We're crowded into the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco, screaming our lungs out for Cecil Baldwin, who is a lean, lanky, dappy man standing with an elegant laziness in front of the microphone. From my perch in the balcony, I am almost overwhelmed by the surge of sound, as, it appears, is he -- we waits patiently, script in hand, for the noise to die down, so we can all hear the words we're waiting for.
Welcome to Night Vale has become a cult hit since it started airing in the summer of 2012, and the show's fandom has risen to new heights with the live tour, currently making the rounds of the West Coast. Fans of the show turn out in droves for the shows, which sell out in seconds when tickets are listed for sale.
For those not familiar, Welcome to Night Vale is, well, er. That's a good question, actually, and one that was asked by a lot of strangers as they goggled at the huge line of people (mostly wearing purple and black) waiting patiently to get into the late show on Tuesday night. It's difficult to come up with a satisfactory answer: In a nutshell, perhaps, one could say that WTNV is a podcast that crosses "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Welcome to the Twilight Zone." (For a taste, check out the Night Vale Twitter. Or, you know, download an episode or 39.)
It's presented as though it's a community radio show, broadcast from the "friendly little desert town of Night Vale," a place where things are really...not...very normal. The station's pet cat, Khoshekh, hovers in the air in the men's restroom, librarians are vicious creatures with terrifying caudal spines, a literal five-headed dragon is in the mayoral race, and sometimes people disappear through vortexes into terrifying alternate universes.
I was only recently turned on to the podcast, and like many of the show's ardently converted fans, I devoured all the archives in a matter of days and promptly started evangelizing to everyone I could find. I don't usually listen to podcasts; I don't really like to absorb media in a fully aural form, it's hard for me to track what's going on when all I have is the sound of someone's voice, and it's just not a medium I enjoy, as a general rule. WTNV, however, is so weird and quirky and strange and wonderful that I can't help but loving it.
When I found out that tickets were still available to the 10 PM San Francisco show on the West Coast Tour, I knew it was a sign. Because live theatre is something amazing and special, and the opportunity to see something I'd only ingested in podcast form in person was one I didn't want to pass up.
The live shows open with a musical act -- in San Francisco, we saw Jason Webley, performing a mix of old and newer songs -- and then they're followed with the live performance of an episode. The narrator, Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin) takes us on a wild adventure that I won't tell you about because, well, the episode hasn't been recorded and released yet, and it's a doozy, so you'll want to be surprised, trust me.
The thing about live performances in general is that they're a chance to connect with your people, as I put it to the stranger sitting next to me before the show. (At the end of the show, he was not a stranger, and I was giving him a ride home to the East Bay and he was inviting me over to tea at his house sometime.) It's a really amazing feeling to be surrounded by people who are as geeked-out and nerdy over something as you are, if not more so.
You may sit down in a room of strangers, as they say, but you leave as friends.
Some people cosplayed as Night Vale characters, others turned up in swag associated with the show, and some stuck with the more restrained route of donning purple and black, the signature of colors of the show. All of us jumped up and down and squealed with excitement as Cecil came on stage, as the familiar strains of Disparition crept through the speakers, and as some of our favorite characters, including Tamika Flynn and Carlos, made an appearance.
Notably, the live shows feature Dylan Marron, the new voice of Carlos -- in the canon of the show, Carlos is a gay Latino scientist, but he was initially voiced by a straight, white man. Responding to concerns from critics, the show's producers recast the role, with Jeffrey Cranor noting that:
It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos). Look, I know it’s a voiceover, but it’s not just that. We do live stage shows, and that’s a visible role for a PoC. Plus, fans often google the actors who play each character, and what does a Latino/Latina teen think when my face might pop up (or worse, no image pops up) as the actor playing Carlos? What am I doing voicing this major character when there are so many talented, gay, Latino or Hispanic men who can/should be doing it? Why didn’t I think of all of this before ep 16?
Their decision turned out to be a good one, and I'm not just saying that from a social justice and pop culture perspective: Dylan is the perfect Carlos, down to his perfect hair and beautiful voice.
Here's the thing about live shows: You have a chance to see the people you only know as voices, which can be jarring, but you also have a chance to see their interactions, their chemistry, and their personalities. Cecil Baldwin is outstanding in live performance: his whole body becomes part of the action, and he becomes so much more than a soothing, lovely voice emanating from my speakers. He and Dylan were great together, and it lent so much more depth to a relationship that's already one of the greatest loves of all time.
I may have gone to the live show expecting to have a good time, see (and meet) the people who voice my favorite podcast (to be fair, this is a dubious honor, as it's the only podcast I listen to), and possibly meet some new friends who share interests, all of which happened, but I also came away with an even deeper and more abiding love of Night Vale. And a reminder of how much I love live theatre and the possibilities it has to transform, transcend, amaze, and delight us.
Night Vale live was everything I could have dreamed of and more. I'm still riding the high, and I swear it's not just sleep deprivation.