A couple performers in the Philadelphia area link up once a month and session at a local bar/restaurant in the suburbs. The sessions rarely have any primary focus; the performers simply come together and discuss and share whatever they like. Last night was particularly interesting as there was a strong focus on mentalism. I started talking about the use of billets and wanted to elaborate on some thoughts here. Hoping more experienced guys like Craig can contribute to the discussion as well.
In my opinion, the use of billets are often overlooked in contemporary performance. Over the past decade, the industry released several clever peek wallets, impression devices, and even electronic apps to help a performer secretly acquire information for use in mentalism. The low-tech, rudimentary presence and use of such billets--in my opinion-- outweigh a lot of the benefits that such 'advances' offer in terms of real-world practicality, pocket space, and versatility. I carry billets everywhere I go and often rely on them to perform for formal and causal audiences, alike.
Last night, I was asked how I justify the use of a billet-- or how I justify someone writing a thought down on paper. I did some reflection on the spot, and noticed... the way I personally present billet work doesn't require justification at all. I simply tell a person to write down the name of a close relative that I obviously would never know; the more unique a name, the better, to disqualify any chances of mere guesswork. Here's the thing... a participant shouldn't exactly know what to expect when they first write a name down on the paper. At that point, it's simply a request for them to do a task. Too often, I observe other performers have the spectator think of the name/information FIRST... commit that name/information to memory... and THEN have the individual write the name down. In my opinion, if the participant knows you're a supposed thought-reader, the last thing you want them focus on a thought before they write it down. It's subtle, but I think it's very important. It makes no sense for them to think of something first, expect you to read their minds, only to have them write the information down. That's where you'll see the majority of spectators grow skeptical and resistant to your performance. On the other hand-- if you just hand them the paper and tell them to write down a name... they're completing a task rather than making a thought. They have no context to make any assumptions. They can't tell what you're about to do because you haven't given any inclination. Even if they know you're a thought-reader... at this point, the name isn't a thought to be revealed yet; it's simply a name written on paper. Hoping that makes sense.
I also found that effective billet work is nearly completely reliant on attitude. After the participant writes down the information and folds the billet in preparation for a peek or tear, it should appear to be the last thing on the performer's mind. I tell the participant to "just toss the paper aside" and solely focus on the information. I interact with the participant a lot here and try to (a) develop some time misdirection between the reveal and the spectator writing the information down and (b) legitimately attempt to read the participant. This is a great time to practice and grow proficient a cold reading. At the end, you're going to have a surefire personal revelation, so you can take your time here to branch off and attempt to explore the relationship between the participant and the information they wrote down. Try to turn misses into hits. Make it a two-way conversation and get the participant emotionally invested in what you're attempting to do. I find that some of the most memorable moments occur in this dialogue of the performance. For instance, at a recent Sweet 16 gig, I had a girl write down the name of her childhood best friend. After tossing the paper to the side the following exchange happened:
"Just toss the paper aside. We'll try this instead. Hold my hands; take a deep breath and relax. No one else is here but you and me. Drown out the party; drown out everyone watching... if we can both focus on one another, something amazing will happen that you'll remember for the rest of your life. I promise."
"Imagine this person standing before you right now. Take in what they looked like when you last spoke to them. Focus on their features and posture and mannerisms. ...Good. You're looking up. Noticing hair right now; I'm assuming this is a female figure, yes? A brunette girl..."
"YES! It's a girl, but she's not brunette..."
"But she does have her hair back in your imagination-- The important thing here is to focus more on your relationship with this person. You're close; almost like sisters-- but you're not related, that's right? And for some reason, it's been a while since you reached out to one another..."
"...Yeah." (I personally noticed she hesitated as if she was almost uncertain of something. I felt the need to explore it.)
"Wait... you did. Not too long ago; about a week... maybe two. Did she text you or did you text her?"
"No." (I noticed she smiled as if there was something I was 'on' about but not enough to be accurate)
"There's something here though. Don't give anything away. You did text someone... someone close to her. Was it her sister?"
"OH MY GOD, YES! Her sister texted me about a picture she found from a birthday they had!" (This was like a Godsend for me. They. Twins?
"Awesome! Now wait... there's something interesting about your friend and her sister. I might be totally offbase, but they're really close in age, right?"
"Wait, wait, wait... they're twins. But there's a difference between the two... Don't give me any names, but did one of them dye their hair?"
"OH MY GOD! YES! They didn't dye their hair, but they were identical twins except one was blonde and the other was brunette! That's just like what you said! How are you doing this?!"
That is a genuinely true story. Most people will say I just came out stupid lucky... I'd agree with that, but I wouldn't have gotten lucky if I didn't attempt to do a genuine read in the first place. It might sound static and too good to be true on paper, but in practice, as a performer, you get so much comprehensible input to work with. Hints in body language, facial expressions, verbal responses, all assist you in making choices in dialogue. And I did all that without touching the billet at all. In fact, that interaction played so well, I contemplated leaving it there and not even referring to the name again. I ultimately decided to execute a tear and leave the pieces with the participant as if I was finished. She ultimately asked me if I knew the name she was thinking about. When I answered, I whispered in her ear, and she freaked out. It was one of the major highlights of the entire evening. Played even stronger, because she specifically asked me to reveal the information.
I suppose I'll end this post here. I could literally talk about little pieces of paper for hours, but I hope there's enough food for thought here. To recap, in my opinion-- I believe effective billet work follows this structure:
1. The information isn't initially treated like a thought.
2. After the information is written, the paper is completely disregarded.
3. Billet work/revelations make for perfect opportunities to make strong cold readings.
4. The written information isn't considered a thought until well after the paper is disregarded/discarded.
So long as the performance follows the guidelines above, I believe the billets are essentially rendered invisible among the spectators.