Welcome to Night Vale, Perth Live Show 2016.
The weather is always music, time is unknowable, the Sheriff’s Secret Police control the city from a suspiciously low-hanging cloud with a ladder coming from it, and mountains are banned. Night Vale is many things, but predictable is not one of them. Set in a fictional middle-American town that is governed by a bizarre Secret Police and inhabited by Lovecraftian monsters as well as an oddly amiable body of people, Night Vale is also oddly welcoming, confusing, and intriguing all at the same time. So too was its live show in Perth on 11 February 2016.
For those not familiar, Welcome to Night Vale is a phenomenally popular podcast series, available for pay-as-you-feel or free download from iTunes. In the last few years, the series has begun doing world tours, offering an unaired stand-alone episode of the series to live audiences and then releasing the same show for general access once the tour is complete. Accessibility has always been a major focus for Night Vale and its producers. Despite the horror themes touched upon in the show, the series itself is suitable for young audiences (give or take some swearing). The mysterious and occasionally confronting atmosphere of the fictional town and its inhabitants is consistently offset by a jovial tone.
All things in this fictional setting are designed to challenge what we consider familiar and to celebrate the strange. It’s also oddly motivational. If you haven’t heard one of the podcasts before, the closest comparison I could make would be to imagine if The X Files had been written by Terry Pratchett. In fact however, the episodes are written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, narrated by Cecil Baldwin, and the music performed and written by Disparition. On the live tour Fink, Cranor, Baldwin, and Disparition are joined by rapper Dessa and Aby Wolf to fill in the “weather” segment, as well as recurring voice actors Dylan Marron and Meg Bashwiner.
Each 25-minute episode is framed as a radio segment, delivered by Cecil Baldwin as the voice of Night Vale, as he delivers community news, traffic updates, advertisements, and plenty of cameos from other Night Vale citizens. The overall tone of the show is surprisingly friendly, despite the often horrific, terrifying and consistently inexplicable day-to-day events being described. The series is famed for its dry humour, deadpan delivery, as well as its progressive stances on gender and sexuality, and wry criticism of excessive governmental control.
To assess the live show is to tread a difficult line: how does a podcast translate into a live act? The answer is surprisingly well. The Octagon Theatre at the University of Western Australia was packed and audience reception extremely positive. Even the in-house rules were delivered in Night Vale’s typical deadpan humour by Meg Bashwiner. The live music by Dessa and Aby Wolf was not only vocally and lyrically impressive but also very engaging, as Dessa encouraged audience members to use their mobile phones as torches for one of her songs, performing while standing upon the chairs in the middle of the front row seats.
Cecil Baldwin’s talent as a voice actor is clearly not the product of careful editing. He performed tirelessly for over an hour, demonstrating skill as an actor previously unknown to me, familiar only with his disembodied voice. To finally be able to put gestures, including some hilarious comedic moves and facial expression, to the voice, was a very special touch.
A surprising feature of the live show is the fact that you did not need to be well-versed in Night Vale’s story or lore to understand what was going on. Cameos by characters were made all the richer for knowing them, but the atmosphere was still accessible for people who may not have listened to the podcast before.
Since requests were made not to disclose the plot of the live show until the entire tour is over and the official recording released online, I will not mention specifics here. However, some of the highlights definitely included the cameos from characters and audience participation. Comedy and mystery are brought together, and a balance between philosophy and nonsense is carefully struck in every episode of the series, and the live show was no exception to this rule. To listen as part of a broader audience brought to life even more of the podcast’s original aims – a sense of community for the pretend community-radio station is actually created. Audience members are encouraged to feel personally involved and addressed, but the fact is that the voice of Night Vale speaks to everyone equally, and this is expertly achieved in the crowd-addressing moves used in the show.
In brief, Perth’s first ever Night Vale performance was certainly a memorable one. I would whole-heartedly recommend attending the live shows to those familiar or unfamiliar with the text.
More information about Welcome to Night Vale, as well as its podcasts, novel, Youtube Channel and an ever-eerie social media channel can be found here: http://www.welcometonightvale.com/
– Siobhan Hodge
Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.