“That may have been the most millenial thing ever” commented an audience member after Email Pro, the recurring monthly show conceived and performed by Ivan Anderson at indie performance space, The Tank. Running now for two years, Email Pro is described as “a live show based on Ivan Anderson’s email performance art,” which both is and isn’t an accurate depiction of the experience. It’s certainly not straightforward theatre and probably comes closest to an odd-ball talk show or standup comedy, if the routine was confined to the “crowd work” section of the act. The promised email masterclass and live music were barely present, though the live music (which mainly consisted of the amiable Jeff Manian doodling away on a small synthesizer) was not unpleasant. The show is closest to hanging out with that friend from undergrad who thinks of almost obsessively quirky ways to pass the time–but still somehow heightened. Just scraping in, technically, as a millennial, that familiar silliness was still present for me.
Anderson begins by explaining, for those of us who are new to Email Pro, that the whole performance has its origins in an anxiety-provoking, weirdly aggressive encounter with a stranger, which Anderson dealt with by writing even weirder and vaguely demanding—if not totally aggressive—emails to his friends. The friends eventually suggested that he redirect his compulsive email writing to strangers, thus Email Pro, the live show, was born.
After this introductory explanation, Anderson gets down to writing emails to strangers—unsuspecting friends of audience members who volunteer their emails. His laptop screen is projected at an unintentionally rakish angle on the back wall behind him. Anderson is committed to his deeply idiosyncratic humor—“it’s funny to me how funny social security numbers are”—and it is remarkably infectious. The audience somehow becomes convinced that there is something inherently, inexplicably funny about social security numbers. The performance is unpredictable, since the email is composed in real time, following the thread of Anderson’s thoughts, inspired questions to the audience, and added commentary. There are small digressions down the rabbit hole (some more entertaining than others), such as googling how to make friends, a discussion of what a “snippet” is, and an attempt to send feedback to Google, most of which end up in the email, along with a hyperlink to Infowars.
This, repeated in various ways a few times over, is the sum total of the show. Odd emails to strangers are not quite convincing enough to fill 90 minutes of performance. Despite the desire at times for just a touch more structure and substance, the show is almost surprisingly captivating. Anderson himself is charming and uses his quirky, slightly awkward stage persona to belie any hint of the stereotypes suggested by his conventionally handsome face.
Email Pro is one of those rare theatrical experiences where audience interraction actually does create a friendly, communal experience. There is the shared anticipatory delight in imagining, “What will they think when they get this?!!” with each e-mail sent, even without knowing the recipient. Anderson’s engagement with the audience is sometimes teasing, but never aggressive. He has a sincere openness, verging on vulnerability, taking childish pleasure in sharing his odd, impulsive humor with an audience. It’s intimate, without being icky.
Email Pro is a scrappy little show with a loyal following. Over half the audience in The Tank’s small theatre were already devotees. Anyone can sign up to receive emails and anyone can unsubscribe at any time. Anderson announces the 25% unsubscription rate with something like delight and 2% of the 25% later ask to re-enroll. I may join.