Somewhere in the ether of geographic nothingness exists a small desert town that's more cut off from society than even the most heavily fortified separatist compound. It's got all the things that every small town has: a high school, a City Hall and an all-night diner. However, it also has things that would make even the most bustling metropolis more interesting, like glowing clouds, a sun that chooses to rise of its own accord and a dog park that functions under different rules of time and existence.
No one has ever visited this town, known only as Night Vale, but we know of its existence thanks to a popular podcast created by writers Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink who present the town's strange stories in the form of a community radio broadcast announced by actor and radio host Cecil Baldwin. The bi-monthly broadcast hasn't even hit its 50th episode yet but it's managed to earn a regular seat on iTunes Top 10 most downloaded podcasts and has even sparked a national tour that quickly sold out seats at places like this weekend's appearance at the The Lakewood Theater.
Cranor and Fink stopped at a "soul food buffet place" in Meridian, Mississippi, on their way to their next show to talk to Mixmaster about taking Welcome to Night Vale on the road, the show's deep roots in traditional storytelling and if Night Vale is actually either Mesquite or Marfa.
How did the idea of a live tour start?
Cranor: All of us involved in the show have some level of theater background. When I lived in Dallas, I used to work for Kitchen Dog Theater and we have a long background, all of us. Doing this kind of made sense. We had a couple of times where we had Cecil, who plays the main character, and he's a talented actor and it just made sense to do a reading in New York last summer. It was a lot of fun. We figured out that we could just do that. We all went to San Francisco and L.A. last fall and did shows there and did a show in Brooklyn in the fall and by January, we decided to put together a West Coast tour and we just went from Seattle all the way down to Phoenix. We went to seven cities and did 14 shows. Then we put together this March tour so we could do kind of the eastern half, Texas and the Midwest as well.
It's not difficult to tour. There's not a lot of equipment and we all like doing it. So it made total sense to put it out there. Cecil's just amazing on stage.
The podcast is funny and scary and all those things that you want from an anthology-style horror and sci-fi show. And because it's a podcast, it's very personal when you listen to it. Most of the time, I'm alone in my house or in my car or if I'm feeling particularly daring, I'm in bed with the lights out or something. Does it lose something or gain something when you do it live with a crowd?
Fink: I think it's just different because we write it to be different. When we're writing for a podcast, we're writing it to be to listened to by one person in their headphones or whatever. A live show is not losing anything at all. It's just an opportunity to do something different with the format, to be aware of them and acknowledge the energy of the crowd and build on it. It's written to be said to an audience. The script wouldn't work 100 percent as a recorded podcast because it's written for the energy of an audience. It's written to be done in front of an audience.
When Cecil performs in front of a crowd, he performs in a very different way than he does when he's just recording a podcast into a microphone. He's a stage performer by training and trade so he's very good at holding an audience and using his entire body to perform and to bring his face and his movements into it. I would say it's a thing that from the script to the performance, it's calibrated to be done on stage.
When Cecil's on stage, is it more than him sitting on a chair?
Cranor: We took a cue from the podcast called The Thrilling Adventure Hour and they are kind of the reverse from us. They started as a live show and then recorded their live performances for podcasts and putting those out as podcasts. We got to be friends with them and get to know their show quite a bit. We kind of took a cue from them and their staging, which is just simple script-in-hand, lead actors at the center stage microphone, guest actors enter on their lines and deliver their performance and when their performance is done, they exit the stage. I think a lot of people imagine it's going to be dudes sitting around a table, kind of like a lot of other podcasts like a talk-show format. This is a storytelling show. There's a live person actually on stage who can't ignore his audience.
As for the material, can you go darker? Is there stuff you can do on the stage that you can't do on the podcast?
Fink: It's all about just being aware of the medium you're writing in. If you're writing for live theater, you're always aware of the crowd and there's an audience there but if you're doing your job right, you're always going to be writing with that energy in mind and that awareness of where you want that energy to be and what you want to be doing with that energy. I don't know if it's different in subject matter or tone but there are many sections that are written to play with the energy of an audience. It's basically going back to writing for theater. The podcast is a podcast and the live show is much more of a work of theater. It's written and staged to be that.
But at the same time, you've got such a huge fan base that even though you're writing for the theater, there's certain things you have to bring like, I imagine, the Sheriff's secret police or the dog park.
Fink: That's another consideration we have for our show. There's a lot of plot element in the show that our superfans, the people who have listened to every episode and even talk about the episodes with each other online. We can't write a show that will talk to them like they're not there, like let's reintroduce all these things you've already heard before and at the same time, we know there are a lot of people who listen to the podcast who maybe have listened to 20 or 40 some-odd episodes or just three or maybe they haven't listened to any and they're just checking us out since it's in there town. We want to write a script that's understandable to those people. There are moments that the superfans cheer for. There are references to characters that they'll get excited about. The person who's narrating the show will understand but won't have the same reaction. We wrote it so that everybody who comes gets a not-confusing theatrical experience (laughs).
Was your goal to be scary or funny or some combination of the two when you first started writing the shows?
Fink: I think our goal has been to write the stories that we wanted to write. We wanted to say the things we want to say and write on our own terms. I don't think we came to it with an idea of this will be funny or this will be scary or this will be an exact mixture of this and this. We came up with a setting and we started writing these stories and they sort of became what they became and definitely in certain moments of the story, I'll be like OK, I want this moment to be funny or OK, I want this moment to be serious and I want this moment to be deeply upsetting and sad. It's sort of what that particular story that I'm writing right then demands.
It sounds like there's a lot of inspiration not just the style or the stories and the weirdness. I imagine there's like a lot of Twilight Zone but just the fact that it's a radio show makes me think of some AM radio station that you grew up listening to that would announce, "Oh there's a Navajo art festival this weekend."
Fink: For me, the community radio format was useful for allowing it to be the point of view of the world. I would say for me when I was writing the pilot that the inspiration came less from radio and more from the much older tradition of storytellers and monologists, people standing in front of you and telling you a story. That's really where Night Vale came from for me, finding a format where you could find a single voice and have that single voice tell you a story. I think it was a lot more to do with the storytelling tradition for me than for radio.
Cranor: I would second that too about the storytelling tradition. So much of my inspiration comes from monologue writers and performance artist that tell great stories. I will say that growing up in Mesquite, I certainly had a familiarity with the community radio format because of KEOM [88.5 FM] and that giant tower out on U.S. 635 and thinking about how looming that is. It's definitely one of those stations where they always had the high school kids doing traffic and community calendar type stuff from what I remember. There's definitely a background of listening to that station when I was a teenager. I'm kind of sort of just thinking about that format as a starting point.
So I have to ask, is Mesquite Night Vale?
Cranor: No, not at all. Mesquite is definitely not.
Cranor: (laughs) Texans are funny because anytime we mention that I'm from Texas or just mention Texas in any way, a lot of people point to Marfa, Texas, and say "Marfa is definitely Night Vale."
Fink: We never really thought of Night Vale as Texas. I would just say it's just vaguely somewhere in the American Southwest and trying to assign this specific state to it is counterproductive.
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You must get a lot of fans saying, "Oh you're talking about where I'm from" or certain towns.
Cranor: Oh, definitely. What people do a lot of actually is they send a link to an article from their hometown newspaper about some strange news item of something weird happening like a weird weather event and they'll send it to us and write, "Oh, I think Night Vale is creeping into our town." They'll send a story about some weird glowing cloud and say, "Oh, Night Vale is real." It's kind of fun.
That must speak to the accessibility of what you guys do. It's like Springfield on The Simpsons. You don't want to identify what one town it is because you want to be inclusive but to me, it seems like that in and of itself is a challenge. Did you consciously do that going into it?
Fink: I don't think we're conscious of it in terms of making sure that everyone can have an access point to the show. I think it became easy to do over time because we sort of like the vagueness of where it is because we find that interesting as writers. It's interesting not to feel like if we said that this is definitely Reno, Nevada, or if we said this is Area 51 or something like that. There's all this other symbiotic package that comes with that and people will have an assumption about what it means that the town is definitely in Arizona or Southern California. As writers, we didn't want to limit ourselves by saying here's that. Just like Springfield on The Simpsons, it becomes fun.