Queer Horror Taking a Stance

A Chat with Cecil Baldwin on Welcome to Night Vale

The Welcome to Night Vale Logo. Courtesy Welcome to Night Vale
Cecil Baldwin up onstage during a live show for Welcome to Night Vale. Courtesy Whitney Browne
Cecil Baldwin up onstage during a live show for Welcome to Night Vale. Courtesy Whitney Browne

A faceless old woman, a group of mysterious hooded figures that you should not follow into the dog park, and a five-headed dragon.

These are a few of the citizens you’d meet in the town of Night Vale which we, the listeners, are given the privilege of knowing about. This is thanks in large part to Cecil Gershwin Palmer, the voice of the Night Vale radio station. Cecil is voiced by renowned voice actor Cecil Baldwin.

Welcome to Night Vale, a highly popular podcast, currently has over 100 episodes and counting—featuring a collection of odd yet lovable characters living in a town where strange occurrences are the norm.

With two books collecting the first few episodes, one novel already published and another being released in November 2017, Welcome to Night Vale continues to grow in popularity.

Right now, the Night Vale team is touring, performing an original script for Welcome to Night Vale episodes. Baldwin brings with him some guest readers, usually actors who voice some of the characters that are already on the show. On April 6, Thursday, Night Vale will be doing a live show in Montreal, featuring guest readers such as folk musician, writer and producer Erin Mckeown.

“Every episode is an interesting and fun problem that needs to be solved. It’s like trying to work out a math problem,” Baldwin explained about the brainstorming process behind every recording for the podcast. “The show comes out twice a month, so it’s constantly having a new thing to tinker with and play with and think ‘what have we not done on the show yet?’ or ‘what’s a different side of this character that the audience hasn’t seen yet?’”

Welcome to Night Vale is often praised for its diverse cast and representation, which is often lacking in mainstream media. Villains in film and TV are often coded queer, which means that they fulfill stereotypes in order to be unsettling or humorous.

“For a long time in Hollywood films, gay men and women were treated as evil, plotting, secretly in love with the young beautiful protagonist, predatory, or devious; sort of a long history of that, especially in Gothic Horror.” Baldwin explained.

In the story of the podcast, Cecil Gershwin Palmer and another character named Carlos, voiced by Dylan Marron, had been developing a romantic relationship since episode one. Welcome to Night Vale’s plot is not dependent on the sexuality of these characters, Baldwin stated.

“Carlos can easily be a Samantha for all we know, and it would not affect the plot at all. That’s what makes it so beautiful; it’s a gay relationship that is not dependent on the plot.” he said.

Both characters are voiced by openly gay men, who are able to bring their unique understanding to the two characters. The same can be said in terms of race in regards to Pamela Winchell who is voiced by Desiree Burch, a Black woman playing a Black character.

Baldwin explained that an aspect of Night Vale that he enjoys is collaborating with people who come from a variety of backgrounds, since he is mainly an actor that specializes in theatre and voice over work.

“Like when Felicia Day was on, it was really interesting to get to work with her because her experience is just so different,” Baldwin said. “I’m always really interested in just expanding on that.”

“Carlos can easily be a Samantha for all we know, and it would not affect the plot at all. That’s what makes it so beautiful; it’s a gay relationship that is not dependent on the plot.” – Cecil Baldwin

Interestingly enough, Baldwin puts a lot of his own self into his character on the podcast—although he stated that this is more apparent in live shows. “The podcast is very filtered, it’s purposefully been curated to create a character,” he said. “I only have a microphone and I kind of have to express the ideas of the script using the voice only.”

On a live reading, however, Baldwin finds himself relying on his own personal self. In the heat of the moment where his guest reader makes a joke and Baldwin laughs, he can’t deny that and must now make it a part of his character.

Since the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is an oral performance void of any visuals, the writers have left it in the hands of their listeners to figure out what Cecil Gershwin Palmer looks like. Baldwin explained that he would rather watch on the sidelines and let the fans figure it out for themselves rather than tell them what the right answer is.

“If drawing a Cecil […] as a person of colour makes you feel good about yourself and about the podcast and taking this character that is a role model and making that role model into whatever ethnicity […] If that makes you feel good and enhances your enjoyment of the show, then that’s the right answer.”

First and foremost, one of Night Vale’s goals is to make their listeners aware of their biases. “You hear someone who is intelligent and articulate, so why is the first image that of a blond white guy?” Baldwin says in regards to his character. “Not to say that blond white guy is wrong, but why?”

The writers of Welcome to Night Vale have given their audience a blank canvas to work with in conjuring up an image of what Cecil Gershwin Palmer looks like.

There isn’t an official mandate to Night Vale, but there is an overall desire to make good art, Baldwin said.

Baldwin stated that, eventually, Welcome to Night Vale will come to an end, but he’s not sure when exactly that will be. Afterward, Baldwin isn’t too sure what he’ll pursue.

“I know what it’s like to kind of scramble for your next job and be an actor in America where there are a lot of people looking for the same thing,” he said. “ So I don’t know what’s next, but I certainly hope that whatever it is it’ll be fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding in all the right ways.”

Welcome to Night Vale // April 6, Thursday // Corona Theatre (2490 Notre-Dame W.) // $40.50