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The illusion begins with the magician presenting a low table, on which sits a low box that is slightly shorter than the table, leaving a section of the table uncovered at each end. The box has one arched opening in one end, two in the opposite end, and a removable section around one Foot (30cms) wide in the center. Removing the box, the magician shows that the top of the table is solid and only around an inch thick. The principal assistant then enters and, having removed their shoes, sits on the edge of the table. Turning, they recline and lay down on the table with their head at one end and their bare feet at the other. The magician then places the box over them, with their head projecting from the arched opening in one end, and their feet from the twin openings in the other end. With the assistant covered by the box, the magician takes a narrow metal plate and slides it into a horizontal slot in the lower edge of the box, at the base of the removable center section, so that it passes below the assistant, between their back and the top of the table. The magician then opens small doors on the side of each of the three sections of the box to show the assistant within.
Having shown the assistant within the box, the magician then closes the side doors again. Taking a small handsaw, they then begin to saw down through the slots between the sections of the box, dividing it, and the assistant within, into three. Having sawn through the box, the magician then inserts pairs of blades into the slots between the box sections, completing the division of the assistant. The magician then reopens the side doors to show that the assistant is still within the box. Taking hold of a handle attached to the top of the center section of the box, he lifts it up, removing it from between the other two parts. As the assistant's head and feet have been in full view of the audience at all times, this clearly shows that the assistant has indeed been divided into three.
Having shown the assistant in three pieces, the magician inserts the center section back into the middle of the box. He then removes the divider blades from between the sections, and then the metal plate from the base of the removable section. The box is then lifted off the table, showing the assistant safely back in one piece. The assistant then sits up, turns to swing their legs down, and climbs down off the table to take their bow with the magician.
In some performances, the magician omits the sawing and simply divides the assistant by inserting the divider blades.
Some versions of the illusion have holes in the upper part of the box to allow the assistant's arms to project out of the box. This allows them to reach down and feel the gap in the box.
Transparent box versionRecently, some magicians have started to perform an improved version of the Sawing in Thirds in which the traditional opaque wooden box is replaced by a transparent plastic one. This allows the audience to see the whole of the assistant's body within the box, clearly showing that they stay stretched out full-length within it all through the performance. This helps confirm to the audience that the assistant is indeed being cut into three pieces and that their middle section is indeed being removed. In some performances, the box is initially covered by a sheet, and only revealed as being transparent after having been placed over the assistant, while in other performances, it is left uncovered at all times. Due to its excellent visual impact, low demands on the assistant, and the fact that the audience can clearly see that the assistant's midsection really has been removed, this version has become a popular choice for magicians performing with untrained celebrity assistants.
Boxless versionsAnother variation on the traditional illusion dispenses with the box altogether, and the assistant is left completely uncovered all through the illusion. When performing this version, the magician simply pushes the blades down through the assistant's body and then removes their middle section in full view of the audience. This version is rarely performed by Western magicians, but is fairly popular in the Far East and Japan.
A third variation combines the transparent and box-less versions, with just a small clear box over the assistant's midsection, leaving the rest of their body exposed. When the assistant is divided, the blades are inserted into guides on either end of this clear box section, which is then removed to complete the assistant's division.
Due to the low demands it places on the assistant, who simply has to lay there and allow themselves to be divided, this illusion is a popular choice for magicians when working with untrained celebrity assistants.
- In 1980, magician Doug Henning, helped by actor Bill Cosby, performed the illusion on Batman actress Julie Newmar.
- Italian magician Silvan has often performed the original version this illusion with a range of guest celebrities, including TV presenter and politician Gabriella Carlucci. In his performances, he uses an electric saw to cut through the box before inserting the divider blades.
- During an unknown episode of the children's Saturday morning TV show Tiswas, presenter Sally James was sawed in three in this illusion. A brief clip of this sawing later appeared in the show's opening credits.
- On one episode of his 1980s Saturday night TV show, magician Paul Daniels performed the illusion on singer Eartha Kitt.
- While presenting her TV show How Dare You, former Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker was sawed in three in the original version of this illusion by magician Clive Webb.
- In January 2012, ESPN SportsNation reporter Michelle Beadle was sawed in three in the clear box version of the illusion by magician Shimshi. The performance was shot and shown in 3D.
- On the final episode of season 1 of his children's TV show Tricky TV, magician Stephen Mulhern performed the original version of the illusion on actress Mischa Barton.
- Columbian model and TV presenter Andrea Serna took part in this illusion while hosting one of her shows, being divided by magician Gustavo Lorgia.