The Unfair Stigma of the Cruise Ship Stage

Michael Arvelo

Thanks to an unexpected opportunity a couple years ago, for the first time in my life I was able to go on my very first cruise for 7 days across the Eastern Caribbean. While this article is sadly not sponsored by Royal Caribbean (and sadly no sort of kickback for saying my next words),  I cannot express enough the wonder that is a cruise and urge anyone that has the time and can find a deal to take one. That endorsement aside, there was a time spent on the ship where I began to think of the world from the Theatrical perspective and it was both inspiring and thought-provoking.

Cruise ships are known for providing any number of entertainment acts from comedy to music to a host of Broadway-style shows and everything in between.  While these types of options often inspire a giddiness within anyone who enjoys performance art, it was with great hesitation that I booked tickets for my ship’s conservative line-up of 3 Unknown comedians, Abba-Cadabra ( you guessed it – Abba-themed Variety show), and the world’s favorite cliché musical -  Cats.  It was hard to be fully excited knowing that with the majesty of the ocean surrounding me as well as a casino, drinks and socializing yet to be experienced that instead I would instead be held captive in a floating (and at times literally rocking) theatre listening to God knows who try to be funny,  Abba, and “Memory” which is a hard song to get out of one’s head even hours later. 

No, the excitement wasn’t overflowing but I have a confession. I enjoyed every damn minute of it.

I am sure you are all looking forward to some sort of review or critique of how Grizabella and Mr. Mistoffelees fared or how I can now bust out of the 70’s Swedish pop closet but that is not what I took away from watching these performances, as well as the performances of some solid edgy comedians and the acrobats and singers of “Come Fly With Me”.

Surprisingly, the thing I took away the most was a question:  Why is there such a stigma for Cruise Ship performances and players? Does this actually exist as far as you know?

The level of talent I saw on that stage was on par or better than any theatre outside of the coveted holy land of the Big Apple, and even then there may have been moments that could have sparked debate. Certainly, the production value as a whole is of note. Especially for something like “Come Fly With Me”, where seamless transitions were made with a moving stage and dare-devil moves that hinge on accuracy and timing of props and suspensions on an uncontrollable ocean were made without a hint of any real threat. I know plenty of theatres that can’t remove a table from the stage without making it seem like they’re trying to rebuild the Pyramids from scratch. It was a wonderful display of high-level ability across the board. Yet all I could think about was a time back in college, overhearing another theatre major being asked the question of “What do you think you’ll do once out of school?” and their reply“I don’t know. With my luck, I’ll end up working a cruise ship.”  I can’t help but be curious if this was perhaps a personal feeling on the part of the responder who had a typical Broadway or Bust mentality or if it’s an across the board stigma of which I admittedly fell victim to.

Looking at it now, if anything, I actually can see almost more benefits to a cruise theatre/performance lifestyle from the stage end. The pay can’t be any better or worse than it is for your average theatre work. You likely get room and board comped for whatever duration of a show running/cruise length. You travel to any number of exotic destinations, have access to free food, and are constantly meeting new people.  That’s only the material benefits that are hard to find elsewhere. From a more internal standpoint, you work for a captive audience that is on vacation.

Your audience is also no different than what you would find in a local theatre. If anything the opportunities to reach younger crowds may be in your favor. Cruises are filled with generally older people (as they have the money) but if you look at the average age of your regular theatre season ticket holders, they are not far off. Families and interested parties are more likely to take part in a cruise show because it’s there and accessible versus driving 20 minutes and paying to see Medium-Smallville’s local production of Fiddler on the Roof.  Another thing that the cast and crew on a cruise can do is pull other duties with other activities that engage them with the audience. I had the distinct pleasure of learning to ChaCha with the cast of Cats during one of their off nights and nothing endeared me more to the cast than later running into them again during a Michael Jackson Tribute DJ and dancing further. It’s exposure that if actors/actresses are really honest with themselves, they yearn for. They want to be the kings and queens of their domain and honestly, what better domain than a floating paradise?

I’m not saying that people out of school or looking to redefine their theatrical careers need to immediately find a way to perform on board a cruise ship (no matter how awesome it sounds). As with anything, there are likely pros and cons and not everyone’s situation and preferences align perfectly. Plus we all know that really, you want to be in New York City anyway. That’s fine.

The point I hope to create in this article is something bigger. Bigger than an appreciation of some good talent and great shows that I happened to witness and will recommend to all. The point and discussion I hope to create is that “we” theatre people need to start losing stigmas. Don’t dare lie to yourself. You have them. From the "artsiest" person to the refined personality to the “clique”/elitist types to the casual performer, we all have a stigma associated with certain acts, venues, and career paths. Whether you are looking to enjoy the work of others or perhaps carve out your own mark in the world of performing arts, one of the most important things you can do is keep an open mind. Your future and the future of theatre as a whole depends on an open mind.

As I have experienced on board an oasis on the seas, you’d be surprised where one may find inspiration or the simple art of satisfaction.