Letters at Large is about as affable and low-key an entertainment as you’re likely to attend, especially in the middle of a Fringe Festival where intensity and portent are more the order of the day. Likewise, the show’s creator, Canadian Jeff Sinclair, is as amiable and cordial a performer as you could hope to encounter. His 60-minute illustrated lecture is hardly theater. It’s more like sitting down for coffee with an agreeable acquaintance while you see a few slides and hear some amusing anecdotes arising from his wacko hobby.
Sinclair writes letters. Lots of letters. And he’s has been doing it for a decade. Specifically, he writes tongue-in-cheek comments, complaints and requests for unusual services to corporations around the world. The content is typically outrageous, but he writes with such impeccable grammar and syntax and states his case with such seeming sincerity that it would be difficult for a company to dismiss his letters as either ravings or ribbings. While his names and return addresses are all pseudonymous, they too sound legitimate. His purpose. Pulling legs. Provoking a response. Developing fodder for his traveling show.
• He wrote to a bunch of big-city transit companies swearing that he had encountered Brad Pitt panhandling coins on one of their buses.
• He wrote to a cigarette maker describing how, when no one else was looking, the fire at the end of the cigarette glowed green instead of red. If anyone glanced at him, the fire turned back to red. His purpose in writing was to wonder if the green fire was magic and could (like Leprechauns) appear and disappear. Or if perhaps the cigarettes might contain marijuana.
• He wrote to a nuclear power plant in Eastern Europe requesting permission to visit the core reactor at the plant because he thought exposure to the intense radiation might grant him super powers — which he promised only ever to use for the good of mankind.
Occasionally Sinclair snags free stuff — often strange free stuff. A request to a brewery for help with a drinking contest brought him a blowup beer bottle and a pair of socks. He’s learned that while food companies respond to compliments with coupons, they usually respond to complaints with significantly more coupons.
He’s written more than 800 such letters and received some sort of response from more over 40 percent of the recipients. Many of the responses are form letters of the “Thanks for writing. We take all correspondence seriously, and we’ll consider your suggestions” sort. Maybe 25 percent of his targets responded with specific replies. These replies are the red meat of his show. Mostly they’re droll, sometimes intentionally.
He asked a Las Vegas hotel about setting up a camp stove in his suite so a friend could prepare their meals personally. The hotel, Sinclair thinks, saw through his letter. They replied, equally tongue-in-cheek, citing Nevada fire laws as the only reason they had to turn down a request they otherwise would have been happy to honor.
He maintains that if you’re seeking revenge on some company, writing an outrageous letter will cost you a sheet or paper, an envelope and first-class postage. Replying to your letter could cost the company a few thousand dollars in staff time and fees for legal counsel.
One group of Sinclair’s letters secured endearing replies and might make you think there are a few hearts beating inside corporate America. He wrote to a number of mattress companies to tell them he had acquired a new mattress for his 8-year-old son. The boy loved it and found it most comfortable, but he was concerned about a monster that seemed to lurk underneath. Each company accepted the letter as a request for advice from a loving father and replied with witty assurances about how their mattresses were monster-proof.
No, it’s not theater. Hence, where better to find it than at a Festival out on the Fringe? You can see a selection of Sinclair’s letters — ones not in the show — at www.lettersatlarge.com.
— Tom McElfresh