Welcome to Night Vale Host Cecil Baldwin Talks About Ultimate Theater of the Mind and Having a Third-Eye
Courtesy of C3 Presents
Inevitably when something in pop culture becomes officially popular, there is a rush from production studios and fans to spin it off into as many different forms of media as possible from a series of TV show spinoffs to a Saturday morning cartoon to a supremely sugary breakfast cereal.
Welcome to Night Vale may eventually reach that plateau if Hollywood tries to turn it into a movie or a TV show made by someone who clearly doesn't know enough about the source material. For now it's best savored in its current form. The podcast, created by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, tell tales about about some strange desert town that may or may not be stuck in an existential worm hole. It presents the setting through a series of radio broadcasts hosted by Cecil Palmer, played by actor Cecil Baldwin, informing the citizens of the goings-on in their community whether that be the latest activites of the sheriff's secret police force or the operational hours of the local dog park where people aren't allowed because of hooded figures, which are contained by electric fencing.
The show gets even weirder just in its podcast form because it forces listeners to create this bizarre world entirely in their minds. So there's not just one town of Night Vale. There are millions of them out there in a world that just gets bigger and more detailed with each new episode.
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Now imagine being the person who gets the privilege of planting those millions of seeds into the worlds that have been built in those minds since the show aired its first episode in 2012.
"It's an actor's dream to get to do a gig like this," Baldwin says.
Baldwin is currently on his third Welcome to Night Vale tour, which will make a stop at the Majestic Theatre at 7 p.m. Sunday for a live reading of an original Night Vale episode created just for the stage.
Cranor first approached Baldwin about becoming his strange, new show's pseudo-Rod Serling while he was performing in New York as a member of the Neo-Futurists, the experimental theater company best known for the rapidly delivered play anthology called Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Baldwin says Cranor picked him because of the unique timbre and darkness of his voice that would be perfect for a creepy radio broadcaster stuck in an unexplained limbo.
"He approached me with this script for the pilot episode and said it was going to be a podcast about small town community radio," Baldwin says. "It hit all the right notes. It has that David Lynch creepiness and I knew from working with Joseph and Jeffrey and their style of humor and how to bring that humor out. It was a really fun and intriguing project."
That project quickly developed a massive fan base solely from digital word of mouth. They still pack theaters and performance halls just to watch Baldwin read from a script along with a cast of characters providing backup ambience to Cecil's insane-sounding reports.
"It really does give myself and all the other performers on Welcome to Night Vale the opportunity to stretch themselves in ways that they wouldn't be stretched if they were auditioning for a TV show, a film or even a live theatrical show," he says. "It makes the audience do the heavy lifting when it comes to their own imagination. It also makes the show much more personal to the listeners as well."
Naturally, fans have a unique fondness for the show's host since he seems to be the only resident of Night Vale with a modicum of sanity. Baldwin said this fondness increased as his character developed along with the show.
"The character I played developed over time," he says. "The character didn't have a name. My performance was very much based on community radio tropes that already existed and it took a while for me to develop this character. I go back and listen to the first couple of episodes and think it was a very simple character I was playing and as Jeffrey and Joseph expanded the character, they gave me more opportunities to find the person behind the microphone and flesh out a three-dimensional person."
The show never gets bogged down in shallow descriptions of their characters since the most interesting tidbits are in their actions, but the Internet has tried to fill in the gaps by giving general descriptions to the town's cast of characters. They famously blessed Cecil with the physical trait of a third eye on his forehead, even though that particular factoid has never been mentioned or confirmed in the actual show.
"I don't have a third eye," Baldwin says with a laugh. "I was talking with a friend of mine a few years ago who's really into nerd culture and the sociology behind it and his whole thing is if you can't cosplay it, does it really have a fan following? If you're at a fan convention and you're not immediately recognizable as Superman or a Doctor Who, then how do people know what you're dressed as, and it's interesting that the fans have created this for themselves."
Fans who have never seen a live show might be disappointed to know that the Welcome to Night Vale cast don't act out their characters as if they are presenting a play version of the podcast. It's more of a live reading than a recreation in order to preserve the medium that makes the podcast work so well, Baldwin says.
"We made a pretty conscious decision early on that our live shows are more staged readings than they are true theater events," he says. "We're not trying to represent a radio station. We're not costuming the characters. Carlos is not dressed in a lab coat. It's more about being in the same room with a bunch of other fans of the show in a communal environment watching a story be told by performers who have a love of the material they are performing. It's true storytelling as it's finest."
It's a brilliant decision that's only increased the show's popularity and sense of community, since listening to a podcast is mostly a private activity, he says.
"When you listen to a podcast, you're probably in your car or home and most likely, you're by yourself," Baldwin says. "This gives the fans the chance to come to a theater and experience the same thing they know and love in an individual place and experience that in a communal place where you see other people and laugh along with them and cry along with them and have these group experiences that you wouldn't normally have with the podcast."
The podcast's popularity has also expanded to a Night Vale novel written by Cranor and Fink, and set for release next fall. Baldwin says doing something else with the Night Vale lore beyond that isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"We've talked about pretty much everything under the sun," Baldwin says. "It's just a matter of focusing on one step at a time. Right now, we're focused on touring and getting the show out to as many people as possible, and in the fall, the book comes out and Joseph and Jeffrey are going on book tour. So we'll see. We'll see what comes next."
There's only one constant that Baldwin said he experiences as the Welcome to Night Vale universe grows in popularity and reach, he says.
"I'm constantly surprised," he says. "I am surprised everyday when I wake up and go, 'This is my job. This is my dream job, literally.'" Welcome to Nightvale performs at The Majestic at 7 p.m. Sunday. Limited tickets still available.
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