Actor Cecil Baldwin is the voice of the wildly popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor. Cecil plays Cecil Palmer, a radio host who reports on the strange goings-on in Night Vale, a desert community where monsters and conspiracies are just daily occurrences.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Why don’t you start out and tell us how you first got involved with Welcome to Night Vale?
Well, I am working for a theater company called The New York Neo-Futurists. We do a weekly show in the East Village called “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind,” and I had written a short play in which I was commiserating not being able to find any voice-over work even though people have told me pretty much my entire adult life that I have a “radio announcer voice.” There was a writer, a friend of mine, who was in the audience that day, and he was like, “Yes, you do have a great voice. Maybe I will utilize that in some way.” That was Joseph Fink, and he went on to create Welcome to Night Vale. He asked me, after he’d written the pilot episode, if I would like to record it, and I said yes!
Yeah, you do have a great voice, so why were you not finding work doing voice-overs?
Well, I find that I have a relatively old-fashioned voice. It’s very 1960s radio announcer. Because of what the market is looking for nowadays in commercials and radio—oftentimes they want an everyman kind of voice, sort of like Paul Rudd or someone like that, and I just didn’t really fit into that commercial box.
You mentioned that you’re with an acting troupe called the Neo-Futurists. Since this is a science fiction show, we’re really interested in Futurism. Does Neo-Futurism have anything to do with the sort of Futurism that we would do on the show?
It’s not necessarily the future as in science fiction future; it’s more of a borrowed idea from the Italian Futurists, who had this idea that art should be temporary, and disposable, and we shouldn’t hold onto our art and worship it and put it on a pedestal; that art should be immediate, and present, and once it is done, should be thrown away. As the Neo-Futurists, which was started twenty-five years ago in Chicago, we do a lot of work that is ephemeral and immediate.
We are constantly cutting plays, never to be performed again, and writing new material. We do a lot of living newspaper, autobiographical, things like that. I can’t write about something that happened to me twenty years ago and pretend like it’s still happening. Everything has to be honest and immediate.
That aside, do you have any interest in science fiction or that sort of Futurism?
I’ve definitely read a lot of the classic science fiction novels. My dad was a huge science fiction enthusiast, and I’ve taken a couple of his books with me. I think Stranger in a Strange Land was the last one that I read. I really enjoyed that.
The format of Welcome to Night Vale is sort of like a community radio show. Where did that idea come from? Do you guys have any background in community radio?
I don’t think any of us have a background in community radio. I believe for Joseph, it was something that reflected the late-night radio he listened to as a child growing up in California, mixed together with driving across the country and finding these small radio shows throughout the Southwest. He decided to take that format and add this fantasy/dark humor/horror twist to it.
Have you ever gone back and listened to any community radio like that, to model your performance after it?
I’ve not, actually. I know it’s out there, and I’ve heard a couple of examples, but I didn’t do a lot of research on it before I got started. I understood the genre of community radio, and we just kind of ran with it. The writing can be very existential, funny, and scary, which you don’t really get as much in traditional community radio shows, so it freed me up to make artistic choices in the performance as I was going along.
I thought I heard you say in an interview that you had worked for a public access TV show or something like that?
Yes. When I was in high school, some friends of mine had a public access comedy show. It was similar to Saturday Night Live. But that was very brief, and it was really just a bunch of teenagers getting up in front of a camera once a week and being silly and ridiculous.
Since I’m a podcaster as well, I’m always curious how people do their podcasts, in terms of the equipment, software, and practical stuff like that. How do you put together Welcome to Night Vale?
Night Vale is actually very low tech! I have a relatively inexpensive Snowball microphone that I bought on Amazon for, I think, seventy dollars, and I use Garage Band, which is the free software through Mac. I record the episodes in bits and pieces and send it off to Joseph, who mixes it all together with music and sound effects. It’s very much a home grown project, which, to me, typifies where podcasting is at right now—the idea that anybody with moderate technological skills can put together a podcast and broadcast themselves worldwide. We’ve been fortunate that a lot of people have discovered us and appreciated the work that we do.
Now that you guys have hit the big time, do you think you might upgrade to an eighty-dollar microphone?
I might. I’m definitely considering it. I record out of my apartment in New York, which is relatively loud and not conducive to getting a good sound quality all the time, but I’m moving soon to a much quieter neighborhood and actually have a side office that I can control the sound a little better in.
Yeah, I think I can hear like a garbage truck or something in the background right now.
Yes. Recording an episode of Night Vale is fraught with garbage trucks, ice cream trucks, neighborhood schoolchildren, banging of doors, all of that. I find it’s better to record in longer stretches to maintain the artistic integrity of the show. It’s a lot of stopping. A door will slam and I’ll start again. [Rumbling noise.] If you just heard that—
I live right off of Broadway, so it’s a little bit loud.
So where are you moving to?
I’m moving to Brooklyn. I found a nice, quiet neighborhood in Brooklyn that is a little bit better for working out of my home.
Do you have any idea what kind of software Joseph uses to mix the show? Where does he get all the sound effects and stuff like that?
I actually do not know what he uses to mix the show. I think it’s relatively simple—free software would be my guess. I think a lot of the sound effects he finds are through a free sound effects website. I couldn’t tell you the name of it, though. It’s a lot of people who have just made sound effects and then put them out on the internet for anyone to use, which is amazing.
We have an unusually high number of listener questions for you, so I’ll try to sprinkle those in throughout this discussion. We have one from Greg Bern. He wants to know, “Do you have any influence on the writing process?”
I have no direct influence on the writing process. Any influence I have is generally at the bar over a beer. I will mention to Joseph or Jeffrey “Hey, it’d be cool if . . .” and then they either take my idea or they don’t, but it’s always very informal. I don’t directly influence the writing. However, I have noticed that based on certain choices I make in performance, they will take an idea that came out in the recording of an episode and follow that. I believe the Cecil/Carlos romance plotline was somewhat based in the performance of those episodes.
That’s interesting. Did you guys start out with the idea that the show was going to have a gay relationship as a prominent part of it, or was that complete happenstance?
It definitely was not our plan to have that be the main relationship in the show. Carlos was mentioned in the very first episode. His role in the story was that of the outsider. He was the scientist who comes to Night Vale and is trying to explain the unexplainable, or at least figure out the unexplainable. From the way that I performed the character Cecil talking about Carlos, this idea of a relationship came out of that.
Another listener question from Rhododendron W. on this subject: “Since he’s a queer role model to some of us, who were his queer role models growing up?”
Oh, man. There’s quite a few. In the world of acting, I always looked up to people like Ian McKellen and Alan Cumming, who were very much aware of their sexuality and did not shy away from their sexuality, and yet still produced extremely high quality performances—regardless of gay or straight or bisexual—were able to be taken seriously whether they were playing Macbeth or if they were playing a gay magazine producer or something like that. I really respected that and I wanted to make a career that was based on those ideas—that it didn’t matter if the actor himself is gay or straight or bisexual, what mattered was the performance of the character. One of my favorite filmmakers growing up was Derek German, and I think the first time I saw Edward the Second, that film just completely blew my mind. I think it was the first time I ever understood postmodern film. The idea of taking a classical text and using modern imagery to expand on that and to make that story relevant—that was a huge influence to me growing up.
Certainly, it seems that many young people are really inspired by the relationship between Cecil and Carlos. What sort of things do fans say to you about it?
It’s amazing how people are ready for the idea that there can be two men or two women in a relationship that is one of the central themes of a story without being the entirety of the story. There’s plenty of gay independent film and theater and writing, but oftentimes, the gay aspect of it has a tendency to overshadow everything else and to inform everything else, rather than being a singular aspect of a larger picture. And I think we’re ready for that as a society—to include gay, lesbian, transgender, queer characters without letting their sexuality completely define who they are.
We might have some drama here. Hal Lublin asks, “Do you secretly love Steve Carlsberg? Asking for a friend.”
Of course I love Steve Carlsberg! Hal is an amazing actor and I cherish every time I get to work with him on stage, especially. He is hilarious, and he is so funny and so giving as an actor. It allows me to take a character that I’ve created, which is normally very calm, and maybe a little warm and giving to every character in Night Vale with the exception of Steve Carlsberg. Getting to play Cecil in relationship to Steve is a lot of fun because it just gives me a chance to do something different.
Juhan Raud says, “How much is Night Vale influenced by the Cthulhu mythos?” He wants to know if you’re familiar with Arkham Horror, Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October, or Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology The Weird.
The idea of the unexplained horror is definitely present in Night Vale. I know that Joseph has read some Lovecraft, and actually, through his publishing house, Commonplace Books, has written solicited short stories based on the unused ideas of H.P. Lovecraft, but I think what we’re trying to do with Night Vale is something very different. It’s something a little more modern, it has more of a modern perspective and more of a worldly perspective than Lovecraft was writing about. I am not as familiar with the other artists that you mentioned. I definitely enjoy horror as a genre—it’s probably one of my favorite film genres—but I often don’t get a chance to read either novels or graphic novels related to that as much as I would like, so I’m always looking for good book suggestions.
What would be some of your favorite recent horror films?
Oh man! I really enjoyed Byzantium. I thought it was a beautiful movie that sort of took the vampire myth and found a really amazing way to update it and keep it relevant in a way that was smart, and sexy, and just incredibly well-made and well-written and well-acted and well-directed. I do enjoy my schlocky, throwback horror as well. I’m a big fan of 1970s Italian horror, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, things like that. I enjoy a lot of the 1980s zombie movies. I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I find that the difficulty with loving a genre so specifically is that, after a while, you have tendency to run out of new material. When I’m confronted with my Netflix queue, it’s always, “Shall I watch Night of the Living Dead or pick a Cronenberg film? Shall I watch it for the fiftieth time or shall I try to branch out and experience newer work?” It’s kind of a give and take, where you’re not going to discover anything new that you love, but you do have to wade through a lot of crap in order to get to the good stuff.
It’s interesting that you mention this Lovecraft anthology that Joseph edited. I swear, a couple years ago I went to an event at the Word Bookstore in Brooklyn where I was with some guys and they had that exact same thing. It was a Lovecraft anthology where they had randomly assigned ideas from this list of unused Lovecraft ideas. I wonder if it was the same guys. I don’t know how many anthologies along those lines there could be.
Oh, I don’t know!
Next time you see Joseph, ask him if he ever did any events at Word Bookstore, I’d be curious.
I saw an interview where he said he actually actively dislikes Lovecraft.
I think he does. Lovecraft was writing from a very specific time and place, and the world was much smaller. A lot of Lovecraft’s work, I think, is influenced by this sort of fear of the unknown, and unfortunately, a lot of the world itself was unknown and a lot of humanity, so a lot of his underlying themes developed sexism and racism as part of this idea of fear of the unknown. It’s 2014 and I think we’re a little bit beyond that now.
That was a really interesting point, where you guys were talking about, in the modern world we deal with information overload. Night Vale expresses that in the sense that the most outrageous things are just passé to us now, almost.
Exactly! The idea of a community of people where angels, and conspiracy theories, and shadowy government figures, and dinosaurs randomly appearing in the middle of PTA meetings can be something that is completely commonplace—can be something that is just your average Tuesday afternoon—adds to a great deal of the comedy. I think what makes Night Vale particularly scary or provocative is that idea that we don’t spend a lot of time describing the horrible things that happen to the citizens of Night Vale. We leave a lot of that up to the audience’s imagination. Again, the podcast format for this is amazing, because it is a disembodied voice that gets pumped in through your computer or your headphones and it forces the listener to create the horror for themselves. To me, as an actor and as a storyteller, this throws back to the idea of the campfire ghost story, where whatever is unexplainable and whatever is unknown are some of the scariest things. If you go into too much detail, if you do all the work for the listener, then they have a tendency to become disengaged by the story, because you’re providing all the answers for them. I find a lot of the classic suspense films, things like that, do an excellent job of giving you just enough information to raise the hair on the back of your neck without becoming exploitative or being too in-your-face. It allows the listener to come to the story, rather than the other way around.
There’s all this creepy stuff in Night Vale that I think most listeners just think is kind of fun, but there are definitely people out there who believe in all these sorts of conspiracy theories. Do they ever write to you and say, “Hey, man, you’re more right than you even know”?
As far as I know, we have not received any conspiracy theory enthusiasts who have validated anything we have written on Night Vale. I would be really interested to see that email, if we ever get it, though.
How about feedback from listeners in general? The podcast is so popular. What do people say? What reasons do people give you when they write to you about why they love the podcast so much?
For me, being a gay actor, I do get a lot of younger people who have told me that having a central relationship that is two men is incredibly empowering for them and it makes them feel like they’re not alone out there. Because of the fact that Night Vale is something that is relatively PG—we don’t go into a lot of gory details, we don’t use a lot of harsh language—it’s also something that families can listen to together, and I have met quite a few young gay, lesbian, and transgender listeners who have listened to the show with their parents and used that as a gateway to help their parents understand where they are coming from. I find that amazing, because then you have multiple generations of listeners, and you also have families and friends who are taking something that is very individual and turning it into something that is very community-based. I find that amazing. I also find that a lot of people have written to tell me that, because Night Vale is very beautifully scripted, and my performance of it is oftentimes very calm and soothing, a lot of people with anxiety disorders will use the show to help calm them down and get to sleep when their brains are racing and they have a hard time focusing. That is something that I did not expect, but I find incredibly amazing—that I can help people out who have a problem—that a piece of art that I help create can help them in their everyday life.
Do people ever write to you and gripe about stuff? Are there areas of the show that you want to try to do even better?
People gripe to us all the time, about everything that could possibly be talked about. It’s one of those things where, we have been making this podcast for two years, we’re independent artists, we make this podcast out of our respective homes, and we have no corporate sponsorship, so we are in the position to create the art that we want to create. Admittedly, feedback from fans is always lovely, whether it’s good or bad, but it also gives us an opportunity to examine what we’ve been doing and say, “Well, this person may have a valid point, but that’s not where we’re taking the show,” or, “This person seems to be a bit of a crackpot,” or to examine each letter as it has been given.
Are you comfortable saying what any of those crackpot kind of things are?
Sometimes it’s better just to delete rather than get yourself angry over someone, but a lot of things involving the introduction to the podcast is too long, and could you edit it down so it’s shorter? To that, we always just kind of look at each other and say, “Well, it’s a free podcast. We’re self-producing this. You have a fast-forward button, I suggest you use it.” But, of course, it’s sometimes better not to say those things out loud and engage in a rather heated back-and-forth discussion with people than it is to just keep it as professional as possible.
You mention that there’s this great power in the audio format that people use their imaginations to fill everything in. Could you talk about the fan art/cosplay aspect of Welcome to Night Vale?
The fan art was actually one of the first things that I noticed when we started to gain listenership. I find it amazing! I think it’s really fascinating how people on Tumblr and all these other various websites have taken something that is very minutely described, characters who have very little description, and have assigned physical descriptors to those characters. Sometimes there is a consensus to what a character looks like. Oftentimes, there’s as many different views of what a character can look like as there are artists creating art, which I find amazing. That way, there’s no bounds of ethnicity or gender assigned to these characters, so it allows people to use their own imaginations. I’ve even noticed art where the character of Cecil and various other characters aren’t even human, and all of that is valid. All of that is acceptable because it is that person’s interpretation of what they are receiving from the show and what they want to create in their own right.
What characters have the least amount of consensus and the most amount of consensus over what they look like?
I think characters like the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, Hiram McDaniels, these seem to be the characters that are pretty universally accepted as what they are. Characters like Tamika Flynn and Carlos, who we’ve all but stated their specific ethnicity, a lot of people have latched onto that and really run with that and used the clues that have been written into the show. The character Cecil is deliberately not described in great physical detail. This means that a lot of the ideas of what Cecil looks like have been developed by the fans. The ideas of the third eye, the purple vest, the sleeve tattoos, things like that, are never mentioned in the show and have developed from the imaginations of the fans.
In regards to the ethnicity of Cecil, there’s a lot of very different ideas of what that is, and I think all of them are acceptable and valid. A lot of people have a tendency to depict him as sort of a dapper, 1960s, Mad Men-style radio announcer who is white and blond haired, and that is great. There’s a lot of people who depict Cecil as African American or Native American or Asian, and that is great. I have also seen Welcome to Night Vale/Cecil fanart where Cecil is a moth who sits on a microphone, and that, as well, is great, because it allows the artist to bring themselves to the show and take the ideas and process it for themselves.
I have found that there’s a definite need for people, especially younger people, to run to the creators of work in order to find the “right answers.” We are a little bit prickly, in that we don’t necessarily have the right answers to give. We have taken these ideas and we’ve fleshed out characters, and the characters are defined by how they relate to each other, not by what they look like. I find it fascinating when fans write me or Joseph or Jeffery and ask us, “What is the right answer for, ‘What does Cecil look like?’” and our answer is always, “What do you think he looks like?” because ultimately, these characters exist only in the minds of the listeners.
I saw an appearance you guys did where, in Welcome to Night Vale, there’s this cat, Khoshekh, who floats at the bathroom at the radio station. As it developed there are odd details about this cat, like it has a spiny ridge and makes kind of a roaring sound and stuff like that. A girl asked, “Well, obviously this isn’t a cat. What is it? Can you tell us what it really is?” Joseph was like “No! No, I’m not going to tell you that.”
This is part of the fun of it! It is spoken word, it’s storytelling. If we were making a TV show based on Welcome to Night Vale, it would be very different. The actors playing the various different characters, and the locations, and the props, and everything else that comes along with creating a piece of visual entertainment would then become what those characters are. But for us, because it exists in the mind of the listeners, it allows that freedom for people to decide for themselves. Talking about Khoshekh the floating cat, some people have imagined it as a very normal-looking cat, some people have imagined it as having wings, and some people really get the SF aspect of this creature who may or may not be a cat but has definite non-feline features, and they run with that as well. All of those are great ideas, and they’re meant to tantalize the listener and spark their own imagination.
Do you think there ever will be a Welcome to Night Vale TV show or graphic novel or some other visual thing like that?
I don’t know yet. I know that Joseph and Jeffery are working very hard on creating a novel first, which will come out in fall of 2015. Once the novel is out, that will inform any future iterations of Night Vale in a different medium.
We’ve already started doing a lot more touring, but when we tour, and when we do live shows, we do it in such a way that it is very much based on radio theater, where we don’t wear costumes, we’re not trying to transport the audience and make them suspend their disbelief. It’s very clearly actors standing in front of microphones with scripts in their hands, in order to keep that idea that this world exists in the minds of the listeners, whether it’s from their computer, or if it’s happening live, directly in front of them.
I just want to let people know that your previous live shows are available online. They’re called “The Debate” and “Condos.” Will you be performing those stories at future live shows?
We have a different script. We try to maintain the idea that every time we go to a new city, we bring a script that they’ve never heard before. Currently we have a touring script, called “The Librarian,” which is about what happens when the librarians of Night Vale get . . . loose, shall we say? We take that script to as many different cities as we possibly can without repeating. Once we have toured that script as much as we can, we release a recording of it. That way, if Night Vale ever comes to your city, you are getting an experience that is always different. You get this script that has never been performed before in your city. That way, we hope, people will come back and see us when we return.
It’s funny that you mentioned the librarians. One of the things that really struck me about Welcome to Night Vale is that it takes all the most banal, harmless aspects of a small town and turns them into something sinister. There’s a summer reading club and all these harmless things. I was wondering, do you have a list of actual small-town activities or something? You just go through it and think, “Here’s a sinister spin we could put on this one and this one?”
When we first started the show, I was talking with Joseph and Jeffrey about the idea of what exactly a small town community radio show would include. It has a lot of the things we’ve incorporated into the show, things like local sports teams, especially high school sports teams, PTA meetings, traffic reports, weather reports, community calendars, spotlights on local government officials, things like that, which seem to be the bulk of what small town communities are concerned with. We just take the idea that the average and mundane can be mysterious and horrifying, and the mysterious and horrifying can be average and mundane. We swap those out, and it creates this lovely dichotomy that creates both humor and can also create a sense of suspense and terror.
I understand that the reason Welcome to Night Vale really blew up was because of this Tumblr community. Do you know if people were sharing the actual episodes on Tumblr, or if they were just showing the fan art, or something else that contributed to people going and listening to the show?
I think it was the fan art mixed with people telling their friends that they found something and that their friends should start listening to it. Because Night Vale is released for free, it’s very easy to find on iTunes and various other podcasting services, so it’s not difficult to find the material on the internet. Early on, we noticed that a lot. There were these mushroom areas where all of a sudden, in the middle of Australia, we would have this unusually large amount of listeners. I’m convinced that it’s due almost entirely to word of mouth. When it comes to the fan art on Tumblr, things like that website are so good about allowing artists to create something and share it with a very broad cross section of other Tumblr users who may be on the other side of the world. If you’re a photographer or an artist or a writer, and you create work that resonates with someone who lives a thousand miles away, you still have a way to share your art with those people. I think a lot of the images of the characters and the makeup of Night Vale itself have been greatly benefited by that technology.
I’ve also heard a lot of people say that they’ve started following the Night Vale Twitter feed for a long time before even realizing that there was a podcast associated with it.
Absolutely. Joseph and Jeffrey manage the Twitter feed. I think of them as these strange fortune cookies that appear on Twitter every once in a while. But a lot of people started following the Twitter feed because they were so funny, these strange little zen jokes that they would create, and then later find that there was a larger show that it was attached to. I know a lot of people on Twitter also follow Welcome to Night Vale, and myself, and Joseph, and Jeffrey to get updates on live shows, or Comic-Con conventions, or things like that. We try to use social media in a way that is both informative and entertaining.
Speaking of events, I saw that you guys went to the L.A. Podcasting Festival.
What’s it like, getting into the podcasting scene, meeting other podcasters, and stuff like that?
We had a really great time! We definitely noticed that we do something that is slightly different than what a lot of podcasts are based on. Certainly, at the L.A. Podfest there were a lot of amazing comedians who, their show is an extension of their on-stage routine. It involves them riffing off of certain subjects or interviewing other people, and that’s not what we do. We do a scripted show where a lot of time and effort has been taken into writing, recording, and producing the show. I find that most podcasts fall into informative or educational, or they go in the opposite direction, which is entertainment, and while we’re definitely in the entertainment side of things, it’s just very different than what a lot of other people are doing. It’s really nice to expand people’s horizons—to say, “This is the potential for what a podcast could be.” As well, getting to go to something like the L.A. Podfest, and meeting people who are starting out, or who have an idea but don’t necessarily know how to develop it, and talking to them about how our show is very low-tech, and is very simply produced, and the idea that if you create a show that is entertaining and interesting to you, then you will find the listeners, rather than the other way around.
I find a lot of people in this day and age are worried about demographics and, “How do we create a viral something.” Of course the answer is if you’re trying to create something that will go viral, chances are it probably won’t because you’re trying so incredibly hard that most people will just sort of roll their eyes and be like, “Okay, that was something interesting.” People would rather find new and interesting ideas so they can say, “Hey, I found this new thing. It’s part of me now, and it is something that I can claim as my own.”
Do you know of any new podcasts that took a look at Welcome to Night Vale and said, “I want to do something in that vein,” or, “Oh! I didn’t know you could do something so out there. I’m gonna do something so out there now”?
I’ve not really seen a lot of imitators or copycats or things like that, but I think the idea of radio drama—this idea is nothing new; we’re not doing anything spectacularly unprecedented. The idea of radio drama has been around as long as there’s been radio. It’s just the idea that, if you make a quality product, and you put your heart and your soul into it, then other people will look at this format that I’m sure most people would have said was dead and gone, but you breathe new life into it. We did an interview with CBC in Canada and the idea that radio drama is something that can be appreciated by many different generations, but had all but died, and we’re helping to bring it back and interest much younger audiences in something that is a non-visual medium.
Speaking of non-visual media, is there anything else you can say about the Welcome to Night Vale novel?
I am not involved in the writing of it. I know very little about it, and I’m okay with that because I want Joseph and Jeffery to really make that novel their own and put their own ideas into it. Admittedly, I hope that once they do finish it, I am one of the first people who gets to read the advance copy of it and enjoy it just as much as any fan would.
A bunch of the episodes have been written or co-written by other authors. Since your audience is mostly book readers, do any of those authors have books that people should check out?
I think the Glen David Gold episode was probably one of the best guest writers that we had. It was a really amazing episode, and, as a performer, I definitely felt the fresh air of having a guest writer doing an episode. It was a lot of fun. The language he uses is so intricate and carefully structured—it was just a lot of fun to perform. It reminded me a lot of performing Shakespeare or classical theater because every detail was so nuanced and added to the overall picture of what was happening. That was a really great one.
And he has some books that people could go check out?
Carter Beats the Devil is an amazing novel. It’s on my bookshelf right now. It’s really great.
Speaking of Shakespeare, we had a listener question from Maggie Lou Young. She says, “What is your favorite Shakespeare play, and who is your favorite Shakespeare character?”
That’s a tough one. I don’t know if I can narrow it down to just one. I think, if I’m gonna pick a comedy, a tragedy, and a history, it would be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, and Henry IV Part One. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in all three of those, in various productions, and they’re just amazing, and beautiful to watch and to listen to, in a very similar way that Night Vale is. When Shakespeare was writing in Elizabethan England, you did not go see a play. You went to go hear a play. All of the language that Shakespeare uses is made to build upon imagery that exists only in your mind. This is evident in the way the plays were staged, in the structure of the Globe theater, the fact that it was performed outdoors during natural daylight, in front of a crowd of people that included people selling concessions, and lords, and ladies, and prostitutes, and merchants, and children, and animals, and all of this added to this love of life that is reflected in Shakespeare’s work.
When it comes to a favorite character, that’s tough. I definitely have a bucket list of Shakespeare characters that I would like to play before I die. I’ve always wanted to play Oberon. It’s an amazing, fun, slightly malevolent but also slightly loving character. Oh, man. I think it would be a lot of fun to get to play a character like Iago, who is an amazing villain. It would be great to play Edmond in King Lear. Obviously, you can tell, I’m drawn to the villains, but it’s only because, when working in classical theater, I have a tendency to fall somewhere in between the villain and the fool. In a lot of Shakespearean theaters that I’ve worked for, the casting director will look at me and go, “You’re obviously a villain,” and then another casting director will look at me and say, “You’re obviously the comedic relief,” and there’s no convincing them otherwise. I would love to play Trinculo or Speed or someone like that. I think it would be a great comedic role as well.
If people want to see you on the stage, how do they go about that? Do you have anything else theater-related coming up?
Outside of the world of Night Vale, I perform with the New York Neo-Futurists. We do a weekly show in the East Village called, “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.” We have about fifteen different cast members, and we rotate those cast members out. If you go to their website, nynf.org, it’ll have a list of who’s in the cast that week. Like I said, it’s all autobiographical theater. It’s all very present and relevant to the immediate performance, and you’ll definitely see me, Cecil Baldwin the actor, standing up in front of you and telling you stories about my life and stories about the world that we inhabit together, rather than taking on an imaginary persona. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of audience interaction. I’ve heard audience members say the craziest things in front a hundred people on a Friday or Saturday night. It’s always different, and it’s a good time.
The segments that you’ve written—could you just give us an idea of what kinds of things you talk about?
I’ve talked about everything from the fact that my parents are getting older and love to go on cruises. I’ve talked about relationships I’ve been in . . . Oh man. I’ve taken filmmakers’ work who I’ve appreciated and tried to find a way to let their style influence other aspects of my own personal life. I did a play called Neo-Polanski Apartment Trilogy, which was in the style of three different Roman Polanski films, taken and written in monologue form, that reflected New Yorkers’ relationships with their apartments, and their neighbors, and what it’s like to listen to your neighbors fighting next door, and not knowing how you should interact with them, and all of that, which I find was very present in films like Repulsion and The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby. It’s always different! A lot of times it’s very political. I wrote a play which was based upon the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, because there was an American religious figure who would go over to Uganda and stir up anti-gay sentiments in an effort to allow the Ugandan government to kill anyone who was out of the closet as gay, lesbian, or transgender. So, I wrote a play reflecting that. It runs the breadth of my own personal experience. I’m allowed to take those ideas and put them on stage every weekend.
Maybe soon you can write a play about what it’s like to live in a quiet apartment for a change.
Oh dear God, I hope so.
Rhododendron W. says that the recent Welcome to Night Vale episode “The Company Picnic” was the first episode without you in it. How did it feel to listen to an episode that you weren’t involved in recording?
It was a blast! I had the opportunity to wait until the fifteenth and listen to the episode with completely fresh ears. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what Kevin and Lauren were doing from a performance aspect. I knew very little about the episode, so it gave me that thrill of excitement when you are extremely and intimately close to this cast of characters, but you get a chance to experience an episode with a fresh viewpoint. Having said that, I cannot wait to return to Night Vale in the very near future.
Tweet Acceptance says, “Do you think your character would ever die on the show?” Which I guess raises the question, if you’re not involved in an episode, you might listen to it and find that they’ve killed you off.
I hope not. I hope my character never dies, because then I would be out of a job, and that would be really unfortunate. But no, in all seriousness, I think that the character of Cecil is definitely beloved by the fans, and the creators as well. Even if the story keeps expanding, there’s no reason for Cecil not to be in the mix.
How much of a time commitment is it, playing Cecil? If you got cast as the lead in Hamlet or something, would you still have time to do Cecil on the side?
Absolutely! Again, one of the great things about podcasting is that if you have a microphone and some basic computer technology, I can record this in my apartment. I can record it from the road, which we’ve done before when we were on tour. I can record it internationally, and through the magic of email, we just need to upload it and then send it out to the fans. For a time commitment, I mean, it definitely takes a little bit of time, because I’m a perfectionist as a performer, and I’m also a director and a writer in various other projects, so I’m constantly trying to use my outside eye to say “Well, this is what the audience is expecting. How can I give them something different, or something new, or expand upon a character that people feel like they know extremely well?” I think it’s been very successful so far.
When I go back and listen to a lot of the earlier episodes, it was very much based in community radio. Everything was a little bit more serious. It was a little bit more flat. As the character progressed, I realized that the more humanity I brought to the role, the more exciting the story became. One of the ways that I prepare to do each episode is I go back and listen to the last episode that was released, and I try to think, “If that episode was particularly funny, or political, or scary, how can I take a different look at the new material?” Then, I’ll try and respect the words of Joseph and Jeffery to the best of my ability, and also throw in some surprises. That way, it keeps everyone on their toes.
I heard you guys say that in the early days, you had tons of material already written, and that as it’s gone on, that buffer has shrunk and shrunk, especially now with the live shows. How much longer do you think you can keep to the every two week schedule? Is there any chance that you might have to go on a hiatus or anything like that?
I certainly hope not. One of the reasons people have kept listening to our show is the fact that we try to be as consistent as possible. We release on the first and fifteenth of every month. It’s always new material. We try to give people something new and interesting to listen to. If our reputation was a little more spotty, where a month or two would go by and we didn’t release anything, people would start to lose interest, because you don’t get the chance to catch up with these characters that you feel like you know so well. Having said that, Joseph and Jeffrey are writing a novel, we’re touring for months at a time, there’s a good possibility that I’m going to be performing with the Neo-Futurists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, so the calendar of work that we have set up definitely has wiggle room, or room for adjustment, but we do try to keep ahead of the curve as much as possible. God bless Joseph and Jeffrey, because they’re writing a novel that’s going to be released a year from now, while at the same time writing material that will performed a month from now, and writing material that will be performed two weeks from now.
Spread the word!