It's like self-publishing you just put it out there. So he needed a narrator and he knew me from the net Neo-Futurists. And he really just started making a show. I think when you're used to working in sort of an off-off-Broadway mentality you just want to do the work. You hope people show up and you just continue to make things hoping something will be seen, some of it will be entertaining, and some of it will—  knock on wood — make you some money eventually. But mostly you just kind of keep plugging away at it and do it for the love of it. We may have gone for a good year-and-a-half before anyone, I think, outside of our friends and family started listening to it. And then it got more popular. And then, one summer, it just snowballed and became this overnight success, even though overnight took a year-and-a-half.
That's actually pretty fast for an overnight success. And so much of the success comes from having these really engaged fans making all this fan art and sharing it. Have you guys found ways to engage and encourage more of that or does it really just continue to happen on its own?

In the beginning it just happened on its own. It's one of those things. The kind of people who really discovered Night Vale were in the Tumblr,and  Reddit online communities, and a lot of those people spend a lot of time online finding things on the Internet and sharing  with their friends. When you're sharing a TV show or a movie or something like that there's a visual component to it already. With Night Vale there's not. So people would share quotes from the Twitter page but with nothing to give visual reference to these weird funny scary things. So people started putting visual components along with it and the best way to do that was to create it themselves. All of a sudden fan art became a thing.  Part of the popularity of the show was related to listening and deciding for yourself what you think of these characters. From there is got bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger until, by the end of that summer, we were the most downloaded podcast in the world — knocked This American Life off their number one spot for a few weeks, you know.

When you're making something and people express their appreciation by taking all your ideas and making their own responsive art or fiction — and there's so much of it — it seems like it would be really hard for it to not influence the original.

Joseph and Jeffrey specifically don't read fan theories. They don't read fan fiction. I think their point is that's for the fans, it's not for the creators to approve of their fan theories or to go, "Yes that could potentially happen in the world of Night Vale." I love looking at the fan art and I find it very inspiring to know that something I've helped make has inspired other people to, in turn, create their own kinds of art. That's interesting. I feel kind of the same about cosplay. Whenever people send me photos, or I see photos online of people dressing up as Cecil or Carlos going to Comic-Con. That's a kind of an inspiration. You've inspired someone to take a better part of their day to lovingly craft an Eternal Scout uniform from scratch and then go out and share it with the world. I find it very inspiring. 
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With its slow-burning narrative, and relentlessly dreadful, but also often whimsical tone I think Night Vale is kind of a Rorschach blot. People are going to see a lot of different things in it. And lie the glow cloud, it will change from observer to observer. What do you think fans are finding?

There's a lot of different elements at play. I think part of it is the fact that Night Vale is this very dangerous place. It's sort of filled with existential dread — a place where normal things are terrifying and big terrifying things are considered normal. It's almost like Gilbert and Sullivan. In its topsy-turvy kind of way it has its own twisted dream logic. And it's presented with such hope. This is a world where ancient gods are out to kill everyone and where tiny civilizations that live under bowling alleys  attack people. Yet at the same time the people that live in Night Vale have such love for each other, and for their community, and their town. I think in a lot of ways it's very inspiring to people. Especially people who feel disenfranchised — people of color, or people that are gay or transgender etc. etc. etc. People who feel like they're somehow on the outside in the real world. They're like, "Wow, this world I live in is sort of topsy-turvy. We don't always have the best values or our own best interests at heart. But, at the end of the day, I still love the world I live in, and I love my neighbors. It's very inspiring.

We've talked about everything but the show. Which may be different from other shows fans might have seen.

We try to do a unique live show every year we take it as many places as we can and then we put in the vault afterwards. So every time we come back to your town it's a different show every time. This show is "All Hail." It centers around the Glow Cloud. It's one of our more fun shows and we're going to tour it through 2017 and into 2018 and then it will be locked away in the vault never to be seen again.

Which brings us back to the Neo-Futurists who are all about impermanence, and retiring work.

It's very much inspired by the fact that these are live shows. We acknowledge the fact we're in the room performing something live in front of you that cannot be repeated. Even if you do the show 75 times, each one of the shows is going to be different every single time. And I think it's that sort of commitment to the live experience that's very similar to the Neo-Futurists.

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