Secrecy and Absurdity: An Evening in Night Vale
By Maggie Nipps
Under violet lights in the Englert Theatre, a passionate audience shouts out “violence!” and “crush him!” in perfect unison. Normally, this level of seemingly enraged audience participation wouldn’t be expected of a podcast live show, but in Night Vale, anything is possible. Welcome To Night Vale, a podcast created in 2012 by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, follows a radio reporter living in the desert town in Night Vale. This is no normal desert community; instead, it resembles something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. In Night Vale, the Sheriff's Secret Police and A Vague Yet Menacing Government run a government built on secrecy. Hooded figures live in the dog park, the Blood Space War rages on, and every conspiracy theory is true.
Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin, narrates the daily chaos in a voice as smooth as a Night Vale bloodstone. Accompanying his baritone narration is Meg Bashwiner, hosting the show as well as voicing Deb, a sentient patch of haze. Symphony Sanders voices Tamika Flynn, the 16-year-old political activist and literature buff who can explain classic novels while simultaneously beating someone down with one. Together, they investigate, a master of disguise known as The Mink who had just arrived in Night Vale. Music by Disparition underscored the show, bringing a new level of depth to the performance. Disparition’s music is as unique as the podcast it is paired with – a mix of electronic, acoustic, and ambient sounds. It’s no wonder that such a unique show has amassed a cult following.
Dedicated audience members walked into the show dressed as a variety of characters – The Glow Cloud, Hooded Figures, and the Sheriff’s Secret Police all made an appearance to listen to that day’s broadcast. In this episode, The Mink has been caught stealing secrets throughout the town, yet they never reveal them. This show begs questions about the nature of secrets – are secrets power, and are all secrets bad? In a town governed by secrecy, what’s the problem with one person knowing them all?
The Night Vale universe is full of secrets. Their “weather” segment is one of the many peculiarities of the show. Every episode’s weather forecast is composed of a musical guest instead of statistics about precipitation or windchill. Mal Blum was featured as The Weather this show, as well as the opening act. Bashwiner described Blum’s music as a mix of “Ann Defranco, Blink-182, and a sad Victorian ghost boy.” Their style not only felt right in this desert community, but they were able to meaningfully engage the audience. Their music brought with it a powerful energy yet chill vibes. In particular, their song Iowa resonated with the Iowan audience. Not only did they bring fantastic music, but they brought a secret with them to share. Blum showed incredible vulnerability by sharing their poetry with this city of literature. Before this show, they hadn’t shown one of the poems to a soul. Their candor and openness about their life, traumas, and family ended with a standing ovation and deafening applause, tying right into the podcast’s focus on the importance of secrets.
Night Vale has done a phenomenal job as an absurdist podcast thriving in the mainstream. Listening to a live show of Welcome to Night Vale is so much more than an auditory experience – it is transformative, turning an Iowa City theater into a hideaway in a mysterious desert town. Huddled down with hundreds of other community members, everyone is alert and on the hunt for the mysterious interloper.
The juxtaposition of the surreal nature of the show and Palmer’s soothing voice make it easy to embrace all of the eccentric happenings. From losing the entire day of Tuesday to the fact that mountains obviously aren’t real, the indecipherable logic of Night Vale perfectly embodies the absurd. As the performers took the audience time-traveling with them, all worldly logic fell away from the minutes that had passed, in favor of the fantastical nature of Night Vale’s horrifying beauty. Welcome to Night Vale is outside of reality. It’s a fever dream mixed with a sci-fi thriller and an episode of NPR set in a realm not of this earth. For one evening, Iowa City melted away into a different dimension. With one final proverb, the Night Vale crew ended a night of unconventional adventures, bringing the audience back to reality: “sleep like there’s nobody watching.” A perfect set of last words, as the crowd leaves to transport dreams that will never be as whimsical as the show itself.