Field Report: The Talent Swap

While thinking of Project 8X (my secret Halloween project I wrote about earlier this week), I was reminded of another trick I performed once. The two tricks have a lot in common. They are both holiday-related tricks. They both require a lot of preparation. And they both involve a jaw-dropping moment of magic with a method that may ultimately be obvious. That last thing probably seems like a big negative and usually it would be. But in the case of these two tricks, the method is almost as awe-inspiring as the trick itself, so I don't mind the audience figuring it out.

Let me set the stage.

It was December of 2013. I was at a Christmas party that one of my friend's hosts every year. I have a lot of friends who are struggling comedians, actors, musicians etc., here in NYC. So it's a lot of extroverts who are always looking for a chance to perform. In keeping with that, my friend who hosts the party always incorporates a talent show into the proceedings. So, of the maybe 60 guests at the party, 30 of them will be involved in the talent show in some way. Since I am not an extrovert -- or if I am, I'm a lazy one who doesn't love performing -- I usually just do something quick and Christmas-y. The year before I had done a trick based on David Acer's routine, Holiday Miracle. In my version, a "freely chosen" colored lightbulb is plucked from a string of Christmas lights on the tree. I hold it in my cupped hands and it lights up when the climactic scene from A Very Brady Christmas is played. (You know the one. Where Mike is inspired to free himself from the collapsed building he's trapped in when he hears Carol singing O Come, All Ye Faithful.)

So I'm standing on the "stage" section, which is in the corner of my friend's cleared-out living room. The audience is gathered 270 degrees around me. I ask for two volunteers who have already performed in the talent show who don't know each other (outside of maybe chatting at one of these christmas parties). I was joined by Craig, a banjo player, and Kerry, a dancer (ballet and hip-hop). I ask Craig if he can dance and he says, "No." I ask his wife if he can dance, and she says, "He most certainly can not dance." I ask Kerry if she plays any musical instruments and she says, "No." I ask her sister/roommate if Kerry plays any musical instruments, she mentions a two-year stint with a clarinet 15 years ago when they were in school, but other than that, no. I ask anyone else in the room if they know anything about Craig's dancing ability or Kerry's musical ability. All the people who know one or the other of them admit that neither has any talent in the other person's field. 

"Perfect," I say, "So we have two talented people, but their talents don't overlap." I had them sit back-to-back with their heads almost touching. I gave Kerry the banjo and said, "If you feel inspired, feel free to play something." Then I stood behind them, dramatically, with my right hand 6 inches over their heads. After a few moments I looked at Kerry and said, "Nothing?" And she just kind of shrugged. Then I moved my right hand down so it was touching both of their heads. After another few moments still nothing happened. "What the hell...," I said, mostly to myself. I pushed my right shirt-sleeve up and revealed my iphone was strapped to my wrist. I removed it from my wrist and started intently scrolling around on it. "Sorry," I said, distractedly, "This app was 40 bucks. I expected a little more from it. Let's start over." I messed around a little more on the phone, then placed it so they were essentially holding it between their heads. "That should work. Let's just give this a moment." After about 10 second, Kerry started plucking a couple of strings on the banjo. As the seconds passed she started playing a little faster and a little faster until a melody began to arise. Craig starts tapping his toe to the melody. I remove my phone from between their heads and say, "Okay, it looks like it worked." Over the course of a few more seconds, Kerry goes from playing one note at a time to a blazing fast, full-on performance of Cripple Creek, and as she plays Craig jumps up and performs a spot-on hip-hop dance to the song. I stand back with my arms spread out as if I'm satisfied with my experiment. The audience -- specifically the 70% or so who know at least one of the participants on stage -- are going crazy. Craig's wife and Kerry's sister are standing with their mouths wide open. 

Eventually Craig's feet get tied up and he falls down and Kerry's fingers just become a mass of confusion on the banjo and the song falls apart. "It only lasts a little while," I say. "Thank you."

How did I do it? Well, the previous year at the party I was out on the fire escape with a couple of people after the talent show. They had enjoyed my magic trick and were asking about learning magic. Did I give lessons or what books would I recommend, things like that. An idea came to me and I said, "You know what would be cool? If next year at this party I did a trick where I made your talents swap." They were both very intrigued by this idea and wondered what it would entail. "Well," I said, "you'd have to learn banjo and you'd have to learn to dance." I think they were hoping for something more clever, but they were both immediately on board. So on that fire escape we made our plan. We would go back into the party and not be seen speaking to each other the rest of the night. We didn't want anyone there to have any memory of us ever being seen together (not that they would, but it's just fun to be covert.)

The next day I emailed them both and asked if they were still into the idea. Surprisingly, they both said yes. I'm used to people getting all excited about something in the late hours of the night, but once the strong, sober light of the morning rolls around, they're like, "Ah, fuck that idea." So I put the plan in motion. Every other week, throughout 2013, we would meet up at a rehearsal studio for an hour on our lunch breaks. And in that time Craig would teach Kerry the banjo, and she would teach Craig how to dance. Well, kind of. After the first lesson, where they both introduced each other to the basics of their skills and virtually no progress was made, I knew we had to change things up. I mean we had dedicated an hour to learn two skills, so half an hour a piece, every two weeks for a year. So about 13 hours of teaching time per skill. How much can you really learn in 13 hours of teaching time? So I changed the idea. Instead of teaching each other how to actually do their talents, they would just teach them how to look like they had mastery of those skills over the course of a 50 second performance. So I had Kerry choreograph an intense 50 second routine, and every time we got together she would teach Craig 2 seconds of it. So the learning curve was minimal each week, but it built up to a super-impressive routine. He looked like a great dancer. But he wasn't. He was just great at this one 50 second routine. 

Similarly, Kerry would learn things in even smaller snippets (because Cripple Creek repeats the same parts over and over, essentially). I told Craig to write out all the notes and divide them by 20 and each time we met up he would teach her 1/20th of the song -- like a second or two of music. She didn't know the names for notes or the plucking technique, she never learned to read music. She was just mimicking the movements. She was learning the banjo like she would a dancing routine.

We met up every two weeks over the course of the year. One of us would grab lunch on the way and we'd eat in the rehearsal studio. They would teach each other their 2-second fragments, run through what they had learned up until that point, and then we'd go our separate ways. I wasn't even needed, I just liked hanging out with them, and watching these talents build week after week -- like a time-lapse video of a skyscraper being built. 

As the months passed it got more and more exciting. This dumb thing was really going to happen. It may seem like a huge investment of time and energy, but really it wasn't. It was just 26 hours. And most of that was just eating lunch and hanging out with people who had become relatively good friends. Trust me, you've wasted more time on things that were even less consequential than this. The time is going to pass anyway. 

The big night came, and the performance happened and people were flipping out. The idea that there is an iphone app that allows people to swap talents is ridiculous. But the alternative, that they had somehow become experts in these fields (and the performance did make them seem like experts) without anyone ever knowing seemed almost as ridiculous. Everyone at the party enjoyed the trick. Those who knew them personally were really amazed by it. But those closest to them were struck dumb by it. Can you imagine if your spouse or the sibling that you live with all of a sudden had this crazy talent? And you knew for a fact they weren't practicing hours a day, as it seems they would have needed to. That would be so confusing. 

Craig and Kerry played dumb for about an hour or so after the performance. They acted as amazed as everyone else. But after a while they were anxious to let people in on the secret, especially their loved ones and I was completely cool with that. So while everyone sat around we told them about these clandestine meet-ups we had all year where we would all arrive separately and leave separately, like we were spies or something. Craig told how he would practice the routine every time his wife took a bath by going down to the basement, which was the only place he could do all the jumping around it required without it shaking the house. Kerry told how she never once held a banjo in her hand outside of our bi-weekly meetups. She would go home and practice the fingering on a non-working fake banjo whose body was made of a cat-food tin. Everyone loved hearing about the process.

To this day whenever Craig is at a party where some hip-hop is playing, he'll bust out this routine and people will be really impressed. But then he'll kind of wave them off as if to say, "That's all for now." But really, that's all for ever because he doesn't know how to dance other than that particular routine.

The Takeaway: As I mentioned previously, field reports are not intended to be tricks you'll end up doing, just interesting magic-related stories. But there are some takeaways to be had. In this case I would point to the notion of the false-explanation being "exposed" rather than just explained to the audience. In this performance I acted like there was some phone app making this happen and that I was trying to hide the fact that the phone was involved but the trick wasn't working until I just said, "Ah, fuck it, just put the phone directly between your heads." You can do this with all your pseudo explanations and I think it makes things a lot more interesting. For example, a lot of people have changed from "I'm reading your mind" to something like "I'm able to read your slight eye movement in order to  sense what you're thinking." If, instead of saying this to people you act as if you get caught doing it, it adds another layer to everything. So maybe you say, "I'm going to read your mind, " but then it becomes clear your trying to subtly look into their eyes out of of the corners of yours. After a bit you switch positions so you can look more precisely at their eyes. And after that fails you act like, "Shit, sorry, I need to move you into better light for this to work." Your attitude is as if you're conceding to them, i.e., "Okay, you got me. I'm not really reading your mind." You don't say that, you just act like you're deflated a little. I wouldn't do this all the time, but it can be fun to let the audience bust you on something only to convince themselves of something else that is equally untrue.