It packs flat, but are you playing it big?

The concept of packing flat (or small) and playing big is one of those phrases that pop up frequently in magic catalogs and digital advertisements. It is a sentiment that appeals to almost every magician for obvious reasons. Now that the idea of smaller magic has been made popular by the wave of television shows it is more practical and desirable than ever before. Currently, illusions are more than a little out of favor and bookers and buyers are leaning toward more compact magic shows.

I was greatly influenced by the great Billy McComb the great master of the Pack Small/Play Big philosophy. Billy was doing this kind of magic successfully way back in “nineteen hundred and frozen to death.” One of my fondest memories was watching McComb pulverize an audience in the London Palladium by putting a coin in a bottle. The impact was so great that for the last fifty years, I have been trying to perfect this “Small/Big” art form.

Recently I have spent quite a bit of time working with magicians worldwide giving Zoom sessions with performers who want to eliminate some props and still play large venues. Over the years I have played many large theaters, showrooms, and Performing Arts Centers with all my props for a 60-minute act in one small case that I bring on stage and exits with me after the show finishes. 

I have noticed a great many magicians who attempt this “Flat/Big” style of performing make the same error, they pack small but forget (or don’t know how) to play BIG. I want to write a very short treatise on the six simple rules that can make those “small” tricks reach the back of a 2,000-seat auditorium.

1       Supersize whatever props you can.

If you carry your props in a small case, then you obviously must scale your props to the exact dimensions of your prop bag. My working case fits overhead in any aircraft and contains everything needed for two 50-minute and one 20-minute shows. Before showtime, I remove the excess props and pack the exact items needed for that specific show. I have a series of modular units that Velcro in place inside the case to hold each prop in exactly the right place. This is a great way to ensure that things run smoothly during the show.

The next goal is to make sure that all your props are as large as they can practically be. The rope I use is as thick as possible, and the thread for my Gypsy Yarn is as visible as possible. If you need to display a single card then make sure you use an outsize card, if you display a sign or envelope make sure that it is scaled to be the biggest size that will fit in your case. I could give other examples, but I am sure you get the idea. Remember, if they can’t see it then they won’t like it.

2       Sell the routine with your face.

If you are a talking act, then the audience takes their cues from your facial expressions. This isn’t the time for undue subtlety. Make those facial expressions big enough to be seen at the back of the theater and not just in the front few rows. The bigger your facial expressions are the more you sell the emotions you wish the audience to share. If you want them to be surprised, then you should look very surprised. If you want the audience to think things have gone wrong, then show alarm on your face. The audience’s response will mirror what they see on your face. Practice your facial expressions as carefully as your tricks. This is an important part of playing BIG.

3       Explain things carefully.

If things are not as visible as they could be, give your audience a helping hand by telling them what you are doing. I don’t mean that you should state the painfully obvious; skip the “I’m taking the cards out of the box, I’m shuffling the deck” stuff. Let the audience hear what is needed to follow the core of the effect. In my teenage years, I remember McComb telling me, “Tell them what you are going to do, tell them what you are doing, and then tell them what you did…” Of course, don’t reveal any spoilers to kill important surprises. People in the audience aren’t paying nearly as much attention to the performer as he sometimes thinks they are, so give them every opportunity to follow your show.

4       People are bigger than cards.

If you can involve some audiences in the magical mix so much the better. Preferably not in a solid “Drip… drip…” of a steady stream of assistants coming onstage in a procession;  assistant comes onstage—helps with a trick—assistant leaves the stage, next assistant comes onstage, repeated ad infinitum. I only bring one assistant onstage every show. However, I also go out into the auditorium and in well-lit areas involve a couple of audience members. Flagrantly breaking the 4th wall is one of the perks of being a comedy magician.

If I am playing in a large venue, I have a couple of aces hidden up my sleeve and I am going to share them with you. I have two effects that take up no space in your pockets. but play HUGE. I love the Tossed Deck and perform it often, not only is it a killer effect and it ends with the performer onstage gazing intently at 5 men standing up in the illuminated auditorium. He then gets to dramatically reveal 5 merely thought of cards. It doesn’t matter that the playing cards are nearly impossible to see, what matters is that each assistant confirms you got their card in a highly visual manner. When the men eventually sit down, the houselights go out, and you get enthusiastic applause. Now that is filling a theater and playing BIG.

My second “theater sized” winner is my Psychometry Royale where five assistants join me onstage for an energetic, funny, and visual routine. In a theater, a backdrop would be raised, and I would have five chairs in a row for them to sit on. This is always a neat way to move a small show into a stage-filling event.

5       The focal point, is the point here.

One vital thing to be aware of is the focal point you must create to turn all those minor miracles into commercial gold. Let me start with a very simple, but important, but frequently overlooked, thing to grasp. Your audience members have only two eyes each, and they can only focus on one thing at a time, so you must keep all the important moments focused in a tight area. Since you are a talking magician that means those props should be held high enough that the audience can also see your face at the same time.

Careful attention to each effect’s focal point allows the audience to register and appreciate the act a lot better. If a magician has a spotlight or “Special” that illuminates him/her from the waist up, you can achieve wonders. Usually, light is your best friend as a magician, but don’t get too artsy, you are better of with a spotlight and/or a simple “comedy wash” onstage than too much dark and moody fill.

6       Ready, set, and ACTION…..

My Entire luggage for 3 weeks on the road! clothing, props, microphone, and Electronics.

Keep things moving, if you are working “Smallish” routines you should keep the action at a fair clip. You don’t want your performance to be small and slow, it is not what buyers want to see. A deck of cards can be used in the Tossed Deck fashion where it is the word of the assistant that matters or, as I often do, in a more active manner performing the 6-Card Repeat. When you scale those “extra” cards in the air it can be a delightful visual effect, and action, that plays to the back of the auditorium.  The 6-Card Repeat is a wonderful effect if you add a little acting and a few twists into the routine. 

Numerous tricks can be transformed into large effects just by adding a little visual action to them. I mention the 6-Card Repeat because my own 6-Card Déjà vu is one of my “go-to” routines. I never go out for any show without those 21 cards in my inside pocket, I can open with it, close with it, or slot it into the middle. There aren’t many routines that can fill those roles as smoothly, and do so without leaving the slightest bulge in the pocket containing them. 

That was a breakneck sprint through some important tips and techniques. If you are interested in seeing the effects that I used in my act involving the “Small/Big” factor, check out my website at Almost all of my routines are available as downloads and in physical form.


~ by Nick Lewin on May 19, 2023.

One Response to “It packs flat, but are you playing it big?”

  1. Nick,
    Thank you for sharing your expert insight
    with us, just wonderful !

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