So You Want To Pack Small & Play Big, Huh?

Back around 2010 I was performing my 90 minute theater show. I flew in for the gig and all my props fit in my carryon bag. One of audience members was an amateur magician who told me a few minutes for the show he had done some magic for the group. He was gracious and affable. We were chatting before the show. I asked him, “What kind of magic do you do?”

He replied, “Card sword. Zig Zag.”
“Nice,” I thought as I glanced at my prop case.

I do my show. It goes very well. I chat with the amateur magician after the show. He was gracious and complimentary. He looks at my prop bag, shakes his head, and says, “You killed. Ninety minutes out of that bag. Wow.”

Not knowing exactly what to say, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, I have been doing this a while.”

A stand-up show out of one case?

There are certain topics that seem to come up with regularity on magic online forums and the “one case show” is certainly one of them. Months back I gave this comment on the topic:
1. Decide to do it. 
2. Buy the case.
3. Make a list of tricks you do or would do that fit in that case. 
4. Do those tricks. 
5. Keep doing those tricks, and let the routines develop and become yours. 

Here are those same points, fleshed out some, with a few more points thrown in. 

Why do you want to do it? 
If you fly with your act there are some very practical advantages to having an act that fits in a carryon bag. It’s tough to lose luggage you don’t check. Even if your entire show isn’t in the carryon, having a big chunk of it in there is huge peace of mind. My buddies that work cruise ships live this reality. 

If you work small stages, it’s great to walk on and off with a single prop case. I remember headlining a comedy club in Buffalo NY back in the 90s. I called the stage the “postage stamp” and was only slightly exaggerating. 

If you’re in a venue where you have to set up and strike your show quickly, the one case show helps that, too. 

If you want to do it because it’s easier, well, that’s a reason, but it’s far from the best one. Look at the version of the torn and restored newspaper that begins with torn pieces, commonly called the No Tear. Here’s my theory on why people choose that version:
1% think it’s a better theatrical choice
99% are just trying to make things easier on themselves
If it’s easier on the audience, great. If it’s only easier on you, bad. 
It’s not about us. It’s about them. 

You have to actually decide to do it. 
Yes, I know that’s obvious, but it’s the “actually” part that makes it worth writing. 

Example: I have always liked a good dove act …but I’m NEVER going to do a dove act. Decades ago I read about and studied dove acts …but I’m never going to do a dove act. In my early twenties I even bought a few dove holders …but I’m never going to do a dove act. 

Why? Because I never actually wanted to do a dove act. I think they are interesting. I enjoy studying them. I like learning from them and taking what I learn and applying it to the kind of magic I do. But at the end of the day …meh. I think some people have the same feelings about having a one case show. They think it might be a good idea. They are interested in how other people do it. But at the end of the day they want keep what they are doing. So be it. 

Actually deciding to do it means you commit and actually do things. Write down measurements for a case. Flying? Think 22 x 14 x 9. Get a case. (Here’s mine.) Decide who your audience will be. Family? Adult? Kids? Pick the routines. Pick a date for the show. You know, all that goal setting Zig Ziglar stuff. And do it. 

What routines? 
To paraphrase the beloved and missed Denny Haney, “Do you even Tarbell?” Seriously. Rope magic. Stand up card magic. Mental magic. Silks. Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. I could make a list, but seriously, why? If you’ve been doing standup magic for more than a year you can probably list two hours worth of routines easily. 

Do the same good magic for years. 
Longer routines equal fewer routines needed to fill the time with great entertainment.
Ever hear another magician say, “Wow. He* gets 8 minutes out of fill-in-the-blank trick?” If it’s done well, here’s what has probably happened. When he first did the trick, the routine lasted 4 minutes. Over time he adds comedy, better scripting, bits of business, and, so importantly, the right pauses. Now it’s over 8 minutes. Four minutes added after (say) two years.  

This only happens when you stick with a routine long enough to allow it to happen. Notice you read allow it to happen, not it will happen. It still requires work. Recording shows to remember those great ad-libs. Studying old books to see what someone else did with the routine eighty years ago. Flittering from one trick to another prevents this. 
Show one: Start with good magic. 
Show two hundred: Have a great routine.

Additionally, these routines not only get more funny and more amazement, they get more of you and your connection with the audience. You’re not letting the prop get in the way anymore. And with that audience connection in mind, let’s ditch the phrase “he gets eight minutes out of that trick.” The word “gets” smacks of selfishness, which in turn smacks of laziness. I think it’s better to say, “He gives eight minutes with that trick.” To whom? The audience, of course. Am I parsing words? Maybe. Am I right? Definitely. 

Mentalist have stationary stores. You have …
Your local quickie sign shop. Want to pack flat? Few things pack flatter than a sign. Oversize playing cards, gag predictions, etc., all can be made by a sign shop. Speaking of flat, if you use a table, consider an InStand. They are like many of the magic tables many had growing up, but with one helpful difference. The bottom of the table top is flat. There’s no protruding flange, which makes for better packing. 

Bagging what’s in the bag
A soft sided tablet cases for a packet of jumbo cards. Clear zippered pouchesThese boxes. The beloved draw string Crown Royal bag. The late great Billy McComb packed individual tricks in ziplock bags. Putting props in containers makes them easier to pack, easier to access to perform, easier to ditch when done, and easier to repack for the next show. 

Who died? Enough with the black, already.
I once saw a magician wearing a black tuxedo with a black shirt in front of a black curtain. Because of the black art principle, it looked like his pasty white face was floating in space. 

I know this isn’t a “fit a show in a box” point per se, but it does relate to making the magic play bigger. Enough with the black suits. Ugh. Stop it. If it fits your character and the event consider wearing something that pops. And not just your clothing, but let your props and accessories pop, too. As I type this my mind is back in the eighties and I’m backstage hearing comedy club great Paul Kozak wearing a suit that could only be described as snazzy, telling a shabbily dressed emcee, “I dress like I’m in bleepin’ showbiz, baby.” Gotta love the Koz. Related to this sartorial point …

Don’t forget your best prop.
A one case show doesn’t mean you don’t have any large props. I have one prop in my show that is seventy-six inches long, about twenty inches wide and thicker than it should be. It’s called me. With fewer props a performer realizes his face and body are probably the biggest “props” in his show with or without extra cases. He learns to use his. I’m only half-joking when I say, I rarely do a show decaffeinated for just this reason.

Watch a professional wrestling match. The Heel (bad guy) gets the Face (good guy) in his submission hold, the feared Figure Four Leglock — wooooooooooo! If the Face just lies there and does nothing, with his legs intertwined with the Heel’s, it won’t look like he’s in pain. 

If the Face sells the hold (acts like he’s in agony) the audience buys into the illusion with the suspension of disbelief that makes it all work. The Face doesn’t have any props to sell this. Just his face and body. While I think the level of sell of professional wrasslin’ would be a bit much for most acts, I think there’s much to learn from it for a magician who wants to sell the amazement of his magic with props that come out of a 22 x 14 x 9 inch box. 

Watch the late Tim Conover in this clip. Greatness personified. 

Add production value for the ears
The visual production value that’s missing from a case can be replaced with the audio production value of music. This usually means a remote control music system. Keep in mind, I hate tech stuff. No, really. I hate tech stuff. I particularly hate it when it’s not 100% dependable, as standing on a stage repeatedly clicking a remote waiting for the next track looks horrible. All that being said, I use the Audio Ape and I have liked it from day one. It has never failed me. The range is fantastic. For what it does, it’s a bargain.

Finally, know when the audience should see more props than one case can contain
Many of my shows are worked out of a carryon case. Many aren’t even close. Some audiences see people being sawn in half and floating tables. 
What’s the difference? At the end of the day, it’s what best for the audience that matters.Not me. Not you. Them. 

Packing all your props in a carryon because you don’t want your props lost in checked luggage is about the audience. 
Packing one case of props because of a small stage is about the audience.
Packing one case of props because you need to set up and strike your show quickly because of the next act (or your next venue) is about the audience.  
Doing and growing the same routines for years is about the audience. 
Tapping into music and costuming to add to the show without adding to the prop case is, again, about the audience. 

It’s about them. If there’s a takeaway in this post, let it be that. 

Hope this helps any hopeful “one-casers” out there. If you would, this please share with your magician friends. Thanks.


Doc Dixon
*Don’t let the use of the masculine pronoun be interpreted as forgetting my female readership. I know too many talented female magicians to do this. But until the English language has less cumbersome options than writing “he or she,” let this footnote suffice. 

Want MORE clever ways to make your show play BIGGER?
Check out my new book, The Show Is The Mother Of Invention.

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