Welcome to Night Vale: All Hail with special guest Mal Blum: Wednesday, Nov. 29, Majestic Theatre, $25-$30, c3reserved.frontgatetickets.com.
We’re living in the golden age of podcasts. Nearly everyone, from top-notch celebrities to your seldom-seen neighbor, hosts a podcast of some sort. It’s become big business and a serious media format.
In a sea of options, Welcome to Night Vale has proven to be one of the most downloaded podcasts in the world. Since its inception in June 2012, the series, delivered twice a month and modeled after old-time radio programs of the 1940s and ’50s, has surged in popularity. It has bypassed esteemed programs like This American Life and Radiolab on the iTunes podcast charts and has garnered more than 180 million downloads.
“Nerd culture is really caught up in being one of the originals,” says Cecil Baldwin, the show’s baritone-voiced narrator, speaking to the Observer from his New York City home. “People really responded to our podcast in an organic way and proudly took ownership over listening to it. They wouldn’t hesitate to tell their friends or post about it on social media. It’s like wearing the T-shirt of the band that no one has ever heard of.”
Fans can buy officially licensed Night Vale T-shirts from the podcast’s website alongside other inside-knowledge items such as the Glow Cloud pin, the secret sheriff police pin or bright pink “guts” iPhone cases. There’s also Baldwin’s favorite item: a gaudy pair of leggings inscribed with plot-inspired graphics and quotes. Expect to see some of these items on fans’ holiday wish lists this season.
The podcast is hitting the road, furthering its brand recognition by playing more than 200 shows worldwide for audiences in theaters with an average capacity of 1,300 seats. On Wednesday evening, the production will take over the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas.
The live shows, titled All Hail, take the imaginative stories of the surreal desert town of Night Vale to interesting and often absurd places. Baldwin assumes his role as narrator of the community radio show with a cast of usual story favorites played by Meg Bashwiner, Symphony Sanders and other performers. The Jon Bernstein project Disparition and singer-songwriter Mal Blum curate and compose the live soundtrack.
“Seeing the crowds at our shows and interacting with our fans has been so rewarding,” Baldwin says. “It proves that you can have a profound artistic experience simply with people onstage talking, playing music and working from well-written material. You don’t need tons of promotional materials or YouTube celebrities to attract positive attention."
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Like Night Vale’s co-creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Baldwin hails from the award-winning New York-based theater group Neo-Futurists. With performances grounded in improvisation, the all-angles approach to acting has proven to be good training for work on the podcast.
“Recording the podcast is almost like recording an audio book. I record what’s on the page but have the responsibility to find the best way to perform that character, which is where the professional training helps,” says Baldwin. “Live, there’s more wiggle room and frequent audience participation. Even though I’m speaking in my character voice, I like interacting with the people in the crowd. It makes me think about how storytelling began with people gathered around the campfire.”
This back-to-basics approach has proven to be a trend in podcasting. Since Night Vale’s conception, scripted shows such as Serial and true-crime tales such as Dear John have catapulted into popularity. It speaks to an audience’s appreciation for a good and engaging narrative, a concept that resonated clearly with Baldwin when he recently found himself revisiting War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’ iconic 1938 radio drama.
“It’s still a very scary and tense listen, even here in 2017,” he says. “It has some very disorienting moments, but it’s also an ultimate testament to making art by people who are invested in the process. It doesn’t rely on gimmicks or trends. My wish is that Night Vale can have a lasting effect in a similar vein.”