The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue
Theater

Listen and Reveal: Social Alchemix Invites Participants to Burst Their Pandemic Bubbles

<em>Social Alchemix</em>. Courtesy Kamila Slawinski PR. Photo: Karen May.
Social Alchemix. Courtesy Kamila Slawinski PR. Photo: Karen May.

I found myself, to my own great surprise, telling my coming out story to a group of total strangers.

I was at Social Alchemix, an interactive party game experience, which on this night was at the speakeasy Caveat in the Lower East Side. My audience had been split into smaller groups to get to know one another. Cards from the game were provided as conversation prompts.

My prompt was far from specific. The card simply read: “What information would have been helpful earlier?”

My mind went immediately to my coming out, which came relatively late in life at the age of twenty-five. Certainly, that is information which could have come in handy earlier. (Of course, I knew in certain ways, blah blah—but you get the idea.) Normally my thought process would have then taken me to a more impersonal option, with that revealing first thought quickly tucked away.

Instead, I just started talking. It was not very cogent. A mess of reflections on why it took the time that it did, how I grew comfortable saying it out loud, how my life changed as a result. I tried to sound casual, but a couple of skips in my throat revealed the emotions behind the words. I kept thinking to myself: “God, am I really doing this?”

Two beers had definitely helped. But it was also a testament to the strange allure of Social Alchemix, a game created and hosted by Wil Petre that could briefly be described as a kinder (and less problematic) version of Cards Against Humanity. Cards With Humanity, if you will.

My story was exactly the kind of moment Petre hoped his game, which traveled a long and circuitous journey to its current form, would inspire.

The impetus for Social Alchemix stems all the way back to 2014, when Petre was a cast member in the dinner theater experience Queen of the Night. Among the first immersive pieces to hit New York following the success of Sleep No More, Night added circus elements and copious food and drink. Petre was hired to perform a one-on-one cocktail experience. He would pull random audience members into a private room, make a unique cocktail just for them, and ask for an intimate secret in return.

After leaving the show, Petre tried to build on this idea. First, he created a “Bar For One” experience which could be rented for parties or galas. Trying to shift away from a transactional arrangement, he introduced early versions of the cards as prompts. His first attempt to turn the idea into a purchasable card game was a Kickstarter campaign, which failed to reach its goal.

Then in 2019, Petre ran into a friend who worked as the booking agent at Chelsea Music Hall. He offered Petre a Monday night slot to try something out. That something became A Cocktail Party Social Experiment, which placed eight participants on stage to answer questions pulled from the game’s “deck.” In this iteration, the rest of the audience listened and asked occasional questions, but did not take part.

“As much as people may think it’s a talking game, I think of it as more of a listening game,” said Petre. “That’s me at a party—I like to ask more questions, rather than talk about myself. So how do you encourage more of that?”

Still, he was open to changes. And audience members who observed this intimate exchange but didn’t get to join in were leaving feeling a bit short-changed.

<em>Social Alchemix</em>. Courtesy Kamila Slawinski PR. Photo: Karen May.
Social Alchemix. Courtesy Kamila Slawinski PR. Photo: Karen May.

“[Their] sense of connection did not include me as an audience member,” wrote Cheyenne Ligon in a review of this iteration for No Proscenium. “Though certainly there were people there who preferred to be voyeurs, my guess is that the majority of audience members would have preferred to play the game.”

So Petre changed things up again. The Music Hall version of the show became only its first section. A few participants take the stage, answer questions, and model how to play the game. Then comes section two: the audience is split into small groups and plays for themselves. With the latest changes also came a new title: Social Alchemix.

Petre hopes that by demonstrating how the game is intended to be played in this first section, the focus on truly listening to others won’t be lost, even now that everyone is playing.

“I know that ‘everyone can play’ can get translated to ‘everyone gets their turn to talk’— and that's great, everyone wants their story to be shared,” said Petre. “But something I’m very interested in is, how do we get people excited to hear other people's stories? To lean into their curiosity, and ask follow-up questions of other people?”

The card game itself, currently available in sixteen retail stores and online, is elegantly designed by Chiaki Murata. The questions are a mix of the cerebral and the emotional, ranging from, “What mystery is still unsolved?” to “Who is gone but not forgotten?”

The latter question prompted one recent participant to speak openly about the loss of her mother, who happened to have passed exactly one year earlier. Surprised by her own honesty, just as I was, she apologized as she became emotional. Players on either side held her hand as she spoke.

Though thrilled by my own recollection of unexpected honesty, Petre stresses that such intense intimacy, while often rewarding, is not required.

“Not everything has to be so emotionally deep for the event to be satisfying,” he said. “But the idea that everyone is carrying different anniversaries, and we just have no idea, is something that keeps coming back.”

After I had shared, my group listened kindly to my answer, at first slightly surprised, but quickly adjusting and leaning in. Not every question was ideal (“Were people surprised, or did they already know?”), but most were sensitive. It felt awkward but healthy, a retraining of muscles that desperately needed the work. Then the timer ran out, and onto the next card.

    Social Alchemix returns to Caveat on May 16, then heads to Threes at Franklin + Kent in Brooklyn on May 23. Tickets and more information on the game at https://socialalchemix.com/.

Contributor

Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at TheaterMania, Exeunt NYC, and Extended Play. He is an alumnus of the National Critics Institute and runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues