Fred Becker – Cruise Ship Do's And Don'ts

Fred Becker

When Mark Stevens was getting the latest SME catalog together he asked me if I could think of the “top five doís and doníts” for working on cruise ships. His idea was to have a sidebar for one of the articles in the “catazine” (my word).

For a sidebar in an article it is important to keep the items brief and without lengthy explanation. However, for people interested in cruise ships, we can explore the topics in detail here on GeMiNi. A cruise ship job is oddly different than in other performing situations you may find yourself. With that in mind, here we have the expanded list of Cruise Ship Doí and Doníts:

Do have a professional act. Each passenger watching your show receives a “comment card” at the end of the cruise. The professionalism of your act will be graded each cruise you take. It is sink or swim out there, so learn your craft well before attempting a job at sea. Furthermore, a cruise ship job is not a place to “wing it.” There is too much at stake. You should absolutely know how long your sets run. The Cruise Director might tell you to do twenty-five minutes on one show and forty on the next. He is depending on you to cover exactly those times. There is a schedule on ships. Some are tighter than others are, but typically they may need to entertain one group while another is eating, then they shift. The timing must be right, you donít want to hold up the kitchen!

Do have cue sheets for light and sound technicians. Early upon your arrival on the ship you will be contacted by the stage manager. He or she will want to know what special requirements you need and how much rehearsal time to schedule. You should be familiar with your technical requirements. Talk to him about the kind of lighting and sound you need and any backstage help you will require. At rehearsal you should be able to supply written cue sheets that explain how and when all the technical things happen during your act. For music I use a programmable minidisc unit and recommend that should you use recorded music you get the highest quality playback method you can. If you use extensive and complex lighting, I recommend you bring videotape of your act to show the lighting technician how youíd like it to look. Light fixtures change from place to place, but the same mood and affect can be created from various sources.

Do understand there is a live band on the ship. If you will work ships a great deal you may wish to utilize this lost resource. Live music behind your act can make it more alive and vital than you ever imagined. Even if you currently use no music at all, consider the use of the band on the ship. Most Cruise Directorís will expect “play on and play off” music for you. This means, after you are introduced and as you walk on the stage there should be music playing. Likewise at the end of your set and you take bows and walk off, music plays again. Most ship bands have stock “tabs” (another word for the above) that can be used, but I think it does you good to investigate the possibilities. I had special tabs arranged for me; they are played in a “funk” beat and are quite lively to compliment the fun and light atmosphere of my act. You may want a different mood created and “play ons” can do just that.

Do understand stage deportment; how to enter, exit, take a curtain call, etc. This is all part of professionalism. First impressions matter, but never more than when you are on stage. During the first 30 seconds, your audience will size you up. They make judgements about you that will color their attitudes about what you do. The first moments are critical. You need to strategically decide how you will present yourself immediately upon your introduction.

Likewise you should give careful consideration to the end of your act. How will you finish? How will you exit the stage? Cruise ship shows all have emcees, so you will be called back to the stage for a bow. Iíve seen many inexperienced performers finish their acts and walk off stage and miss their curtain call.

Typically, an act will finish their last routine and take a bow as the M.C. announces the actís name. The band will play a quick and bouncy piece of music as the performer walks off stage. The emcee will then ask the audience to “call the performer back,” with another round of applause. At this point the entertainer walks back to the stage to receive the applause. If the emcee deems it necessary (by the audienceís enthusiasm) he may bring the act back for more bows. Some performers have little bits of business or extensions of their acts to add to the effectiveness of their curtain calls.

Do research the ships you intend to work on. I think it wise to know, as much about the situation you will most likely find yourself working. Do your homework. This may include such trade magazines as “Cruise Travel” and “Porthole.” It would be wise to read books on cruising and travel guides. Talk to others that have experience. But donít overlook Cruise Line Brochures as a resource. Much can be gleaned from these brochures, including the market they cater to and schematics of the shipsí decks. Once you get used to reading them you can tell at a glance what kind of showroom facilities you will be dealing with.

Do be prepared. You canít run to the magic shop or hardware store once at sea. Even when in most of the ports you call on it will be hard to find resources. So the best bet is to come prepared. This means careful planning. If you are not normally well organized, use packing lists. Map out everything. Know where everything belongs and how many supplies of consumables you have.

Proper flight cases made a big difference for me. It used to be a matter of flying to a ship, then unpacking to see what the airlines had broken, and then trying to fix that thing up for the contract. Then I started having custom fit cases made for all my props. That did the trick. The repairs are minimal, but my cases sure show the scars for protecting all those precious contents. Most of my cases are made by Encore Cases. The owner of Encore is a performer and understands our needs quite well. I recommend them to you. Contact; Encore Cases, 8818 Lankershim Blvd., Sun Valley, CA 91352, USA. Telephone 818 768 8803.

Do have a quality audition videotape. No one, but no one, gets booked without a videotape. The better your tape the better your chances of getting booked. All the other promo you send will only support that video.

Remember who will be watching this tape. The Cruise Entertainment Director will most likely watch your tape only once. He or she will make a quick judgement about you within a few minutes. Put you best foot forward and make sure that what you show is consumable to this venue. If you are unsure of the suitability of your tape for the cruise market you might consider my video tape evaluation service. For a small fee, I will write you a report on your current video with my opinion on how it will play to a cruise entertainment director and make suggestions on improvements to make your tape a better sales tool. Contact me via email, [email protected] for more details.

Do be patient. Entertainment Directors and agents receive hundreds of tapes a week. There is no way they can drop everything to watch each tape as it comes in. Chances are they donít start looking for a new act until one of their usual suspects can not do the job. Therefore it may well be worth it too you to have an attractive video cover design to give your tape the edge over the competition. (Which I also evaluate in the above mentioned service.)

Do have about 70 minutes of solid material. In most cases you will need to perform two long shows (25/40 minutes) and perhaps one small variety show performance. So it is not just a matter of time, but of three sets of openers and closers. On most contracts I carry about a 100 minutes of material, but I would never consider doing them as one long show. I have three sets and extra odds and ends that can be brought out in an emergency (a performer is sick or misses the ship and the Cruise Director needs an emergency show).

It is possible to work cruises with less material. Lines that offer short cruises or will bring an act in for one show only are out there. Perhaps you have a 10-minute manipulation act that would make a perfect opening act for a larger show. These are all possible. However you will be limited to those few outlets that use that type of act.

There is limited cabin space to keep entertainers. Therefore most cruise companies will try to get the most bang for their buck. This means getting the most shows out of the fewest performers -pure economics.

Donít try to work on a ship before you have the material. This is not the place to try out stuff. Much of live entertainment has moved out to sea, and there is a high degree of professionalism currently cruising. Once filled with has-beens and never-beens, the reality of todayís exploding ship industry has attracted top performers.

Furthermore, there is an invisible network between cruise companies. Although Iíve never understood how it happens, news travels. Company A knows what company B is doing. My point is simple, going on a ship unprepared, not doing well in the ratings may not only close the door to that one cruise line, but may mean youíve closed the door on several. Likewise, doing well on your first time out may mean smooth sailing for as much work on cruise ships as you like.

Donít wait until you get a booking to get your travel documents together. Obtaining a passport is neither difficult nor expensive. But it can take time. Many performers get their first invitation to work on the ship with out much notice. (A regular act cancelled and the company is willing to try someone new.) It will behoove you to have yourself ready to travel. The book the “Cruise Magicianís Handbook” explains in detail the procedure to obtain a passport quickly. However, if you have the luxury of time, you can simply start the process by making a trip to the post office.

As mentioned above make sure your act is ready for the rigors of travel. Donít wait here either. Airlines and baggage handlers can wreak havoc on equipment. Make sure that you have proper cases and ways to pack your show.

Donít think it is all about you. You will be in a situation that people come up to you daily to tell you how wonderful you are. This can be intoxicating, but keep it in perspective. Ship life is not the real world, “donít” let it go to your head.

You are part of an overall entertainment package. I think it important that you support your fellow entertainers. Donít get caught up in a ratings competition. I have often been blessed with a situation that I receive the highest overall entertainment rating on the ship. But it is like comparing apples and oranges. I most often get these outstanding scores when there is no other variety act on board. I never allow myself the fantasy that I am superior to the other acts. Simply I am judged on a different scale. (Indeed I often feel Iím on the ship because I DONíT sing or dance.) Furthermore when I get lower ratings than other acts I donít take it personally. If there was another magician on and there was a big disparity in our scores, then Iíd wonder why.

I have adopted the philosophy that “a high tide floats all boats.” I want to be on a ship with all strong acts. It is a snowball effect. The audienceís enthusiasm builds with each show. This means success for the cruise line and for you.

Donít think you are done when the show is over. Cruising is unique in that you live with your audience after your show. People will be watching you all the time, theyíll want to spend time with you and get to know you. This can be hard for some entertainers to adjust too. Frankly, I find it rather rewarding, though at times trying.

My advice is for you to be yourself, but with the best etiquette you can muster. My wife and I have had a successful career in cruising in part because we dress properly, act appropriately and genuinely care about people that we meet. These are all things that we do off stage, but they are things that have made several cruise directors call the home office requesting the Beckers for their ships.

Donít leave home without your copy of the Cruise Magicianís Handbook. This is more than a blatant plug for my book (although it is that). However, there are far more doís and doníts than I can write about in this column. The Cruise Magicianís Handbook is sort of my final word on all of them. The book was written as a “handbook” meaning it is reference book. It covers many situations that only are valuable when they happen to you. Heck, I wrote the thing and I still find myself looking things up to see what advice it gives! And I often kick myself for not following my own advice on some subject.

Good Luck and Calm Seas!