- Before the evening, personally ask 2 or 3 or 4 people if they would like to make a contribution. Knowing that there will at least be a few offerings can ease your own nerves, and provide a bit of substance which others can spontaneously (or otherwise) build upon.
- You probably want people to tell you beforehand what they will do, but it'd be good if people could be able to just pitch into the flow if they wanted to, or had brought something at the last minute.
- Plan a start and a finish to the night. Make the 'open contribution space/time' clear.
- If there is a loose time of general mingling at the start, then maybe you can figure a way to indicate this to those people who are new or easily frightened. For instance, project something on the wall that occasionally contains a message that indicates that this is free time - to meet people, eat, drink, wander around the space, whatever. And that more focussed proceedings will begin soon...
- Whack the theme up somewhere, somehow.
- Put stuff around the place that relates to the theme, for example bits of paper on the tables that people can read (prepared photocopied stuff - out of a book, or a few words that someone has written, or a cartoon...). This can help the solo and shy people to find a place in the flow - read something, get oriented. Put bits of blank paper, and crayons/pens on the tables too...
- Trinkets. I love these. Find someone who likes to make little bits and pieces, and ask them to make some little 'take home' thingys which could be scattered around on the tables. I've seen lots of different things made and enjoyed...
Food & beverage
- I'm assuming the cafe stuff is self-serve. Make it easy. Set up an easily accessible table/place, where people can get their own mugs, serve themselves boiling water for tea, and a selection of tea bags, or some brewed dripfilter coffee (or the like). It can be good to put the milk and sugar and tea spoons out in a couple of places (this part of the process can be a bottle-neck!). Sugars can go on the tables, if you like.
- Put out glasses and bottles of water on a different table (to avoid crowding).
- Get some cheap bread and pile up some pieces. A bit of something to chew is a good comfort. Others might also bring an eatable thing - leave some room for this stuff to go on a communal table.
- Appoint a couple of volunteers to keep an eye on the consumables and coffees - people who can act as food hosts - topping things up and making fresh coffee.
- If you are offering espresso, good on you and good luck! I hope your barrista is fast, and has good help. Waiting can be a drag.
Finish the set-up half an hour before you expect the first people to arrive. Then kick back and enjoy yourselves. I reckon that you and your mates should be modelling the sort of vibe and activities that you are hoping for the night...so when people start arriving they have someone to be with and some way to join in.
If you are reclining at table, sipping your favourite beverage, nibbling on bits, doodling your dreams, and laughing with some friends, with the candles up and the music down (or vice versa) when people start arriving then at least you'll have a good time of the night, and others may fall into the vibe too.