“A Cocktail Party Social Experiment” is a new NYC-based immersive show by performer and cocktail guru Wil Petre. “A Cocktail Party Social Experiment” is an unconventional hybrid of immersive theater, story slam, and boozy voyeurism, that asks the question: Is it possible to have a meaningful conversation with a perfect stranger in our fast-paced, increasingly lonely world?
The project was developed over the past two years in tandem with “A Cocktail Party Game,” an actual game employing a deck of symbolic cards, containing a selection of drink recipes as well as conversation prompts, such as: “When was your moral compass off?” or: “What happens next?” The guests of this show are asked to turn off their cell phones for the duration of the event; some can just watch and listen – while eight volunteers skip the small talk, and get into the good stuff.
Creator Wil Petre recently discussed the show via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the theater and why do you gravitate towards multidisciplinary works?
Wil Petre (WP): After about a decade of being in the downtown theater scene, and feeling the limitations that came along with that, I began to find immersive theater as a structural reset button. And it was in the liminal spaces between performer and audience that I began to see many possibilities that excited me more than what conventional theater had offered. After being cast in my first long-contract large-scale immersive show “Queen of the Night,” I bumped into the general manager of a restaurant at which I had worked on and off for several years. She asked me if I wanted to come back and work one night a week, the only night I wasn’t at the show. I didn’t need the extra money, but I did miss the camaraderie of the restaurant family. And it was going back to work in that restaurant that I realized the many similarities theater and hospitality share, and the intimacy that can occur over food and beverage can easily lend itself in a theatricalized space. When I was finally ready to take the plunge to become the lead artist on my own projects, it seemed quite natural to draw from all the things that had taken up my time and brainspace for the past 10+ years.
MM: What experiences do you draw most of your inspiration from and how does your experience as a bartender inform your work?
WP: I am inspired by the transformation of simple ingredients when mixed with others. A cocktail is an easy example. When pulled off well, a cocktail transcends its base ingredients to become something better. But to expand that, I would often go to a bar or restaurant – or theater or comedy show or story slam or whatever – and think, “How much better would this experience be if they only thought of this…?” Most experiences are very comfortable in the classification of their own category. So, most comedy shows don’t think of all the theatrical possibilities that come with a stage. A theater piece doesn’t often have someone thinking about how amazing the cocktails could pair with what the audience is seeing. There is rarely humor in a restaurant, but aren’t we celebrating the tiny luxury of not having to cook for ourselves? So why are jokes often absent from this celebration? To seriously consider all of the possible elements that can fit inside a single experience requires from its creator a complete lack of ego, as one would have to rely upon a wide array of people with a diverse set of skills. I suppose this is a long-winded way to say I am inspired when this doesn’t happen. And my brain goes off thinking of all the ways how an experience can be better. What a New Yorker answer, huh?
MM: How did you come up with the concept for “A Cocktail Party Experiment?”
WP: I developed the card game A Cocktail Party Game throughout 2017-2018 as a resident in Fresh Ground Pepper’s Playgroup. We would meet once a month to present where we were in the development of our projects. At one of these meetings in the final part of the residency, after the rest of the other participants knew the basic principles of the game, I invited six strangers to play it so that I could figure out what in the gameplay needed tweaking, and the other artists of the residency watched. After the six guests left, all the other artists could talk about was the theatricality of what they experienced, even though my intention was for them to see the technical elements of the game. That stuck with me. Later in 2018, I launched a Kickstarter to raise the funds to mass-produce the game and I came up short. Over the course of the campaign, I found it difficult to convey the subtle power the game has. It’s deceptively simple. There are two decks of cards, one of everyday objects, and one of alchemical symbols of metals and heavenly principles. The combination of these cards unlocks a question and a cocktail recipe that someone else playing the game would make you. The experience of turning off cellphones and playing this game allows for profound connections between game players, but I had a hard time translating that to a large group of people who had never played it. When scratching my head about the next steps, I went back to that one meeting and decided to go a bit further down that accidental path towards something that could be put on a stage.
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?
WP: My favorite part of the evening is when audiences stay afterward and talk to each other. The social experiment, in a way, is leading to forming a real connection, and it is very satisfying.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
WP: Permission to talk. The reminder to listen. The notion that when trying to relate to someone else’s story we often utilize our own experiences and talk about them to connect, but that really isn’t the best way to go about it. We all make snap judgments about people. Hopefully, as the game progresses, as we truly take someone in, we get a more fleshed out impression. And anyone can listen to anyone else talk for a few minutes.
MM: A game kickstarted this concept, so where are you going with that? Have you approached any toy/game companies about producing the card game version yet?
WP: No, we’d like to produce it ourselves one day. Hopefully, this show creates a built-in audience for people who would like to buy the game. If the show is successful, we’ll use whatever money we raise to put towards the first order. We are beginning to produce some more affordable merch, and the proceeds of that will also go towards funding the game.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
WP: I’d like to continue to perform, perhaps host, maybe work in television three days a week and spend the rest of my time in a cabin in the woods.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and what topics would you like to address artistically in the future?
WP: We are continuing our collaboration with Chelsea Music Hall, but we’d also like to tour “A Cocktail Party Social Experiment” around! It’s a very portable experience, so if we can make it work, we’d love to take it on the road.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
WP: Vote. Say please and thank you. And always treat those in customer service with respect and gratitude.
The show is playing at Chelsea Music Hall (407 W15th St, New York, NY 10011) on Monday nights: December 16th, 2019, January 20, and February 17, 2020. Tickets are $15 (Dec 16) and $20 (Jan-Feb shows; price includes one complimentary cocktail.) Doors open at 6pm; show at 7pm. A bar on the premises opens an hour before the show and serves drinks throughout the performance. For more info and tickets, visit www.acocktailpartygame.com.