Invitation to escape isolation With some creativity, a bit of planning and brilliant tech, an online party is the cure for the COVID-19 blues

Sharing a meal is a huge part of the human experience, one that many of us — especially those of us who live alone — are missing now that Manitobans are a month into the isolating reality of physical distancing.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/04/2020 (1080 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sharing a meal is a huge part of the human experience, one that many of us — especially those of us who live alone — are missing now that Manitobans are a month into the isolating reality of physical distancing.

And with no clear end to the pandemic in sight, it’s time for those of us who hate dining alone to take matters into our own hands.

It is time to plan a virtual dinner party.

But where to begin? There’s no Emily Post of pandemic-forced virtual dinner parties to consult, no standards to adhere to. These are unchartered waters where the only rule is there are no rules. But that’s a big part of the fun.

So with any sort of social gatherings shifting to online platforms for the foreseeable future, here’s a handy guide for beginners based on lessons learned from an only mildly traumatic first-hand experience as a host.

Pick a platform

There are multiple platforms to choose from, and it can be difficult to know which is best, depending on the size of your guest list and your ultimate party goal.

There’s Google Hangouts, which can host up to 10 people and is available on your phone or computer; FaceTime, which can handle 32 devices but is limited to Apple users only; the reliable Skype, which can host up to 50 people and the hot newcomer Zoom, which can host up to 100 people.

After testing them all, I ultimately decided to use Zoom for my attempt. Even though the platform has security issues, it has one incredible option that the others don’t: the capacity to create multiple rooms.

With an upgraded account, you can create an entire virtual house for your guests to wander through, so when two friends start getting a little too cosy, you can suggest they take the conversation to another room.

It’s absolutely brilliant. With constant technology upgrades — there’s almost no limit to what you can create if you have a green screen — it’s by far the best choice to support virtual-party creativity.


Curate your guest list

The social dynamic of a virtual dinner party is unpredictable and it can be difficult to read the room and keep the conversation flowing. That’s your job as host, but you can make things easier with a well-conceived group of guests.

One lesson I learned is that the type of person who is normally the life of an in-person party can easily overwhelm a virtual gathering, where taking turns in conversation becomes a priority.

It’s useful to take stock of the personalities of each potential invitee to reach some balance in your mind before finalizing the list. Who’s a good listener? Who asks a lot of questions? Who tends to ramble about their problems non-stop? Who cries too much?

Fundamentally, creating the guest list meant a deep dive into what I value in my relationships. My baseline question was this: who is going to make me laugh the most?

The answer, naturally, was unemployed actors.


The invitations

Director Felix Barret of London’s experimental theatre company Punchdrunk once told me that a play begins as soon as the invitation to attend is sent out.

I have adopted this attitude every time I host, as well. The party begins with the invitation, and the invitation needs to be great.

It should be inspiring and exciting. I want people to feel happy, curious and full of anticipation.

For my party, I used some blank cards from the now-closed Tiny Feast store in the Exchange. Each card contained a handwritten invitation, a link to detailed instructions on how to access the platform and the general theme.

And a dress code. Pandemic “fashion” is (very) casual: sweatpants, face masks and oily hair. That’s great (I love all the money I’m saving not having to buy makeup), but a dinner party is a celebration and calls for guests to come dressed to impress.

The theme of my party was Seven Deadly Sins, with a dress code note simply saying “wear your sins on your sleeve.” I like to use evocative phrases for themes and dress codes rather than specifics, which encourages people to get creative.


The menu

Planning a virtual menu is much the same as doing it for a regular dinner party, with one catch: whatever you plan, everyone needs to access it.

One creative way of doing this is sending a menu to everyone and cooking it together in real time. If you and your friends are capable in the kitchen, this could be a lot of fun.

As someone with a set of cooking skills that is limited exclusively to toasting and microwaving, I opted for easy: order everyone a pizza and bottle of wine and have it delivered right to their doors.


Hosting the party

You’ve curated a guest list, planned the menu and done a technical run-through. Your makeup is on fire, your hair has never looked better and your outfit incorporates all seven deadly sins in a way that surely deserves an award. You are ready to host your virtual dinner party.

What I learned from my first attempt was that — much like a real party, the hard work is truly the preparation. If you’re been thoughtful and diligent about the planning, things will unfold effortlessly.

All you have to do is sit back, relax and enjoy sharing a meal with your friends.

Twitter: @franceskoncan

Frances Koncan

Frances Koncan
Arts reporter

Frances Koncan (she/her) is a writer, theatre director, and failed musician of mixed Anishinaabe and Slovene descent. Originally from Couchiching First Nation, she is now based in Treaty 1 Territory right here in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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