Show Swapper

This idea has a bit of a long history. Three years ago I wrote about a one-time-only performance piece I helped out with in a post called The Talent Swap. Then, about a year ago, friend of the site, Anthony Lisa wrote me with an idea that was partially inspired by that post. I liked his idea, but it wasn't really full formed and it was a stage trick, so I didn't end up doing anything with the idea. But it did get me thinking of The Talent Swap again, and if there was a way to do it more regularly as opposed to just a one-time special occasion thing. And from there I came up with a version that you can do much more often and that will be in the next book. What's written up here is a theoretical stage version of the close-up version that's in the book. Got it? I don't care. Moving on.

If you wanted to do what follows there are a lot of blanks you would need to fill in. This is a concept, not a fully fleshed out routine. I've written it up as a full routine, but that's just to give things some context.

This goes back to last week’s posts about the Spectator as Magician plot. For a lot of performers, the rationale behind the plot is: I’m going to give you my powers briefly. I don’t love that as a presentation, but maybe it makes sense for a formal show, because formal shows ARE about the performer, there’s really no way around that. So “I’m going to give you the power” may be as decent a premise as any other. The only real issue I have with it is when it’s paired with a sentiment of, “You can do this because you’re mind is powerful and can do anything!” Which is it? Are you working through me? Or is my mind so powerful it can do anything? Pick one. Those are very different concepts.

Anyway, the idea here is to make it not just a Spectator as Magician plot, but also something of a Magician as Spectator plot. Because you’re not just giving him your power, your are swapping powers for a brief moment. 

Here’s how it might look.

“I’m a delicate man who is afraid of hard work, and I’ve been slaving away up here for just shy of 20 minutes already, so I’m going to take a brief respite for a while and let you all take over the entertainment. While you were in the lobby, before the show, some of my team members asked you to write a talent you have on a piece of paper. I have those papers in this bag and we’re going to have a little talent show.” 

The house lights are brought up, the bag (clear forcing bag) is shaken up and three slips of paper are removed from it by a randomly selected spectator. The slips are opened one at a time and the person whose name and talent is on the slip is asked to demonstrate their talent. So maybe one says, I can sing opera, and that person sings a few bars. The next says, I can fit my fist in my mouth, and that person does so. The last slip chosen says, I can recite dirty limericks in Russian, and that person demonstrates that talent. 

You ask the person who removed the first three slips to remove one more. “We’re going to do something a little different with this one. Whoever’s talent this is is not going to demonstrate this that talent… I am.

“You see, I only really have one talent: extra sensory perception [or however you define your powers on stage]. Other than that, I’m kind of useless. I can’t carry a tune. I can’t cook. I’m a terrible lover. I played one game of soccer in fourth grade and they had to call 911 to cut me out of the net.”

But I’ve found something in my research. It’s an old ritual that will allow me to briefly swap my talents with someone. And whatever slip you just chose is the one we’re going to use.”

You pull out some other slips to briefly show what could have been picked. Play guitar. Do a handstand push-up. Deep throat a 14-inch cock. 

“Good god! I’m glad that’s not the one that was picked. But… come see me after the show,” you say, pocketing that slip.

“Okay, please open the slip you chose. Whose is it?”

“Tommy P,” the audience member says.

“Okay, Tommy P., can you stand up?”

A man in the audience stands up. 

“And what does it say Tommy’s talent is?’

The person who picked the slip says, “Breakdancing.”

You slump over, resting your palms on your knees and mumble, “Aw, fuck me. Seriously?”

You quickly shift back to performance mode. “Ok. No. That’s fine. Tommy, come down and join me on stage.” 

Tommy joins you on stage.

“Tommy, here’s what’s going to happen. In a moment we’re going to do a little ritual. After that—if things work out right—I should be able to absorb your talent, and you should be able to absorb mine. So I will be able to breakdance, and you’ll have extra sensory perception.”

“Now, obviously, it won’t be difficult to discern if I can breakdance. But demonstrating your ESP might be harder. So, here’s what I’ve done. I’ve written down the password I use for all my online activities on a long scroll of paper, rolled it up, and placed it in that clear chest hanging from the ceiling. The moment I start breakdancing, I want you to open your mind and let some information come to you. My password is a word and a number. That’s the only hint I’ll give you. It might be a long or short word, it might be a long or short number. Don’t try to think of it now. Wait for the swap to happen.”

You then go through the ritual, whatever that may be. Think of movies where people swap bodies. Maybe you both blow out candles and wish at the the same time, or maybe you pee into the same bucket. You can come up with whatever ritual you want. 

You direct Tommy to stand on the opposite side of the stage from you. “Now we wait,” you say.

“Actually, could someone in the booth give me a little beat?”

After a few moments some hip-hop starts to play in the theater. “Okay… yeah… das dope, das dope.” You suddenly jump forward and do some stilted, awful hip-hop dancing.


“Uhm… nope… not yet, I guess.” You say and embarrassedly take a couple steps back.

After another false start or two you slowly walk forward…, “Wait… I think it’s coming,” you say. And just like that, the beat drops and you begin to breakdance in a fairly impressive manner. 

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After a few moments, while you’re spinning on your back or doing the worm or whatever, you start to yell over the music. “Tommy, what’s the word? What word comes to your mind.”

Tommy stutters out, “Cement.”

“And the number, Tommy?

He says 22.

After another moment your impressive dancing sputters back into a middle-aged white-guy shuffle. 

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“It’s gone. It’s over,” you say. "Damn... I want to be cool again," you say, dejectedly.

You gather yourself together.

“Ok, now Tommy, don’t let me put words in your mouth. I want to make sure I heard correctly. What word did you get?…Cement? And the number?… Okay, so Cement22 is the password you got.”

The clear chest is lowered, the scroll removed and unravelled to reveal “Cement22.”

Obviously this is a use for some sort a prediction chest. But, for me, this is so much more interesting than "say some words and I'll show I predicted them." Even if I try to put myself in a true layman's mind—having never seen a prediction chest routine before—that type of routine is such a basic bitch usage of that prop.

Whenever possible, I want to get away from presentations that are 98% boring bullshit set-up with 2% interesting surprise at the end. With magic, and especially mentalism, this can be a huge weakness.

With this routine you have the interesting/fun talent show portion, followed by the intriguing premise, the odd ritual, the humorous part where you're wildly inadequate at the talent, the potentially surprising part where you're suddenly decent at what appears to be a randomly chosen talent, and then at the end, the magic punch to the routine.

Of course, you don't need to do this with a prediction chest. Any "spectator as magician/mentalist" effect could likely be routined to fit in this structure.

Logistically, how might this be done...

Well, first you need to learn to do a few different skills with some aptitude. It's up to you how many you want to do. Ideally you'd want to learn some skills that many people might possess, but perhaps ones that might not look like they'd come naturally to you. If you're a big, manly white dude, then maybe breakdancing, playing the flute, speaking French, and doing a split or something.

Now, you'll need to have someone in the audience each night who has one of the skills you've learned and who writes that skill down on their slip. How? The easiest way would be, of course, to just use a stooge. Then you wouldn't even have to use a gimmicked prediction chest, they would just name what's already in there. Of course that's not very satisfying, and I personally feel like I can always tell when someone is a plant. (Of course, maybe I can't, maybe I just spot the bad ones.) 

I remember before I saw Derren Brown in NYC and people were waiting in the lobby, some of the crew members came out to ask us some questions and have our pictures taken. That's kind of how I imagine this playing out. The crew goes out before with little slips of paper and explains that during the show there will be a brief portion where people will present skills or talents they have as part of a larger demonstration. "Do you have any special skills or talents?" If the person doesn't immediately offer up something they can continue, "Like maybe you can dance, or play an instrument, speak another language, or have some athletic skill? Or anything at all." All subjects that could lead them to one of the skills you've worked on.

With an audience of, say, 80 people, I feel like you're bound to find someone you can steer into putting down one of the talents you learned. 

But why would the stage-crew be involved if you were doing this for real? Isn't that suspicious? Why not just have people write down their response and put it in the bag.

I don't think it's suspicious. The stage crew needs to track down instruments or other items they might have backstage to be used during the demonstration, so they'd need to know what types of things people are writing down (in theory).

Alternatively, this could be a question people are asked online when they purchase their ticket. "During one portion of the show members of the audience will be asked to demonstrate a skill or talent they have for a few seconds. Is there a skill/talent you can demonstrate? If so, please indicate that below along with any necessary items required to demonstrate this skill." 

Now, in this case you'd have some warning of what's to come. So you may have a week or a month to prepare. That would obviously make things easier and more sure-fire. 

How good do you need to get at this skill?

You just need to look like you have this skill for a few moments. Can you learn to play the flute well over the course of a few 45 minute rehearsals? No. But you can learn to play a few bars of a not-too-complicated but not-too-basic melody on a flute in that time. That's enough.

Speaking another language might not be visually interesting as a "swapped skill" but it could be funny. If French was the language, you could sit there twiddling your thumbs. "Uhm... baguette...Gerard Depardieu...uhm... cheese? I don't know... I don't think this is--" Suddenly you jump out of your chair and start speaking quickly and gesturing wildly, "Je ne viens pas vous occuper ici, quoi qu'on en puisse dire, de l'intérêt de quelques individus ni du mien; c'est la cause publique qui est l'unique objet de toute cette contestation: gardez-vous de penser que les destinées du peuple soient attachées à quelques hommes; gardez-vous de redouter le choc des opinions, et les orages des discussions politiques, qui ne sont que les douleurs de l'enfantement de la Liberté."

For this to work, the audience must believe the participant is not a stooge or a plant. If they don't believe that, then both parts of the routine will fall flat. This is maybe a lot to hang on a clear forcing bag, but I think it can work. The person who ends up pulling the names from the clear forcing bag must be chosen randomly in some way (throwing something into the audience, etc.) If the audience believes that person is fair, then they are more likely to believe the selection is fair. 

And because they see different talents coming out of the bag both before and after the talent to be swapped comes out, I think it's pretty convincing that this is a "random" selection.

Something to consider, if the talent is, for example, playing the flute, then maybe there are two flutes on stage. But one is rigged in some way so that it doesn't play. So when you start playing your flute you have her pick hers up and she blows and nothing comes out, implying her talent has really been sucked out from her. If there was some sort of switch of the instrument so it seemed to be one she had just played moments before, that would be even stronger.

But this is probably all just overkill.

This final idea comes from the routine Anthony Lisa sent me that inspired this version. While you're doing the talent you've absorbed, a stage-hand comes out and takes a Polaroid picture. Then, when the audience leaves the theater, they walk past a wall with a bunch of Polaroids with you doing all these different talents: ollying on a skateboard, doing a one-armed handstand, playing a banjo, balancing a step ladder on your face. Or whatever. The implication is that these are all talents you "absorbed" briefly in previous performances. In reality it's a bunch of photoshopped pictures made to look like Polaroids.

You know who this is ideal for? Someone on America's Got Talent, or something like that. You already have a number of other people with "talents" sharing a stage with you that evening. When one is "randomly" selected by one of the judges and you swap talents with them, that would, I think, make for a pretty great segment. It seems like an effect that makes sense for that environment, rather than something that was shoe-horned in. Let me know when someone steals the idea because I wont' be watching.

(To be fair, I have no clue what people want to see on any of these "Got Talent" shows. I occasionally see a segment that people are passing around like it's great and it strikes me as some grade-A hokey horseshit.)

This may have been a lot of words to spend on a trick almost none of you will do. But I still think it's a interesting idea to think about, and I know at least one person will run with it. (I've only put a handful of stage ideas out in my work, but with every stage idea I've mentioned, at least one person has written me to say they're using it.) And there may be be pieces of the idea that you take away. Or maybe it's just inspirational literature, a thought experiment of a way to use a standard prop in a different way.

If you are like me and you don't perform professionally on a stage, the close-up "social" version which can be done one-on-one, is detailed in the upcoming book.  

And while we're tangentially on the subject... here's one of my favorite breakdancing videos. Well, part breakdancing, part yoga.