Do You Cocktail? A New Party Game Emerges in Chelsea

Photo by Marcus Middleton

Chelsea Music Hall, tucked into the southeast corner of the building that contains the Chelsea Market, has that downstairs-secret-club feeling. While visiting recently for A Cocktail Party Social Experiment, a hybrid concoction of immersive theater, story slam, and boozy voyeurism conceived and hosted by the impeccable Wil Petre, I found myself a stool seat at the bar near the “stage,” which was comprised of eight chairs in a circle, each with a microphone, and an old-school projector next to a larger chair which presumably would belong to the host.

Each ticket ($15) comes with a complimentary drink ticket, which you can exchange at the bar for whatever signature cocktail they’re serving for the night. I don’t remember the name of mine, but it had vodka and elderberry in it (I think?). For a venue that charges sometimes more than $15 just for a cocktail, the ticket price + drink seems like a bargain.

The room filled up, mostly with people who appeared to be in their thirties and early forties. Several co-hosts in white lab coats wandered the perimeter, signing up audience members who would like the option of appearing in one of those eight chairs as one of the featured guests. The option is entirely up to you — I abstained, preferring the role of voyeur for this particular evening, but if I go again, I will probably put my name in the hat. There is a random selection process that determines which eight will participate, they take their seats, and off we go.

The game is deceptively simple. Cards are shuffled and drawn, determining which question the featured guest will field. A book provides the questions. A timer provides a time frame. The question is asked, and the guest will have around five minutes to respond, after which the other seven guests may ask a question or two before moving on to the next person. It’s less an interview and more a listening circle — if you are comfortable talking in front of a group, you’ll be just fine at it (just remember to talk into the microphone).

I won’t give any of the questions away, since I’m guessing they would eventually repeat themselves if you went to multiple events, but they are Big Life Questions, the kind that elicit a long pause and then a muttered, “…oh wow” before the person is able to collect themselves in order to issue a response. There was one moment of near-tears the night I observed. It’s close to what I assume a group therapy session might feel and sound like, but without any obvious target to hit (i.e., one assumes therapy is for working through something — this felt more indirect). Oh, and while you’re talking, you get a free cocktail of your choice. The timing of the delivery of this cocktail delivered multiple laughs throughout the night. The therapeutic vibe is also offset by the setting (lounge/club) and a soundtrack that plays in the background that makes it a little more cinematic or podcast-like.

The night I attended, a friend of mine (David McGee) was one of the chosen eight. David expertly fielded a question that dealt with work life, and I reached out afterwards to find out what it was like, being up there with the timer going.

McGee responded, “I think there’s something pretty extraordinary about making space to really listen. It felt exciting to be asked an unexpected question, and to have to speak extemporaneously on whatever topic came up, and I got an interesting question about something I’d been thinking about A LOT recently. But I think for me the real magic of the Cocktail Party Social Experiment, even as a participant, was in the other 7/8ths of the time. Here were seven fascinating people getting posed unexpected, deep questions, and hearing how they all processed those questions was fairly riveting. 

It’s just a really great reminder that waiting to talk is not the same thing as really listening, and that when you make space for listening, and ask interesting questions, what results feels like a celebration of each other, of community, even as it may swing between light topics and heavy ones. Also I wish more cocktail parties were like this. I want to know what people think about The Big Stuff.”

Wil Petre, the creator, has been all over the downtown theater scene for years in addition to long-time involvement in both the storytelling community as well as with the immersive theater makers. This project feels like an an attempt to fuse all that experience into a one-night-event (repeatable, but also entirely unique each time it is repeated). I checked in with him and asked him to recount his favorite cocktail party moment.

“The magical cocktail party has happened for minutes at a time,” Petre responded. “The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve appreciated these minutes, but they also seem increasingly rare.  Maybe being an X-ennial I remember a time before cellphones inserted themselves into every social situation, but I was also too young during those times to appreciate a good Sidecar or Boulevardier.  I am wrestling with a few things with this piece/game, which is a return to a less distracted period of time, and to get everyone onboard, if even for a few moments, with the idea that the best thing you can be doing, is partaking in genuine meaningful conversation with the people you’re in the room with, and no app, text message, or work email can compete for your attention.  We don’t have a uniform social contract anymore, not that I’m advocating for that, but with the piece, my house/my rules.  I see this piece as a beginning of a night.  Both times we’ve put it on the audience lingers and lingers afterwards.  I am hoping this piece gives permission for these moments to bleed into the rest of the guests’ evenings, and it seems like that’s been happening.”

The next A Cocktail Party Social Experiment is on December 16th at Chelsea Music Hall. Tickets are available here.

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