Avast! (Somebody stop me…) We’re back for more Life Upon the Wicked Sea…Stage. In the previous installment, we looked at the kinds of shows and entertainers you would find on a cruise ship; now we’re going to examine what life is like onboard.
This is where you really must decide if you are cut out for this kind of work. My castmates sign contracts that basically say for seven months, they will live on the ocean, on this boat. In a tiny room. And I mean tiny. It may be private, with its own private bath, or you may share a bathroom, or you may even have a roommate in your tiny little space. Frankly even if you have a single cabin, you still live on top of everyone else. And you eat ship food. Some cruise lines allow entertainers to eat (and drink) with the guests, they even encourage it, to provide a more fun guest experience. Others do not allow this, and you are for the most part resigned to eat in what’s known as the Crew Mess (it’s a military term for crew cafeteria). The food you eat may be fine, or it may not, but your biggest complaint may be that it’s THE SAME. Same stuff, different day.
The lifestyle and rules, of course, vary from company to company. Along with dining privileges, you may have what is commonly referred to as “guest status,” meaning that basically you can behave like a guest if you are dressed appropriately, behaving reasonably, and not interfering with a paying guest’s experience. So you can go out and sunbathe, enjoy the pools, hot tubs, buffets, sometimes an adult beverage, if that’s your thing…but if you don’t have guest status, you may find these experiences are few and far between. Something to consider in the contract negotiation phase.
In most theatrical productions, your cast becomes your temporary (sometimes permanent) family. On a ship, it’s not only the cast, but the crew who run the everyday ship operation, who are also part of that family. And they are from other countries, other cultures, in fact the American percentage of crew members is usually small. On my ship we have representatives from 6 of the 7 continents (I don’t think there are any Antarcticans…). And I’m sure all cruise companies are the same.
A quick note on the non-performing crew—these people work very hard, very long hours. The average crew member here works 80 hours a week, without complete days off. Yes, there are laws that protect them from employer abuse, but in general they work…a lot. And the clear majority of them are very, very good at their jobs. They should be applauded, appreciated, and respected for their work ethic, dedication, and attitude.
I mentioned laws. Each company has their own rules of conduct, their own employee guidelines, but that’s not all you have to contend with, you must deal with Maritime Law. Maritime Law is the law that covers the oceans, the rules and codes that are common to almost all sailors of any nationality. These laws are born in the military, and though we as performers did not join any armed service when we agreed to perform in “Those Fabulous 50’s” aboard the “SS PartyAllNight”, most of the ship leadership (called the Steerage Committee) has some military background. And we all will want that, and appreciate that.
There’s a lot of rules: places you can’t go, foods you can’t bring on board, number of people in a particular area…yeah, it can seem extreme. But I always feel the answer to your inevitable question of “Why?” is simply this:
5000 PEOPLE ON A TIN CAN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN.
That’s a lot of people (and the approximate total of the ship I work on, including crew). What if something goes wrong? Power failure? Missing person? Terrorist attack? Yeah, we want some people with real skill and real training to take the lead. Incidentally, all crew members have responsibilities when it comes to safety duties. Typically, the performers have jobs like organizing and keeping the guests as calm and comfortable as possible, while people with more expertise man the lifeboats and ready the evacuation, if necessary.
Do you know what the most common and potentially crippling safety event on board a cruise ship is? It’s called gastroenteritis. Which means a really bad stomach bug, which could affect hundreds of people if not managed properly. It’s not the Titanic, but it’s bad news none the less.
So that’s why there are so many rules; it’s just too large a population in too small a space to not have a very solid structure in place. Sometimes the rules may not make sense to you, but trust me, they are in place for a reason.
Earlier I mentioned that I would talk about taking care of yourself on board a ship. First, you need to know your ship’s itinerary, that is, where you’re going. I’m on a Caribbean cruise– Eastern one week and Western the next, and the home port is Florida, so I’m typically in a warm to hot climate. That means when I am in my cabin or other indoor areas, I’m breathing recycled air, and living in air conditioning. Some people are very sensitive to air conditioning and find it may affect their singing voice. To counteract this (and the feeling of cabin fever), try to spend as much time out in the fresh air as you can. You face a similar problem on an Alaskan cruise, but in reverse, you’ll walk into heated rooms that may dry you out. Know where you’re going and prepare as best you can, by bringing all your secret remedies for vocal issues.
Remember when I called the ship a tin can? Well, it’s steel if I’m being fair. It’s steel underneath the carpet, underneath the laminate floor, and underneath most of the stages. For dancers, that means the floors aren’t forgiving (or “sprung” if that means anything to you), so you must take care of your body and allow lots of recovery time for demanding shows. Foam rollers, massage tools, all become necessities.
You should also keep in mind that there is no union jurisdiction on board a ship. It’s not against my union’s rules to be here, but I don’t enjoy any of the benefits of working in a union house, such as accrued health insurance weeks, pension contributions, and representation in my workplace. I’m essentially on my own out here, and though I trust my employer, I joined Actors’ Equity for a reason.
And of course, we should acknowledge the incredible impracticality of the gig. You’re often in the middle of the ocean, so you know, there’s no Taco Bell run at midnight. Out of toothpaste? Good news, there’s a crew store; it doesn’t have your brand, oh well. Really missing your girlfriend at home? Sure, you can call her, but phone calls from the ocean are expensive, if they’re even possible. And there’s no streaming Netflix out here, the internet isn’t very powerful and it costs a lot of money. So your creature comforts are very limited. Hardly the end of the world, but don’t underestimate the value of simply walking through a grocery store, eating at the Olive Garden, or seeing a current movie.
With all that said, there’s a ton of advantages to jobs like these. You might be pushed to your limits as a performer, and as you meet those limits, they expand. You’ll travel to places you might not otherwise. You’ll meet amazing people from different cultures. And yeah, these jobs usually pay quite well, better than most standard theatre jobs at least. Your housing and food is provided, you can save the vast majority of your salary, and you should. It’s a perfect opportunity to build that cushion we all need to pursue less-paying opportunities that may be more artistically satisfying.
If I were pressed, I’d say that the cruise ship is a young person’s game. I’m married with a family, and they’re not here, and that’s tough. Sure, I get great benefits to share with them, but the cost is my absence from their lives for a brief while. My job requires someone of “a certain age,” but in general I think the younger crowd can enjoy this experience the most, as typically there’s not as many attachments to home for them.
The work here is often fun, sometimes a grind, but overall it’s a very well-paid vacation. If you want to save some money for your move to a bigger market, it may be ideal for you. But if you are someone who struggles with too much structure or a perceived lack of freedom, it may not be in your future. In either case, safe travels, and may the wind be always in your sails.