I was stunned upon first walking up to the Rose Wagner Theater on Monday. Hundreds of people were crowding the sidewalk and lobby, at least half of them in cosplay. The crowd was a sea of black, purple, white and gray – and mysteriously ominous-looking eyes were painted on every other body. We were all gathered to listen to – and for the first time watch – to the show that ignited fear and laughter in all of us and created an astounding fan base. The bells chimed to let us in to the theater and every seat was full. I looked around thinking the opening words to every episode of the show we all listened to: “Welcome … to Night Vale.”
A woman appeared on the stage, long red hair with lips to match in a polka-dotted retro dress. She introduced herself as Meg, the voice often heard at the end of each episode reading the credits and closing with an unusual “proverb” (one of my favorites includes “Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s just the void. Infinite and indifferent. We’re so small. So very, very small.”). She thanked us, Salt Lake City, for coming and then quickly corrected herself as not all of Salt Lake was present – only the people who mattered. Meg encouraged photography without flash and not to be rude with cell phone use. Her way with the audience was a wonderful first impression to the show we were about to witness, and she introduced Eliza Rickman, our musical entertainment for the evening.
Eliza Rickman, one of the indie artists featured in an episode of Welcome to Night Vale, glided out onstage in a pink flowing gown that draped off her shoulders. Her hair thick and impossible to tame, framing a white flower behind her ear. She began playing an autoharp and her deep voice reverberated through the theater. Her voice was gorgeous, sounding closely like Florence (minus her machine). The music was more than an audible presentation, as she moved from the autoharp to a toy piano with metronome to sing us more lullabies. Rickman’s use of unusual instruments and her appearance placed her right in the middle of a Tim Burton feature, the only thing setting her apart was her impossible whimsy and lightness. The last song, a cover of “Moon River,” sent chills through the audience. She finaled quietly and the audience, thrilled with her performance and her ties with Night Vale, gave her roaring applause.
Meg reappeared and the audience was growing antsy. She introduced the voice of Welcome to Night Vale, Cecil Baldwin, and he strode out on stage, his hand holding a stack of script. He began the show as all episodes begin, his deep voice echoing through the theater and the crowd couldn’t control their excitement. Baldwin began his script, hardly referencing it throughout the performance, with a news report of the installation of a new wing to the local library. Within the Night Vale mythos, librarians are not the sweet natured referenceers we all know. They are described as reptilian with an exoskeleton and claws, slithering through aisles of books – they are monsters in a building where reading is discouraged. Baldwin reports that the paper mache and balsa wood structure had collapsed, allowing one of the creatures to escape. In true reporter fashion, he would report more as the story developed.
He moved now to horoscopes. Each zodiac sign cheering as he read their horror-scopes. Aries closely resembled trees, with their bark skin and all, and Geminis can totally handle a few centipedes … right? He followed up the horoscopes with an update on the missing librarian. Baldwin gave a detailed, horrifying report from a local car mechanic who heard the haunting whispers of the librarian, as one by one, the lights went out in her shop and she felt the crawling sensation of a small child’s hand in her own. He then reported of a grocery manager, who felt a presence outside his home – smelling of burnt coffee through a sinus infection – who then left mail. So, it could have been a postman.
A radio show would not be complete without product placement, so the creators had chosen to include American Express in their performance. Meg sauntered back out on stage, playing a representative of American Express (a wafty haze that speaks, to be exact) to talk about the new Obsidian Card, which will turn everything you touch and everyone you love into an Obsidian Card. “American Express: Don’t leave your house.”
One of the staple characters of Welcome to Night Vale is a sexy scientist named Carlos, who has become Baldwin’s boyfriend since his introduction on the show. Baldwin used the escaped librarian as an excuse to call his boyfriend and gather his opinion. Actor Dylan Marron stepped out onstage to the second microphone. He described what he was doing, looking at science stuff. Sexy science stuff. Carlos was warned not to leave, to be aware of the rogue librarian and the two men exchanged “I love you”s before Marron wandered offstage, leaving so much more to be desired from the crowd.
Baldwin received a report that the librarian had found it’s way into a theater, instilling fear in the audience as he described with such cryptic detail it’s descent into the theater before taking the show to it’s interlude, “The Weather,” where Rickman returned to the stage for another song. Her song ended, and Baldwin returned to celebrate the return of the librarian to it’s cage. He then made the audience feel gratitude to be alive, forcing audience members to turn and greet each other and congratulate each other on being alive – for now.
If there is anything to be taken away from this live reading of the popular podcast, it’s the power of spoken word. Sure, the haunting background music helps, but the writers, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, string together such elaborate and convincing tales of terror and Cecil Baldwin has such gravitas and skill to bring their words to life while employing such a rounded character. The reporter Baldwin has the necessary seriousness while also vacillating to a character resembling The Dean from Community – a grown man with the heart of a teenage girl. Together, the three of them paint a deep, immersive picture. The story behind Night Vale is so rich and full of little stories that can’t all be included in this performance (or even this article) and I can only say kudos to the creators. And thank you. Thank you for creating a show that brings all kinds of people together. Thank you for creating a piece of art that goes beyond television and movies and instead focuses on our ability to listen, something we desperately need to be reminded how to do. Thank you, Night Vale, and good night.