Earlier this month I had the opportunity to see a live performance of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. A friend had envied my ability to attend and asked to hear about what it was like. So this is my attempt to convey that for her. I will avoid spoilers, as this is a touring show and don’t want to ruin any surprises for possible future audience members.
We arrived probably an hour before the doors opened and found that the line of people waiting to get in for the first show already stretched a block and a half out. In line were many people who were dressed in costumes. There were a couple Glow Clouds, at least one Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your House, several hooded figures, some Eternal Scouts, at least a couple interpretations of Cecil and Carlos (though not my favorite), and a librarian.
Meg Bashwiner, whose voice is usually heard at the end of each podcast, MC’ed the show. I’ve heard her voice so many times now, that it was immediately recognizable without introduction. (But she did introduce herself.)
The show opened with musician Jason Webley performing several of his songs while playing either a guitar or an accordion. With some songs he was accompanied by violinist L. Alex Guy. I’d seen Webley open for a reading of Neil Gaiman’s, but that performance hadn’t stood out the same way this one did. He had a small platform he stood on while he played, stomping occasionally in time to the music. The sound resonated through the theater far better than I would have expected, pounding a rhythm through the air. It lent a primal feel to the songs he performed. But I’m hardly a music expert, so it could be I’m just easily impressed.
After Webley’s act, Cecil Baldwin took the stage and did his “broadcast.” When I’d first heard the broadcast, the image I had in my head was that of someone who looked like the prototypical WASPy 1950s news broadcaster type, a bit like J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. Various fan interpretations have shifted that view some. I’ve never really thought of his character looking like the actual actor. Despite having seen several pictures of Baldwin, he’s never fit in my head as his fictional podcast persona.
The immediate thing that struck me as he began the show was that his voice was warmer than it is on the podcast. Normally his voice sounds really deadpan to me. But live his voice seemed much friendlier and intimate. A difference of audio production? Perhaps the result of multiple recording takes versus an unfiltered presentation? I don’t know. I suspect that the surfer-dude tone that his voice takes on in some parts of the podcast is closer to his real way of speaking. But I don’t actually know, as he never spoke out of character.
There was also his physical presentation, which I would not have anticipated from just seeing still images of him. Though the whole thing was mostly treated as though it was a strictly audio presentation, he would gesture and flourish as he read on the stage. He reminded me of a strange mix of the dean from Community (Jim Rash) and Jack Skellington. It was at once both flamboyant and inhuman, especially in how he used his hands. From pictures I’ve since seen of him with Wil Wheaton, I think he might also be a giant. Either way, it helped his voice fit with his face in my head. Because how I imagine things is very important.
He was occasionally joined at different points by Webley and Meg, who each took on roles in the audio drama. When they did “the weather,” it was also Jason Webley who played with a new song created for the tour.
All told, it was a relatively short show. Somewhere between 60-90 minutes? And we were hurried out quickly so that the second performance could happen. But despite the relative brevity, I had a lot of fun. The fans of Night Vale bring a really wonderful energy to the thing. I don’t often understand fan culture, but this time I felt at home with this flavor of weird. And there was an audience participation part of the show that was amazing, unannounced, and almost seemed to happen spontaneously.