Can a group of strangers cut through the small talk and shallow rejoinders and instead delve immediately and deeply into vulnerable conversation? That is the experiment proposed by A Cocktail Party Social Experiment (with Distance) and its creator Wil Petre. This originated as a live experiment, in which a group of strangers and guests gathered to participate in a blend of party game, storytelling, and observation at Chelsea Music Hall. The live event ran until May 2020 when the world changed, and A Cocktail Party decided to change with it. The gathering uses a real party game book in order to formulate questions that the Guest of the Hour answers based on their own personal experiences. The audience can ask questions that the Guest’s answer prompts, but the focus must remain on the person. This is not the time to put forth your own answer or experience – that can come later. For the digital version, guests are given a zoom link, asked to dress up, and have a cocktail of their choice on hand (though an alcoholic drink is, of course, not required).
I was certainly hesitant entering into this experiment. So much of the experience is dependent upon the chemistry of the group, how willing everyone is to be vulnerable, and honestly how annoying or not it is to listen rather than speak or hear opinions you do not agree with or are bored by. The benefit of the five-minute time limit per Guest of Honor means that topics and speakers do move quickly, in case the subject was triggering for you. I was fortunate in that my group was extremely open, engaging, and accepting. Opinions might have differed, but everyone respected the rules of the game and were encouraging to the answers given. Zoom etiquette and technology runs the risk of disrupting the flow of conversation and yet this experiment had people letting everyone have a chance to speak and yet still not falling into awkward silences. I will not give too much away about what was discussed, as I came away from the night feeling there was a sacred bond of consent, and what was said in the Cocktail Party stays in the Cocktail Party. But I will put out there that it was an engaging and thought-provoking experience which allowed different perspectives and ideas be broached in an intelligent but fun and boozy atmosphere. And make sure you stay for the After Party, when the rules of the game get relaxed and the conversation really begins to flow.