Down the stairs to Caveat, the underground bar and downtown performance space, Wil Petre is trying to make people open up. His event, Social Alchemix Live, has existed in various forms over the past several years, but now that COVID has eased up Petre wants people to meet back in person. He believes in following the scientific method; his question: What is the alchemy of a great party?
It’s impossible to understand the event without understanding the game Petre plays. A few years ago he and his husband, Chiaki Murata, created a game, also called Social Alchemix, intended as a card game for parties that can push past small talk and get strangers talking about things that are real. Each person picks two cards – one is an alchemical symbol, which were used to represent elements and concepts like death, fire, or mercury, the other is an object such as a waterfall or bed. Each combo correlates to a question such as: Have you ever been blindsided? How is sex important? How do you uphold traditions? Anyone can pose questions to the person answering, and each question is meant to spark a conversation among the group.
To start the evening Petre and his co-host, Victoria Finehout-Vigil, introduce the game, while using a projector that feels like it came straight out of your middle school classroom. Despite both hosts having experience in performing, this is not a performance but merely an invitation to start a conversation. They ask for volunteers from the audience (preferably people who have been to their events before and know how to play). With four volunteers on stage, Petre reminds people not to forget their drinks when they come up, he had described the game to me as “boozy voyeurism.” And the game begins.
Petre and Murata started working on their game in the 2010s. After a little encouragement Petre decided to shift the game into a live event utilizing his experience in immersive theater (“I did a ton of immersive theater in the early teens,” he says) and bartending. But the shift from card game to theater wasn’t a straight line. “We created the game, we had this prototype for years and years,” he says “and then before the pandemic, I decided to revisit the theater.”
Finehout-Vigil, also remembers threads of Petre’s idea coming out in a show they did together in the mid 2010s. They were performing in an immersive show together where Finehout-Vigil describes Petre as having a “sharing moment” with members of the audience. “He did this little cocktail one-on-one where he finds out a lot about you and then caters a cocktail for you,” she said. “I think that that kind of blew up in his head as this great way to get people to open up and to talk about things and in a way, that’s less contrived, and more more true.”
While working on the game at an artists’ retreat for the nonprofit Fresh Ground Pepper, which focuses on creating space for art and artists, Petre met Freddy Epstein, then Director of Operations at Chelsea Music Hall. Epstein encouraged Petre to make Social Alchemix a live event, back when Petre thought it would just be a card game. “I just kept pushing him a lot,” says Epstein “probably to the point of annoying him.” Epstein was also excited to bring the event to Chelsea Music Hall in October 2019. “I’m the type of person — I’m very entrepreneurial. So I’m always looking to help champion ideas that I think just need that little push.”
When the show initially opened three years ago it was known as Cocktail Party Social Experiment and it met with relative success. The official card game wasn’t even ready for sale yet; it was still a prototype. They were doing monthly shows at the Chelsea Music Hall with an ever growing audience. “We had like 90 people and I was like, ‘Oh, this there’s there is the hunger for this,’” says Petre. That was in February 2020.
When the world shut down Petre moved to Zoom for his event. By this time Finehout-Vigil had already left due to her busy schedule, plus Petre didn’t need a co-host when the event was online. Petre spent the next two years tweaking Social Alchemix and working on different projects. In the end of 2021 he decided to bring it back into the real world.
But creating a live event in person proved challenging. After the holidays there was a spike in COVID cases, made worse by the Omicron variant. Petre says he was supposed to do two shows in January, but both ended up being canceled.
Social Alchemix Live finally returned in February with shows in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. Though Petre would love for Social Alchemix to be ongoing, for now it is a limited run. But there will be another show at Caveat on May 16, and two events before that in Brooklyn: March 14 and April 18 at Three’s Brewing in Greenpoint. More information and tickets here: https://socialalchemix.com/live
Unlike other types of performance events Petre really wants to focus on the audience. “I don’t like to feel like someone is performing at me,” he says. He and Finehout-Vigil are there only as a conduit for audience members stories. “Wil is trying to honestly and truly hear about people’s lives and share that with everyone else in the room,” says Finehout-Vigil.
After the first group onstage all answers their questions there’s a small break. Then everyone is broken into groups. The night I went, 20 more people than expected showed up. We were in groups of 5-10, answering questions like What are your civic duties? Caveat ended the event at 9 p.m. to make way for another performance, but Petre had been surprised at his show a week before in Brooklyn where people stayed until 10 p.m. or later still talking. “The real experience begins when the show’s over, and everyone actually has a chance to like mingle,” says Epstein. “And now everyone in this room has something in common.”
Petre seems to be accomplishing his goal of providing a safe space to connect. “This game, and this show, sparks a curiosity that you didn’t realize that you could have about other people’s lives,” says Finehout-Vigil, “because it focuses on listening.” After two years locked away in our apartments, Social Alchemix Live might be exactly what people need.