The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an interesting social paradox: even as online platforms have helped us maintain valuable interactions in a time of physical isolation, they have also highlighted our inherent need for, and struggle with, deeper connection–and the added difficulties of building such intimacy from behind a screen. With his interactive virtual show Social Alchemix (Live!), performer, storyteller, and game designer Wil Petre greets these challenges with playful experimentation, blending people, ideas, and mediums in a unique online experience.

Social Alchemix (Live!) is an offshoot of Petre’s pre-pandemic live show A Cocktail Party Social Experiment, and operates on a similar premise, inviting small audiences for an evening of drinks and facilitated connection games. Swapping the original bar setting for our own mood-lit spaces and homemade cocktails, Petre and co-host Lane Halpern gather participants via Zoom and quickly introduce us to each other and the event’s premise: from ancient alchemists to modern-day mixologists, creators across time have realized the potential of blending separate elements to produce something special and greater than the sum of its parts. In search of a comparable interpersonal alchemy, Social Alchemix (Live!) uses Petre’s eponymous original card game to guide the experience and explore this concept. 

Screenshot of Social Alchemix (Live!). Photo courtesy of Emily Cordes.

In the style of such analog party games as Cards Against Humanity, audience volunteers pull cards from Petre’s digital deck, each containing an alchemical symbol or everyday object, the combination of which determines the five-minute conversational topic to follow. Equally broad-based and conducive to deeper exploration, the game’s prompts can run the gamut from such questions as “what rule is meant to be broken?” to “what is the road you didn’t take?” After each card-puller gives their answer, Petre and Halpern allow other audience members to ask follow-up questions during the remaining time. Open-ended prompts give way to more personal disclosures: a young artist and mother addresses the challenges of navigating career, principles, and intergenerational trauma; an intersex man ponders his reconfigured identity since starting hormone therapy and seeking out others like him. Participants of various backgrounds speak to the importance of self-advocacy in life, work, and dating, and consider the advice they’d give their younger selves. Though the subject matter can run deep, Petre and Halpern’s brisk pace and casual atmosphere keep these “interviews” from feeling heavy or interrogative, offering just enough of a glimpse into others’ lives to keep us stimulated and eager to learn more. While the performance I attended offered an interesting range of individual experiences, the crowd skewed heavily toward white, progressive, female-identifying 30-to-40-somethings with arts backgrounds; I’d love to see what a greater variety of genders, cultures, careers, and ages could add to the mix.

Following the 75-minute performance, Petre and Halpern invite us to the show’s “Alchemy Bar” after-party, hosted on the spatial-focused app Gather. Mimicking an in-person social experience, Gather embeds Zoom-like video chat features in a virtual “bar” space, in which participants can form smaller chat groups or interact one-on-one by moving digital avatars closer to one another. Though the platform’s aesthetic evokes the pixelated video games of yesteryear, it’s fairly user-friendly and captures the essence of naturally forming smaller conversational clusters at a real-world gathering. As such, participants can linger to speak at more length about the show’s topics, allowing us to ask each other further questions or speak more candidly without the pressure of addressing an entire Zoom room. These opportunities allow us to connect even more deeply with both our fellow attendees and the themes we’ve just absorbed; for example, one such discussion of healthcare bias and the disturbing double-standards of COVID treatment within communities of color highlighted the importance of self-advocacy as a literal matter of life and death.

Its live-show origins notwithstanding, Social Alchemix (Live!) rarely feels substitutional or contrived; Petre’s charismatic hosting and the game’s simple-but-resonant concept create an experience as approachable as it is substantial. If the potency of any mixed concoction, social endeavor, or work of art can be judged by its ability to transcend its basic elements, then Petre’s alchemical experiment stands as such a success. And fortunately, with weekly shows and the card game’s Kickstarter release in store for 2021, viewers will have ample online and in-person opportunities to test this concept.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.