Nothing says 'Saturday night' quite like sitting in silence with a bunch of strangers, amirite? Yet, for 200 Sydney-siders -- myself included -- this is exactly what took place last weekend at Sydney Fringe Festival's keynote closing event: The Silent Dinner Party.
For those new to the concept -- the rules are simple. You rock up, you sit down, you eat three courses, and you don't talk the entire time. Oh, and you're also not allowed to read, write or engage with technology for a minimum of two hours. (Yes, it's meant to be fun.)
Conceived by Honi Ryan in 2006 as an international performance art project, the event aims to give attendees 'relief from the noise -- the gadgets and the chit chat.'
The idea is that by eliminating the things we normally rely on to communicate -- talking, writing, reading, texting... -- we are forced to connect in new ways. And without the safety net of technology to fall back on, there's no option to scroll through your Facebook feed to pass the time.
The concept intrigued me for many reasons, but most of all -- WHY? Isn't the whole point of a dinner party to eat, drink and talk? Why would I actually pay real money to sit in a room with my fiancée and then not talk to him? We have our entire marriage to do that.
And what about the other people? As in, if two people sit next to each other for an entire dinner but are limited to wiggling their eyebrows as a form of introduction -- have they even really actually met? Will they be normal or am I going to be stuck in some kind of hippy dippy silent cult for a couple of hours where people just stare deep into each other's eyes?
The whole thing just seemed weird. So, of course, in the name of investigative journalism (and free food) I went along.
And how did it go?
Well... bizarrely... it wasn't as strange as I thought.
Of course, there were 'unique' moments. For instance, once you were seated, you had to eat a single sultana off a spoon. I don't think I will ever know what that was about.
Also, before entering, a team of silent organisers covered all the labels on wine bottle with paper. Whether this was to adhere to the 'no reading' rule or to prevent judgement from lurking wine snobs, I don't know.
Instead of clapping, you were encouraged to wiggle your hands in the air, which actually gets less silly the more label-less wine you consume. By the end of the night everyone was like: "Look at me I'm going to put my dessert spoon on my nose" and the rest of the table was all "silent lol wiggle wiggle silent clap."
But perhaps most bizarrely, despite the lack of conversation, I got quite attached to my little group of silent diners. When a host -- who routinely wanders around the room interacting with attendees, distributing funny masks and whatnot -- uprooted me from my table to a new group of people, I was oddly peeved. It was like: "Hey, I just gestured wildly at those people for the past hour! You can't tear us apart now!"
(Luckily I was allowed to return, and was greeted with much hand wiggling. Silent dinner BFFs for life).
In all seriousness though -- what the night really seemed to be about, to me, was people wanting a new experience. The couple seated to our right were on their first date (this was communicated through very imaginative mime, before she gave up and just mouthed it to me -- don't know if this is breaking the rules or not, but hey) and were totally cute as they struggled to earnestly communicate using basic sign language.
The girls on our left reminded me of that high school situation where it's inappropriate to laugh but you really want to. Pretty much the whole time they spent stifling giggles. I reckon if you asked them afterwards, they would say they had a good time.
And, surprisingly, so did I. Sure, it's not something I would do every Saturday night -- or even again, if I'm honest -- but there was something about this one-off adventure that felt very silly, very different and yet not that weird at all.
It may have been a silent night, but it certainly wasn't a boring one.