A Cocktail Party Social Experiment

A small card and a large card are chosen randomly to prompt a philosophical discussion in Wil Petre's A Cocktail Party Social Experiment. Original photo by Karen May.
Is it still possible to enjoy a meaningful conversation with strangers in the age of click bait and sound bites?

By Andrew Andrews

Before the era of smart phones and social media, sophisticated people invited each other to cocktail parties, where carefully-crafted libations flowed as freely as intellectual conversation, allowing the guests to really get to know each other and broaden their minds in an intimate setting.

In modern society, Wil Petre is trying to combat the alienation and detachment created by our digital distractions with A Cocktail Party Game.

On a stage reminiscent of a swanky living room, participants take turns selecting random cards depicting alchemical symbols, which are combined to select matching questions from a book designed to prompt philosophical discussion.

Before the show, audience members are encouraged to apply to take part as one of the eight cocktail party guests; those who aren’t selected still get to enjoy the proceedings from cabaret-style seating that transmits the low-key party atmosphere throughout the venue.

The host begins the evening by asking a question of the first guest and then follows-up with additional prompts for about five minutes. Then, it’s time for the first guest to choose the next, and the roles of interviewer and interviewee are shifted to this new pair.

Including a brief intermission, it takes less than two hours to process all eight guests, and after the “party” is officially over, there’s plenty of time to mix and mingle while the bar remains open.

A party guest responds to a question as host Wil Petre and other guests listen attentively. Photo: Marcus Middleton.

The setting for A Cocktail Party Social Experiment is comfortable and inviting, and the included cocktail that I received upon entering was delectable. Considering that the refill I purchased during intermission cost $16, the fact that one drink is included in the cover charge helps justify the $22 total ticket price.

The show was a little slow getting started, but there was already plenty of conversation taking place among the audience members, many of whom had attended the experience before.

Beyond what’s true for any performance, there are a lot of factors that can effect the success of this concept as this evening plays out. First and foremost, the chosen guests must be good at conversation: not only at answering questions, but at listening to the answers and posing follow-ups that really draw out the subject. There’s also the relevance of each starting question to the person who receives it, and the participant’s comfort level with being put on the spot before a live audience.

As a result, I enjoyed some of the conversations more than others, and considering I’d make the same statement about every real-life party I’ve attended, this only adds authenticity to the experience.

At intermission, my partner commented that they wish the cards and book were available for purchase, to replicate A Cocktail Party Game at home.

Although that’s not yet a reality, the host does solicit private bookings, and the social experiment returns to Chelsea Music Hall on February 17th, with a new set of party guests and a different specialty cocktail to make you feel welcome.

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Andrew Andrews attended A Cocktail Party Social Experiment at Chelsea Music Hall in New York on Monday, January 20, 2020 @ 7:00pm to write this review.

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