‘I think we’ve always been fascinated, as Americans, with horror,” Jeffrey Cranor begins, after a moment’s consideration. “I think every culture has a fascination with horror, but when you’re talking about the small town USA-type of thing—the Twilight Zone, or when you talk about Twin Peaks, [it’s] the lurking horror underneath everything. I think we’ve always told ourselves stories about how we will die, or how we could die, or how we could be in danger of something. And I think there’s something thrilling about that: it’s our own way of facing our mortality through fiction.”
It’s that intersection of familiarity and existential dread that Cranor and the Welcome to Night Vale podcast considers, twice a month. Ostensibly, it’s the local radio broadcast from the titular and fictional small town—municipal news, traffic, a bit of gossip, and weather, all delivered by an affable host. But here, it’s channelled through the prism of David Lynch, or perhaps Stephen King: Night Vale seems populated by as many conspiracy theories running wild as actual people. There’s a strange glowing cloud that eventually joins the school board. The sheriff’s secret police demand no one acknowledge that the new dog park even exists, let alone the shadowy hooded figures that are visibly wandering throughout it. And its host, Cecil, who seems equal parts at peace with, and haunted by, what he sees and hears around him, reporting it all in a soothing baritone.
On the phone with Cranor—who, along with co-creator Joseph Fink, developed Night Vale two years ago and still write every script—and Cecil Baldwin, who voices the narrator (and who shares his name), the pair note it was Fink’s idea, in the beginning: all of three knew each other from an East Village theatre company called the New York Neo-Futurists, and a few years back, Fink came to them with the idea. To Cranor, whom Fink had written a play with previously, and to Baldwin for his natural radio voice and acting chops.
“I knew what he was going for, but I also knew there were just a lot of different directions it could go in,” Cranor explains of his first impressions. “I immediately began thinking about weird poetry, and things like that. There’s just some beautiful, strange language there. Like Cecil, I’m a really big David Lynch fan, I’m a really big fan of the beautiful horror of life, and a way you can express that in humorous and poetic ways. That was my first impression of this: this great universe, that you could do almost anything with.”
The things they’ve done with the idea have proven pretty resonant: Night Vale’s become one of the most popular podcasts in North America, even unseating, for a time, This American Life in the top download spot in the US podcast charts. That level of success means that they’re now able to tour a live version around, peddling both performances of new Night Vale scripts and live music to the places they go.
“We all have this theatre background, and while we didn’t immediately think about touring this show, we certainly thought about wanting to put it up on its feet in front of an audience, because we thought that would work,” Cranor admits.
“The live shows have a very specific life to them now,” Baldwin adds. “When we’re doing the live shows, it’s definitely in the style of radio theatre—we don’t dress like the characters in the show. We’re not trying to suspend anyone’s disbelief that we’re trying to transport them magically to the world of Night Vale through a stage production. And I think that separation, where people know they’re watching actors on a stage read and perform a script, bolsters the radio drama of Night Vale that’s inherent in the roots of what we’re doing.”
At the tip of those roots, Night Vale is a show that draws its power from its careful treatment of that nightmarish atmosphere. Adherence to style is key, and to honouring every idea they put into the podcast—Cranor notes the one rule they’ve set out for themselves is continuity.
For Baldwin’s part, while he recognizes the necessity of that vibe, he points out his recording process doesn’t require him to enter a similar atmosphere in order to generate it.
“Surprisingly, I do not record at night,” he says in that recognizable dulcet voice. “I usually record during the day. Even though I’m trying to capture this sort of quiet, creepy disembodied voice on the other end of the radio late at night, usually when I record, there’s ice cream trucks going by, people out on the street, and all that sort of stuff. Usually I just wait, pause for them to pass, take a second look at the script, and then move on.”
Sun, Jul 6 (7 pm)
Arden Theatre, (St Albert), $28.50