Review: "A Cocktail Party Social Experiment" Highlights the Art in Conversation

A Cocktail Party Social Experiment

Created and Hosted by Wil Petre

Assisted by Lane Halperin and Clinton Edward

Sponsored by Barking Irons and presented at Chelsea Music Hall

407 W. 15th St., Manhattan, NYC

Upcoming dates: February 17, March 16, and April 13, 2020

For notification of future dates, sign up here

Photo by Karen May
Down a flight of stairs below street level, under the red lights and a languorously rotating disco ball and amid the gentle clink of ice on glass within Chelsea Music Hall, individuals incongruously clad in white lab coats collect volunteers for an experiment. Eventually, those running the experiment gather its subjects and explain their hypothesis and methodology. Shortly after, they take their first cocktail order.

A Cocktail Party Social Experiment, created and hosted by Wil Petre and co-hosted by Lane Halperin, aims to have a group of strangers get to know each other in a meaningful way (while the eight strangers who volunteer to participate directly are the focus, one can also see them as a subset of the strangers who make up the audience and even the staff). Petre's petri dish is "the living room," a stage bearing an overhead projector and a circle of mismatched chairs for Petre and the volunteers. The event proceeds as a party game consisting of one round per volunteer with an intermission midway through and a brief coda that invites a couple of closing questions and tasks the audience with continuing the experiment. In each round, one volunteer is the Guest of Honor, who chooses two cards the determine a question that he or she is asked to kick off the round. For the duration of the round, the Guest of Honor occupies the seat across from Petre and is the center of any follow-up questioning. At the end of a round, the Guest of Honor chooses who takes his or her place, asks the initiating question determined by that person's chosen cards, and serves as the primary respondent. The resulting exchange is something approaching improvised theater by way of performance art, although not strictly either of these, however much any of those distinctions matter. What does matter is that A Cocktail Party is a flavorful mix of fun and fascinating.
Photo by Karen May
After the volunteers introduced themselves and named their favorite cocktails, the discussion dove right from the start into deep, often intimately personal waters. To a quiet background of smooth jazz, questions that ranged from "If you could know anything about your future, what would you want to know?" and "For what in your life do you feel most grateful?" to the extremely open "Was it luck?" led to conversations about death, family, religion, mental health, and more. Petre is a skilled facilitator, ably drawing out and prompting his conversational partners in intriguing directions (like we say in academia, everything starts with asking good questions). Although there is, as noted, a single primary questioner for each Guest of Honor, with Petre taking that role in the first round, it was interesting to observe that after intermission, other volunteers increasingly jumped in to the colloquy. The participants also began to make some connections between different parts of the discussions as the event went on. The Experiment clearly demonstrated that people who might never think of themselves as such can be unexpectedly good storytellers and engrossing interview subjects, and the glimpses of their unique paths in life were quite compelling.

Beyond the content of the exchanges themselves, it is also interesting to consider the workings of the event itself. The program, for instance, describes a cocktail as something that "transcends its base ingredients to become something new and exciting" and a successful cocktail party in terms of an alchemical mixture. However, in both cases, especially in the former, the ingredients are carefully chosen beforehand, while there is an element of randomness in the Experiment. The mix of persons on stage is not truly random but, more accurately, self-selected: a subset of people who thought this sounded interesting, could afford tickets and so on, and then were comfortable opening up into microphones in front of a room full of strangers. One wonders what impact those various winnowings have on the final mixture, even if, for example, the majority of volunteers being male (five men to three women on the night when we attended) is typical [ETA: the hosts have told us that it is not], and if so, if that typicality is the result of socialization. Similarly, how would this event change (or not) in different locales? Seeing some of the volunteers clearly bonding during the intermission was interesting in itself, but it also leads one to contemplate things such as how a single comment could start an entire friendship and to think about that phenomenon in one's own life.
Photo by Karen May
There was a contingent of repeat patrons on the night we attended—every Experiment will be unique, after all—and we could certainly see ourselves joining their number. Tickets for A Cocktail Party Social Experiment are $20 and include a ticket for one free drink. Attendees can volunteer to be on stage, participate by answering a question on a slip of paper left on the seats, or simply observe (whichever you choose, all phones get turned off once the Experiment begins, for an "analog" experience). Doors open at 6 pm, with the show beginning at 7 pm, and anyone who wants to volunteer to be chosen to be on stage should arrive no later than 6:40 pm. Everyone on stage has a microphone, so there are no bad seats, and there are drink specials with recipes by local distilleries and A Cocktail Party Social Experiment—we can personally recommend one by the latter involving gin and cucumber. A Cocktail Party Social Experiment is also raising funds to produce the game for sale, and audience members have the opportunity to support that goal by buying merchandise following the show. A Cocktail Party Social Experiment offers all of the rewards of a great conversation with none of the work. Plus booze. What's not to like?

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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