Welcome To Night Vale can surely be classified as a worldwide phenomenon. For a few weeks in October and November, Cecil and the crew have been touring Europe with a live performance of “The Librarian.” A couple of weeks ago, I was one of the lucky ones who got to see the show in Copenhagen. Seeing Cecil and others in the flesh was amazing, but also weird. I don’t know what I expected, but seeing the actors on the black empty stage made it difficult to see Night Vale the way I usually do while listening to the podcast, and I left the theater feeling slightly underwhelmed.
I tried to keep this focused on the general experience so as to avoid plot spoilers, but a few vague points sneaked through. Also, trigger warning for unreality.
I started listening to Night Vale about a year ago, even though horror is normally not my thing. I heard about the amazing canon queer characters, diversity, and inclusiveness and decided to give it a shot. I was not disappointed. I was instantly hooked by how freely and unabashedly Cecil doted and raved about Carlos (and his perfect hair). It’s just so amazing to have openly queer characters whose romantic relationships aren’t the source of danger in their lives.
I don’t really participate in fandoms in real life, but when I found out that Night Vale would be performing just a couple of hours away, I thought this was too great of an opportunity to pass up. But I was also apprehensive because a huge part of Night Vale charm to me is the lack of physical descriptions of characters and all the wonderful diverse headcanons and fanart that comes from that. In the end, though, I got a ticket and was really excited to see, if not the characters, at least the people who created Night Vale.
As I stepped away from the beaten track seeking the Bremen theater in the dark, it felt eerie and surreal — I was about to see the bodies carrying the Night Vale voices, in real life. I mean, it wasn’t as though I hadn’t seen pictures of the actors, although I make a point to avoid them, generally. But mainly, Cecil and the rest of Night Vale just live in my head, as a sort of shape-shifting form, I can never hold onto them for long. So, I was somewhat apprehensive about them suddenly gaining physical bodies.
The show started with Meg Bashwiner, a.k.a. the proverb lady, greeting us and giving a short list of rules (photos were welcome, but no flashes, no filming, etc). The episode’s weather, Mary Epworth, performed a few songs.
The show was performed on a stage empty but for three microphones. It was rather dark, illuminated by reddish glowing lights. It went really nicely with my mental image of Night Vale. I don’t know about you guys, but due to the ‘night’ in the title, I imagine Night Vale always submerged in darkness somehow, even in the daytime. But the darkness isn’t threatening or all-engulfing, it’s warm and cozy. That was exactly how it felt in the theater.
Then Cecil Baldwin walked on stage and suddenly Cecil had a body and it was way surreal. His voice, so well-known from hours of recordings, sounded unfamiliar at first, spoken in the same room and amplified. But it didn’t last long. After a few minutes I was lulled into the familiar comfortable sense of unreality, only this time there were probably one or two hundred people there with me. It was weird, actually, because normally, I’m alone when I listen to Night Vale; Cecil speaks directly into my ears and it feels as though he’s super close, next to me, talking to me alone.
Seeing Cecil on stage destroyed that illusion somehow. I thought about Stanislavski’s system of acting and how some of its followers wouldn’t even come out on stage to take a bow after the performance because it would shatter the reality of the performance. In a way, it felt that by stepping out on stage, even though in character, Cecil did a similar thing, because a physical body isn’t one of his characteristics.
There wasn’t much in the way of movement or stage direction, the show walking along the line between audio and visual, the characters still more voice than body. That being said, Cecil’s movements were a perfect extension of his voice. He didn’t so much act as though he was in a radio booth; rather, he led the audience to imagine what he was talking about. In one particularly surreal bit, the audience were led to imagine that we were sitting in a theater and a librarian appeared somewhere in the theater. Among other things, Cecil pointed at an imaginary ceiling which wasn’t imaginary at all.
Apart from Cecil, Meg, and the weather, only Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor were there. The latter two played another ill-fated intern and a friend of Cecil’s who was invited to do a segment on Cecil’s show. I was especially disappointed that Carlos wasn’t there (on the stage, I mean, we know that he’s in an alternate dimension right now, communicating with Cecil over the phone). But Cecil did talk about him. I mean, of course Cecil talked about Carlos — how could he not? He retold a conversation he had with Carlos: how they both said that they wouldn’t know what to do without each other (even though they’re literally worlds apart), how they exchanged ‘I love you’s.
That’s the thing, when you hear Cecil say “I love you” recalling how he said that to Carlos, you can hear all the feeling in his voice even though Carlos isn’t even there, and it makes you feel that everything is going to be okay. You feel that this “I love you”, among all the fantastical chaos, is what grounds Cecil and Carlos and you, the listener, along with them. Among all the scary monsters and things hiding under your bed and in your mirror, this love is what makes you feel safe and what makes me want to stay in Night Vale. A place of such love can’t be so bad.
And it’s not just Cecil and Carlos. Love, support, and celebration of one another seems ubiquitous in Night Vale. Cecil talks about Tamika Flynn with such pride in his voice. Old woman Josie sounds like his eccentric aunt. It makes sense, really, with all the unexplained phenomena and monsters in the dark, it’s the love (in the broadest sense) and support that keeps you safe. I had never felt it so strongly before as when sitting in the dark together with a couple of hundred or so other Night Vale fans, all ‘aww’-ing in unison at the mention of Carlos and applauding at the mention of Tamika Flynn.
As I left the theater, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the experience of seeing Night Vale live. I felt like it changed my relationship with the show somehow. Suddenly, it wasn’t just me with Cecil’s voice crooning soothingly into my ear; he had a certain form and he was talking to a whole bunch of other people. It didn’t feel so personal anymore. It wasn’t that I liked the show any less, but I was afraid that from then on, whenever I listened to the show, I would imagine Cecil as Cecil Baldwin and his booth as an empty stage. But on the other hand, and perhaps paradoxically, the connection with the characters felt stronger somehow. I had never been quite so struck by how beautiful the love between Cecil and Carlos is. It was wonderful to see how Cecil actually moves and how his face shows emotion (I have trouble imagining such things in detail). I just wish Carlos had been there.
Have you been to a Night Vale live show? What did you think? How, if at all, did it change your feelings about the podcast?