ong before Serial brought podcasting to the mainstream, there were several very popular programs being downloaded on phones, MP3 players and computers. Shows like Marc Maron’s WTF, Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny and The Adam Carolla Show all gained sizeable followings. One show topping the podcast charts was different, however, and that was a quirky show called Welcome to Night Vale.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, Night Vale, as the die-hard fans refer to it, is totally fabricated. Set in the fictional Southwestern desert town of Night Vale, the podcast is presented as a radio show complete with news, weather, advertisements and updates on local events and happenings. Cecil Gershwin Palmer, portrayed by Cecil Baldwin, is the host, introducing the odd supporting characters and describing the goings-on in the sleepy but strange town. The show drops on the first and 15th of each month. (A book based on the series was released last October to critical acclaim. It’s told from the perspective of two recurring characters that live in Night Vale.)
Welcome to Night Vale debuted in the summer of 2012 and quickly became a hit. Within a year, it was the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. In October 2013, the cast began staging live shows. Needing someone to host the events, Joseph Fink, who created the show along with Jeffrey Cranor, tapped his wife Meg Bashwiner.
“I’ve been working with the show from the beginning,” Bashwiner says from her home in New York City. “Joseph needed an actress and he had one in his house, so I guess I got the job by default.”
Bashwiner’s background is not in broadcasting, but in theater.
“I studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and then, after I graduated, moved here to New York City to work,” she says. “I met Joseph and Jeffery while we were working for the same theater company.”
When not helping out on Night Vale, Bashwiner works with an ensemble theater group called New York Neo-Futurists. The group, by its own description, brings a “new approach to performance which advocates the complete awareness and inclusion of the actual world within the theater in order to achieve a goal: to bring people to a greater understanding of themselves and each other.” That’s quite a mouthful, but as Bashwiner explains, it’s really quite simple.
“It’s 30 original plays in 60 minutes,” she says. “We work on a timer and we write new plays every week.” Two to 12 new plays are written per week and then put into the rotation.
“Our list of plays is always changing and it touches on different aesthetics,” she says. “We don’t do too much improv, but we do pull from that dynamic of things happening in the moment.”
It provides a nice counterbalance to the more high-profile, and in comparison more conventional, Welcome to Night Vale.
It was after Fink was laid off from a writing job that he decided to develop Welcome to Night Vale.
“He said he had an idea for a podcast and wrote the first episode,” Bashwiner says. “And he said, ‘I have a good feeling about this one,” and that became Night Vale, so I guess he was right.”
Seeking to do something that wasn’t already being done, Fink and co-creator Cranor settled on presenting long-form fiction with an arc. Setting it at a radio station was a clever move, as many podcast fans are also public radio listeners.
“I’m a big fan of pubic radio, and I know that Joseph and Jeffery are huge fans of radio and grew up listening to a lot of radio. They draw a lot of inspiration from that,” Bashwiner says. “We really enjoy radio and we really enjoy podcasting.”
The public radio connection also informs the creative process. “It’s something a lot of people know and can relate to, and there’s room for parody in that,” she says.
In addition to emceeing the live events, Bashwiner also plays the character of Deb, described as a “sentient patch of haze.” She reads advertisements during the broadcasts. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have you on the road, we should give you something else to do,’ ” she says. So Bashwiner helped develop the character, giving Deb her trademark accent.
Similarly, the other performers have had a hand in developing their own characters, particularly Cecil Baldwin.
“Cecil has done a lot character work for his role,” Bashwiner says. “It’s based on what Joseph and Jeffrey have written for him, but he’s also brought so much more just from the way he delivers the lines and from his interaction with the other characters.”
The podcast is free but the stage shows are not, so they help generate much-needed revenue. However, the live tours also serve additional purposes beyond fundraising.
“We are live-theater makers. That’s what we do,” Bashwiner says. “We also love to find the Night Vale communities out in the world. We like going to all these different cities, and we especially like going to smaller cities and getting to meet the fans there.”
For those who can’t get enough of Night Vale’s brand of unconventional drama and humor, the show’s producers recently launched another fictional show, Alice Isn’t Dead. As that podcast begins, Night Vale hits the road for the month of April.
Watching people record a podcast on stage might not sound very exciting, but Bashwiner insists it’s quite engaging.
“It’s a great show,” she says. “Cecil runs the show and brings out the different guest stars. We’re reading from a script, so it is very much like radio theater. But it is something that is dynamic to watch because the performers are really just so incredibly talented. Seeing Cecil Baldwin live is worth the price of admission.”
Devoted fans, as well as the newly initiated, will both enjoy it, she adds.
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE takes over Taft Theatre on Sunday. More info: tafttheatre.org.