Cruise control: backstage opportunities at sea
Budding technicians tell John Byrne how honing their skills on the high seas has proved just as fruitful a career choice as it has for singers, dancers and actors
When the topic of entertainment on cruise ships is raised, the first pictures that spring to mind are usually of sequins, show tunes and high energy music and dance. In some ways this image is entirely justified: the standards of performance on board the top cruise lines are the equal of many West End and Broadway shows.
Hidden from the spotlight, but no less an integral part of these impressive production values, is the work of an army (or perhaps one should say ‘a navy’) of very experienced -technical and backstage workers.
For many of them life on the ocean wave has proved just as fruitful a career choice as for singers, dancers and actors. Although Rob Wells’ background is in backstage technical work, the beginning of his own shipboard career will be familiar to anyone who has ever felt the call of the open sea.
He explains: “I moved to Southampton to study at university and would regularly see the large cruise ships docked in the port. One day I saw an advert in the local paper recruiting for technicians for P&O Cruises. I applied and got the job.”
This first job led to a total of 13 years working on ships all over the world. “I didn’t do any formal training as such. Instead, like most ‘techies’, I learnt the trade and gained valuable experience on the job, working in different theatres and music venues and setting up and operating the lighting and sound systems for a variety of shows and events.”
For Kirsten Conroy, a graduate of Guildhall School of Music and Drama now working as an entertainment production manager for Norwegian Cruise Line, working on shipboard productions was a way to combine her twin passions for theatre and travel.
She is still very enthusiastic about this career path, especially “being part of a global, diverse team – the friends you make on the ship are like your family”.
However, like almost every experienced cruise technician, she says that life behind the scenes on a ship can be a lot less relaxing than it might be for the paying passenger. “You won’t be sunbathing at every port. The logistics and organisation to bring shows to life are a mammoth operation. For a newcomer, the first couple of weeks can be daunting. There is an awful lot to learn and familiarise yourself with and sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming. Starting out, I wasn’t quite expecting the range of extra duties that come with the position.
“For example, being a health and safety expert and undergoing continuous training. That said, we have amazing crews on board and everyone is helpful and supportive.”
Alexander Allen, whose ocean-going career has included work as a lighting technician, production manager, LX programmer and lighting designer, agrees that some of the most memorable times at sea are the occasions when it literally is a case of ‘all hands on deck’. “My biggest challenge ever was probably a new year cruise when, hours before an open-air deck party to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I was part of the team that had to make the decision to postpone the outdoor party due to bad weather caused by a sudden tropical storm, which often happens in the Caribbean.
“We then had to work flat out to open and decorate all indoor venues as substitute places of entertainment to allow all the passengers to ‘party in style’. It was done with five hours to spare until midnight and the new year.”
Allen advises any technician wanting to break into cruise work to give it a go “but be prepared to work long hours, assist other theatre technical departments besides working within your own speciality and be happy to commit to repeat contracts (at least three contracts or 18-months’ worth) to really get a feel for and gain the long-lasting benefits that a life-at-sea offers”.
In noting that BECTU can be just as good a source of advice and support on shipboard technical careers as on more landlocked ones, Allen also recommends newcomers brush up on their financial skills alongside their technical ones. “One lesson I wish I had learnt earlier is to be more careful with my earnings while at sea. It’s very easy to spend what you earn, even though accommodation and food are provided while working. When you rotate back to land after just one contract, or even after a few, you’ll be glad if you have been watchful with money and invested it wisely.”
In terms of investment, technical work at sea can offer very worthwhile returns from both an artistic and career advancement point of view.
Breanna Hughey is senior production manager for Princess Cruises and has so far visited 20 countries sailing across Asia, the South Pacific, the west coast of North America, Europe, and the Caribbean.
She has found that it is not only her travel dreams that can be fulfilled in the world of cruise entertainment. “I absolutely love the work of Stephen Schwartz and thanks to Princess, I am now part of producing a brand new show of his that will premiere at the beginning of next year.”
As for Wells’ current work with P&O Cruises, more than a decade at sea may have led to a shore-based role, but it is one that can be no less adventurous. “As entertainment technical executive, I help to oversee and run the technical entertainment aspects and production departments of 11 cruise ships across two well-known brands.
“We employ people from many different nationalities and utilise high-end sound, lighting and stage systems. Every day is different.
“Being a part of a new ship build or refit team, and getting the technical production systems up and running and ready for show launch, brings all kinds of new challenges. It’s certainly not all ‘plain sailing’, so to speak, but when it all goes well, knowing that we have played a part in entertaining the guests on board and contributing to their positive holiday experiences makes the journey completely worthwhile.”