Performing a Stage Show

Pack Small and Play BIG

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The holy grail for many performers, especially variety entertainers performing a stage show, is to be able to present a show that can pack small and play BIG.

Pack Small Play Big

This show is often called a worker’s show as it is a show that can play in almost any venue, stage and performance conditions. In addition, the show is easily transportable, by car or air travel.

For working performers or even weekend warriors (part-timers), packing a show “small” generally refers to shows that:

  • Can fit into a regular car
  • Can be transported by one (or two) person
  • Can be checked in as excess baggage for air travel

ATA CasesThis is NOT “pack small, play BIG”

As an illusionist, my regular illusion shows naturally do not pack small and I have the luxury of not worrying about packing small or light as all my equipment is always shipped to the show location with costs borne by the client.

But, for the first seven years of my career, I was performing all “pack small, play big” shows. Then, my career moved towards a small then medium-scale illusion show. Now, 20 years on, I currently still perform an illusion show with almost one volumetric-ton of equipment but also have a 45-minute show that packs small and plays big.

The smaller show fits clients that do not have the budget for elaborate technical requirements and shipping costs or for venues that cannot take a large illusion show. Some cruise contracts also require a “fly-on” show where a guest entertainer flies on with a show that can be carried as check-in luggage. Naturally, the less the cruise company has to pay for excess baggage, the more in favour they might be in booking an act (assuming the act is good).

For a working professional entertainers, it is advantageous to have different show formats that fit different clients’ requirements.

My “pack small, play big” show includes visual acts as well as audience interaction and participation. You can check out the showreel for the show below:

Some art forms naturally play bigger than others. For example, dancers play big due to the number of performers usually in a dance crew, their dance movements, choreography and the area they cover on stage. Acrobats are similar as they usually consist of at least a duo and cover a lot of space on stage, both laterally and vertically. Jugglers, too, create height and scale by tossing objects high into the air and moving around the stage.

Magicians (who do not perform illusions) tend to play smaller as they are usually confined to a specific area on stage. Stand-up comedians (who are not prop comedians) also have to rely on just their personality and showmanship to command the stage.

The good flip side is that the smaller your show plays, the smaller you pack as well.

While some performers feel that the scale of the show is not important as they feel that it is only the personality of the performer and entertainment value that matters, I personally think playing bigger can help a show.

It adds production value and visual variety to a show. And, some clients (even if misguided), feel that they get more value if there is more to see on stage. In these cases, a bigger show may mean that you can justify charging a higher fee.

I know for a fact that one factor that allows me to command a higher asking price is because of the scale I can bring to a show, even for my non-illusion show.

As with all things in life, balance is the key to have a show that packs small and plays big. In this article, I share how I approach packing small and playing big.

The Acts & Cases

As an illusionist, it is probably in my DNA to play big. So, with my “pack small, play big” show, I designed the biggest show that I could do within the practical constraints of packing the show.

The cornerstone of my “pack small, play big” show is my iFRAME act that combines technology, multimedia and illusion in a single act. This original act plays big due to the various effects incorporated in the act and the iFRAME prop itself. If the show venue has LED walls, I can incorporate motion and video graphics into the act to make it play huge.

The entire prop was designed to pack into itself to form a flight case for ground and air transport.

The rest of my show packs into another, slightly smaller, case that converts to a table where I perform other acts on when needed. The pull-off lid of the table serves as a large tabletop of the case table. It has multiple shelves that hold various props I require for the show.

I designed my cases to be multi-functional to save space and reduce weight. The cases are made from ABS plastic and honeycomb aluminum instead of wood, making it 60% lighter than traditional wood flight cases. Even though each case is still heavier than a regular suitcase, this system works for me.

The routines I perform can play to a large audience and some are designed to be performed to a camera with a live video feed to projection screens. For the type of work I do (corporate & special events, cruise ships and showrooms), if the audience size is more than 250 – 300 people, there is almost always a live camera feed.

Savoy Theatre

My “Pack Small, Play Big” show played in this theatre in Oct 2016.

The props for these routines are as lightweight as I can go and I remade some items from lighter materials to help reduce weight. Individual props and items are packed in zip-lock bags or lightweight cloth bags.

The case prop/ tables look professional, modern and neat on stage.

I calculated the size of the cases based on the props I use in the show while keeping in mind the maximum dimensions I could go based on international check-in luggage air travel restrictions.

So, my entire 45-minute show packs down into the two cases and I have custom-made canvas covers to protect them from dings and scratches.

The cases can fit in a regular salon car; one in the boot and one in the backseat.

workers cases

My 45-min “pack small, play big” show fits into these two cases, along with costume, shoes and personal items.

There is a downside with my approach to having cases as my prop/ table. In the unlikely event that the cases get damaged badly during transport, they might not be able to function as intended for the show. If you carry a table or stand separately in your luggage and your luggage gets damaged, you still have a functioning table or stand.

In my case (pun intended), I need to have this system, if not, I would not be able to meet the pack small requirements to perform the acts I want, in order to play big. However, I have anticipated the potential problems and have troubleshooting/ quick-fix measures in place.


The size and build of external castors are important. It is important that you choose the right castors and get sturdy ones for your cases; especially when the castors are small (less than 2.5″ in diameter). Not all castors (the wheel and the support plates) are made equal.

The castors I currently have on my cases are strong enough not to break off and will more likely rip out of the ABS plastic/ wood base first. However, previous castors were not as strong and have indeed broken off, which is why extra castors were brought along.

If you do not need for your case to be free-rolling, you can use recessed corner castors. However, you will need to tilt the case back on the corner castors to roll it. There are removable slot castors where you can remove the castors from the slot holders and keep them in your case for transport. However, the problem with these are that if the slot holders get deformed during transport, it is very tough to put them in and then take them out again.

Thanks to Michael Worsham for pointing this out and reminding me about this.

Considerations when Thinking about How to Pack & Transport Your Show

Size, Weight & Number of Cases

Assuming all the artistic considerations for choosing the acts to perform in your show are made, you need to take into account practical considerations; namely the size and weight of the show when it packs down.

The size includes the number of cases/ bags or boxes as well as the dimensions of each package.

The restrictions on the number of packages and dimensions depend on how you intend to transport and travel with your show.

For example, if you only perform local shows and travel in your own car, your only concerns are that your show can fit in your car and is light enough for you to carry; even if you have to make multiple trips from your car to your stage.

However, if you have to travel by air to perform your shows, you will be limited by the number of pieces of luggage you can check in as well as the size of each piece. Generally, for most airlines and depending where are traveling to and from, you can comfortably carry two pieces per person but the largest checked international luggage size allowed is 62 linear (total) inches; length + width + depth.

Expect to pay for excess baggage costs if your weight is more than the allowable check-in weight. So, the lighter your show is, the less you (or your client) will have to pay for excess baggage.

Type of Carriers, Luggage or Cases

After estimating the size and weight of your show, you have to decide what type of carrier, luggage or case you will be using to pack your show in for transport. Once again, the type of carrier depends on how you intend to transport and travel with your show.

If everything is self-carried in your own car, you can house everything in canvas bags. This makes your carrier extremely lightweight. However, if you are traveling by air, you definitely need some form of luggage or case.

The type of luggage or case depends on your show set-up and props. The more sturdy and stronger the case, the heavier it will be, adding to the total weight of your show.

Visit luggage stores to see what type of luggage is available. See if it is possible modify or add to a particular luggage to transform it into a show case table or prop holder on stage. If you are custom-making an ATA flight case, I suggest spending more and make the case out of ABS plastic instead of wood.

If you do not need a case table but just need to pack your costumes, performance equipment and personal items, I suggest the largest and most lightweight luggage available. I recommend the largest American Tourister lightweight suitcases as they are ultra-lightweight and are expandable (slightly more than an inch in depth). The lightweight is essential to me as it keeps the overall baggage weight down. Do note, with regular use (traveling twice a month), this style of luggage will wear out in 2 – 3 years. But, I think it is a worthwhile investment for saving on excess baggage costs and just having less strain on your back when lifting the luggage. Amazon offers great prices on the luggage.

Set up Time

Another consideration to make when designing your “pack small, play big” show is the time it takes for you to set up your show and if this factor is important to you.

In the first few years of my career, I wanted a “pack small, play big, quick set-up and instant reset” show. One reason was because I was booked to perform 2 – 3 shows a day, often back to back. I would also be performing for small events or shopping malls that did not have a proper set-up area, so I had to be able to set up fast.

I essentially worked out of two cases and since I generally performed local shows, I used a lightweight plastic trolley covered with a black skirting for my table. This show was not very heavy but did not pack small as I had 4 different packages to transport.

Of course, my current show is at a different level with a different scale so the “pack small, play big, quick set-up and instant reset show” is just not possible for me. In the bid to play big yet still pack small, I have to sacrifice set-up and pack down time.

Comfortably, I require at least 30min to unpack and set up my show from the cases. I usually give myself an hour to load in and set up. This works because I almost never do more than one show at a time (unless it is the same venue). I am also particular about my staging, audio, lighting and video requirements so arrive at the show early. This gives me ample time to load-in, set up and conduct my technical rehearsals.

However, if your market and the types of shows you perform require you to have a fast set-up time, you may need to sacrifice either the ability to pack small or play big. This is especially so if you perform multiple shows in a day in different locations.

The reality is that it is difficult to stage a high-level show that packs small, plays big, sets up quickly and instantly resets. A compromise has to be made and you have to decide what is most important to you.

Stage Set-up

When I design a show, especially the “pack small, play big” show, I want everything to be self-contained. For this show, I work solo, so all props required are in my case tables or on my body. This keeps things neat and organized. There is little chance of losing props and the stage is kept neat.

I do not like a stage that is filled with props and tables as it looks like clutter from the audience’s perspective. It tends to look messy and can be very distracting for the audience. This can come across as unprofessional to some discerning clients.

Having multiple props/ tables in stage also means that you will take a longer time to set up on stage. For venues or events that have open platform stages with no main curtains, it is very unsightly to see multiple props being carried onto and set on stage.

Some performers work out of a single open suitcase on a table they get from the venue. While it is practical and works, I personally feel that it looks like a street show set-up and does not fit a proper stage show, especially if you are at a posh event or nice theatre venue.

This is my set-up for an open platform. It is a three-point set-up; meaning, there are three points on the stage where a prop or table is set up.

One prop (iFRAME) is set center back and is there throughout the show as I use the prop several times in the show. My other case table is set on stage back right at the start of the show.

I use one of the lids of the case to hold a large art canvas for my iFRAME act and this is set on the stage floor on stage left. This is hardly seen by the audience due to how low to the stage floor it is. So, from audience’s view, it looks like a two-point set-up.

3 point set up

I generally advocate a one or two-point set-up. This means you have just one or two main props/tables on stage. If you have a two-point set-up, ideally, you should have each prop/ table on either side of the stage. This gives symmetry and makes the stage set-up look more aesthetically pleasing. But it is not critical as it is more important that you can work your show effectively.

A three-point set-up should only be used if your stage is large enough so that the stage does not look cluttered.

Different configurations for stage set-ups are shown below.

good set ups

The above are acceptable stage set-ups, even though a 3-point set-up can look a bit cluttered if the stage is small.

bad set ups

The above are unacceptable stage set-ups because the props/ tables either block the audience’s view of the stage or makes the stage look cluttered and distracting.

If you really need multiple stage props or tables in your show, here are a few possible alternatives to cluttering up the stage:

Have an assistant, stage crew or even an ad hoc helper bring/ clear certain props/ tables for you during the show.

Set props/ tables just off the stage so that you can reach down to get them or step off the stage for a moment to retrieve the prop/ table. Have the prop/ table covered with a black cloth first so that it does not distract the audience until it is uncovered and used in the show.

Rethink your show and see how you can streamline the number of props/ tables you use.

How to Play BIG

Now that I have discussed how I pack the show “small”, here are some suggestions on how to play big:

Buy, build or modify props and equipment that set up or play big but pack down small and light.

For my iFrame illusion prop, I designed it to disassemble and break down into pieces. Some of the props in other acts also fit together to save space when packing.

You can also source for props such as:

  • Props that pack small but can play big such as silk streamers that can be twirled to fill a large space on stage
  • Props that be broken down to pieces to pack small such as hula hoops that breakdown into sections
  • Inflatable props
  • Props that have a large surface area but are very thin
  • Props that can light up such as LED props play very big on a darkened stage

Utilize as much of the stage as possible during performance. Like dancers who can fill a stage with dance movement, see how you can perform on different parts of the stage at different times.

For example, in the case of a stand-up comedian who typically does not use props to play big, he should not stay behind a microphone stand but should move to different parts of the stage to perform different bits. He could also go down to the audience and interact with different parts of the audience to spread the performance across the room.

If possible, use video packages, motion graphics, music and sound effects to enhance your show. Hitting multiple senses of the audience helps you play big. Incorporate these elements into your show and while not every show might have the technical support to incorporate these elements into your live performance, you will be ready when you can.

Involve spectators in your show. An entertainer like a hypnotist generally performs a talking act with minimal props. However, because a large number of people are often invited on stage to participate in the show, the show fills the stage and plays big. See how you can involve audience members to make your show play bigger, regardless of the performance field you are in.

Learn theatrical lighting to understand how lighting can be used to enhance your show. Learn different lighting fixtures and their functions. Learn how different lighting design patterns and combinations can be used to create different atmospheres. Learn how to use different colour combinations to create different moods.

While not all your shows may have a theatrical lighting system available, you should take full advantage of lighting when it is available. Working with a lighting designer or technician to enhance your show with lighting makes it play visually bigger and gives the show texture.

Develop your personality and showmanship. You, the performer, are the reason why the audience is watching the show. While you work on different ideas and techniques to play big, the most important thing is to work on yourself and learn to project your personality, enthusiasm, energy and passion as far out into the room as possible.

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