In the pilot episode of the sinister “Welcome to Night Vale,” a “Twin Peaks”-style podcast set within the community radio station of a fictional desert town, panic sweeps over Night Vale following the opening of a new dog park. Mysterious hooded figures have been spotted roaming the park, and the radio station’s host, Cecil, cautions residents with a notice from Night Vale City Council: Dogs and humans are not allowed in the dog park. Do not approach the dog park,” Cecil warns with a soothing, journalistic baritone that somehow makes the news sound even spookier. Don’t even look at the dog park, he says. Or think about it.
For five years and 110 episodes, “Welcome to Night Vale” has shared these kinds of strange stories: small-town humdrum with a supernatural twist. Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, the creators of the podcast, say they were inspired by the storytelling verve of Orson Welles, the weird paranoia of David Lynch and the cosmic dread of H.P. Lovecraft.
But the show is just as silly as it is macabre. Sightings of angels are as much a part of Cecil’s local news beat as reports of free ice cream socials. (The next ice cream social, Cecil says in one episode, will be held in an underground bunker only open to members of the Illuminati.)
“We came up with this idea of a small town where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is actually true,” Cranor says of the podcast, reached by phone from his home studio in upstate New York.
In recent years, Cranor and Fink have brought their podcast’s eerie storylines to stage. A theatrical version of “Welcome to Night Vale” will take place Friday, July 7, at the Olympia Theater in Miami. Since “Welcome to Night Vale” debuted in 2012, the radio drama has been downloaded more than 100 million times, sometimes beating out public-radio heavyweights such as “Radiolab” and “This American Life.” It currently sits at No. 83 on iTunes’ top 100 podcasts, according to Podbay.fm, which measures podcast rankings.
Beyond its premise, Cranor suggests that “Night Vale” has drawn listeners because the free podcast doesn’t rely on corporate sponsors, but on proceeds from live performances, merchandise sales and a same-titled novel, published in 2015. Another reason for its popularity: Cranor says the fictional misfortunes of the town also share parallels with real-life headlines. Recent episodes of the podcast, for example, have focused on Night Vale’s citizens finally acknowledging the existence of angels, shunned for many years, in their town.
“You can see references to modern-day LGBT acceptance and tolerance,” Cranor says. “We kind of tread lightly here, because we’re trying to be satirical, not have on-the-nose agitprop theater. We’re getting people asking us all the time whether ‘Night Vale’ is harder to write because of the new president. It isn’t. One of our original characters, Pamela Winchell, is the director of community press conferences in town, and everything she says to reporters is full of lies. I usually joke that Sean Spicer stole our bit.”
Cranor, who writes “Welcome to Night Vale,” says he was inspired by a childhood diet of offbeat humor, which he found in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and early 1990s TV programs such as “Eerie, Indiana.” After meeting co-writer Fink in an experimental theater group, the New York Neo-Futurists, the pair teamed up with Cecil Baldwin, who portrays the show’s suave, beguiling narrator.
Storylines blend outre characters with a love for language: Carlos, a Latino scientist who arrives in town early in the series, is admired by Cecil for having “perfect hair,” a voice “like caramel with oaky tones” and “teeth like a military cemetery.” There’s the Sheriff's Secret Police, a clandestine law enforcement agency that enforces the City Council’s laws with daggers and blow darts. And there’s the Glow Cloud, a noxious cloud that floats into town and drops small animal carcasses on the locals, eventually becoming president of the local PTA board.
Unlike the podcasts, the two-hour-long live versions of “Welcome to Night Vale” add more interactive moments for audiences, Cranor says.
“So Cecil will be interacting with the audience members, requiring them to do certain things, like take an oath of fealty to the Glow Cloud,” Cranor says. “In podcasts, you’re writing for the detached intimacy of a listener, but I don’t like theater that assumes it’s a fishbowl that the audience can’t interact with. The actors play their parts like old-timey radio theater. We write the show for someone who’s never heard of Night Vale before.”
“Welcome to Night Vale” will take place 8 p.m. Friday, July 7, at Olympia Theater, 174 E. Flagler St., in Miami. Podcast episodes are released on the first and 15th of each month via iTunes and other outlets. Admission costs $27.50-$32.50. Call 305-374-2444 or go to OlympiaTheater.org.
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