Humans of St. Thomas introduces us to some of the incredible members of the St. Thomas community. Read about more of our fellow Tommies here.What started as a visit to the TED conference in Vancouver with the Playful Learning Lab changed Patrick Roche’s life: David Kwong, a magician and crossword puzzle creator for The New York Times, asked him to be his magician assistant.
After Roche helped Kwong at the conference’s trivia show, he offered him the position. “I thought it was a joke. I just thought he was being polite and complimenting me.” To Roche’s surprise, it was a real offer.
The perfect combination of chance and “incredibly lucky networking” worked in Roche’s favor because he was able to assist David Kwong in New York City during his show, “The Enigmatist.”
“It’s really gratifying to know that I wasn’t viewed as just a worker. My creative contributions to the show were also appreciated and implemented. I would occasionally get calls asking for my opinion and consultation even after I was done working on the show.”
An electrical engineering student from Woodbury, Roche always had an interest in engineering, as well as magic.
“For some people that get into magic, they had some sort of life-changing experience where they saw a magician when they were really young and they were immediately hooked and wanted to learn more about it. My intro is much more nerdy. I grew up reading the Harry Potter books and watching the movies, and I wanted to be Harry Potter, so I found the closest thing to magic that I could.”
I sat down with Patrick Roche to hear more about his involvement on campus, as well as his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in New York City.
You’re a part of the Playful Learning Lab. What do you do?
Overall, we are an engineering education lab focused on providing STEAM-based content for anyone who identifies as a learner, regardless of their age. My main role in that has been on a project called ‘Circus Science,’ which is creating dynamic e-textiles for circus performers. It basically means I get to make cool light-up costumes for trapeze artists. That’s been my focal area, although we had a project wrap up a couple of months ago called ‘Art in Space’ that I ended up being heavily involved in as the electrical engineer.
The Art in Space project stemmed from another project called ‘OK Go Sandbox’ where we work with the band OK Go’s music videos and provide educational resources for teachers. We learned a lot of teachers use their videos in the classroom but then they are on their own to try to figure out what standards they are meeting with the content. We’re helping by going through and figuring out lesson plans and guides for the videos so that educators can more easily use the videos in their teaching.
If we can give them the stuff to easily plug into their busy-enough plans, then we’d like to make it easier. The Art in Space project was inspired by a specific video called ‘Upside Down and Inside Out’ where the band flew in a gutted airplane, kind of like what NASA does to train their astronauts, flying parabolas to simulate microgravity. They decided it was cool to do art in simulated microgravity, so they opened this contest internationally for students to submit art projects. The catch was that it had to be something that can only be done in microgravity and cannot be done on Earth. I was one of the engineers that got to build the winning designs, so the kids just submitted the ideas and it was on us to figure out how to make their designs a reality. It was cool to see how far it reached.
How did you become David Kwong’s magician assistant?
For my Circus Science research last year, my lab director, AnnMarie Thomas, ran a workshop based on my research and I was able to go assist with the presentation of my prototypes. That was at the TED conference in Vancouver in April 2019. The magician I ended up working for was running a trivia night at the conference, and AnnMarie brought us to it. I wasn’t technically supposed to be at the trivia event because I wasn’t a full attendee, so in order to get in AnnMarie pulled some strings and was able to get me in on the condition that I help with the event. I expected to help hand out cards or something in the beginning of the trivia contest, but I ended up on stage helping David run the entire thing as scorekeepers. It was a lot less subtle than I expected.
AnnMarie texted me in the middle and said, ‘You are not allowed to leave until you perform at least a couple of tricks for him,’ so I ended up performing for him after the contest was over. I wouldn’t learn this until I saw the show myself, but one of the tricks that I performed for him was a trick that he does in his professional show in New York! I actually got the job offer 20 minutes later as we were walking out. He sent AnnMarie a text something along the lines of, ‘Can Patrick start working for me this summer?’ We thought that he was just being polite and that it was intended more of as a compliment than a serious job offer [for summer 2019]. A week or two later, I was actually at dinner with my extended family for my grandmother’s birthday when I got a call from AnnMarie saying that David wasn’t joking and that it was a genuine job offer and he wanted to know if I could work for him that summer. One of the main reasons that I chose to attend St. Thomas was that I knew I would be able to establish valuable relationships with my professors due to St. Thomas’ size and unique networking opportunities. Without AnnMarie’s prior connection to David, I would not have been able to meet him at that conference. I am grateful that I have AnnMarie as a mentor because she does an incredible job of helping us open up opportunities like this.
You were interested in magic since you were young. Why?
I wanted to be Harry Potter. Some people think I am joking when I say that, but I am completely serious. I did not see some magician perform when I was young and gain an instant interest. I wanted to do real magic, and I was disappointed when I didn’t get my owl to go to Hogwarts.
What is your magic style?
My style shifts as needed. I have done only a couple of stage performances for school charity shows, but my preferred style is walk-around card magic. That ended up helping me a decent amount for the job. Both my background as a magician and an engineering student helped me in the roles of my job. I find that having an engineering mindset, I am able to think things through and analyze them in decent detail. When needed, I can do fault analysis for a magician. If you have a trick that’s 10 steps, you have to think through each step and what you have to do if something goes wrong at each step. You assume that something will go wrong because your audience member doesn’t know what to do, and you don’t want them to know what you are doing. You have to assume that they are not able to perfectly do something that you’re trying to force them to do, so you always assume that is not going to work and you have what we call an out, which is a backup plan.
Did you know who David Kwong was before you started working for him?
I had never met him before, but I was quite familiar with his work. I think the most popular thing people are likely to know is that he was the lead magic consultant for the first ‘Now You See Me’ movie. He is also a crossword puzzle writer for The New York Times. That was incorporated into the theme of the show. It was a very puzzle-oriented magic show. We had escape room-style puzzles in the main entryway before you even get in. If you solve all of them, then you can be even more involved in the show throughout. The key to a successful magic show is to have audience involvement. ‘The Enigmatist’ was great for that because people could actively participate with the puzzles as well as some of the magic tricks. Both the magic tricks and the puzzles link together throughout in completely unexpected ways. I really appreciate that you cannot tell what is going to happen because it keeps people hooked throughout the show.
What was it like to work for him?
Working for David was a never-ending chain of learning opportunities. I can’t say much about my specific experiences because I can’t share any of the magic secrets involved in my work. I can say that working for him provided a very unique perspective on his style because it’s so heavily puzzle-oriented. David likes to think about magic as a puzzle that you don’t want someone to solve. Rather than a typical magic show where the only objective is to fool the audience, David mixes in the magic tricks with puzzles that we actually want the audience to solve. By doing that, we satisfy the audience by giving them puzzles they can solve, but then we can still use that to fool them by using their puzzle solution in a way that they aren’t expecting. It was a completely new way of thinking about magic and its methods.
How were you able to be a magician assistant and juggle schoolwork?
The job started before the 2018-19 school year ended. For the last four to five weeks of the academic year I was commuting to New York City every weekend for about three days, so I had a 1,300-mile commute. That was brutal, but my professors were are all able to help me and were very supportive. I’m very thankful for that. I did that for a couple of weeks and then jumped into the rest of the summer run of the show, which ended in mid-July 2019.
Because the show did so well, it was brought back for a holiday run. Two other people have done my job and were trained into doing what I did. They were both supposed to be the ones working the holiday run, since I live in Minnesota and they are from New York. Both weren’t available for the opening weeks of the holiday run, and the show was going to be reviewed and have a bunch of VIPs come, so they couldn’t cancel the shows. I ended up getting a call as I walked out of my theology class one day and I didn’t even get to talk; it was just David saying, ‘We are going to do whatever we have to. We need you to come to New York. We will pay for everything, just please come and work these shows.’ Luckily, I was able to work it out with my class schedule. The shows went really well. We were given a wonderful review by The New York Times. Several celebrities showed up including Neil Patrick Harris, who is a pretty big name in magic in addition to his acting fame. It was awesome to be able to work the show again and to fool the critics and celebrities who came to the performances.
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
My first inclination was Neil Patrick Harris, but am I worthy of NPH? I think he would be funny. I could also say David Kwong. My family loved to point out that we apparently look similar and we have very similar personalities. But I’ll say Neil Patrick Harris because I think it’d be hilarious.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Probably Italy. I would be content to live on a diet of pasta and gelato. I don’t think there’s such thing as too much Italian food.
Who is your hero?
I would say my great-grandpa, even though I wasn’t able to meet him. His made-in-America success story and work ethic have been passed down through my family. His work ethic is a very large part of his success. His dad died when he was really young, and he wasn’t able to go to college because he had to start working to support his family. He ended up working up to the top of the company he was at.
What else are you involved in on campus?
I am very active in the Rock Climbing Club. I go as often as I can. I got very rapidly addicted to that. A lot of my coworkers are members of the club as well, so it’s a cool way to hang out with them outside of work. It’s a great social setting because it’s a sport, but it’s not directly competitive unless you want it to be. No one cares how good or bad you are. Everyone is just helping you get better and even if you’re trying something you know is way too hard for you, everyone is going to cheer you on and help push you through.
What is your go-to karaoke song?
I really don’t like to sing, but if I had to pick a song it would be ‘Galway Girl’ by Ed Sheeran. I have a background in theater tech, so I prefer running the equipment for people who like to sing over being the one singing.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My career interests range from Walt Disney Imagineering to the FBI, so you can fit a lot in between those two ends of the spectrum. Imagineering seems like a wonderful way of blending my passions for magic and engineering. I would love a career where I know that my work is positively impacting the lives of others. I’ve always had an interest in some sort of law enforcement-type career and learning about some of the STEM-related options offered by the FBI, since they have so many of the top resources in the country. I think that would be a really cool field to explore while also knowing that my work as an engineer is directly helping other people.