Ever since 1867, when Mark Twain booked passage on the first pleasure cruise to sail from America, the operators of cruise lines have worked to develop newer and more impressive ways to please and entertain their passengers. During his travels aboard the steamship Quaker City, as Twain documented in Innocents Abroad, the 76 passengers danced in the open air on the upper deck “lighted by no meaner lamps than the stars and the magnificent moon.” Today, cruise ships boast theatre facilities with plush auditoriums seating hundreds before stages that might make a venerable Broadway house jealous and where professional singers and dancers put on shows of increasing quality.
Auditorium at Sea
Carnival Cruise Line’s ship Carnival Destiny had full flies in its on-board theatre when it was launched in 1997. As cruise lines compete in theatrical offerings, a mini-industry has emerged to design and build productions for at-sea venues. Companies like Great Lakes Scenic in Burlington, Ontario, River City Scenic in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Scenery First in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania can boast of loyalty from different lines as they develop their reputations for understanding the unique challenges involved in this ever-growing specialty market. Great Lakes has been active in the cruise theatre field for at least 16 years, producing packages for Princess, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Silver Sea and Disney cruise lines.
John Hobbs, one of Great Lakes’ two partners, says that every line places a very strong emphasis on safety, so they work with the cruise lines to implement the designs of the creative teams within some very demanding standards. For example, Hobbs points out, “scenery all has to be hard fixed to eliminate sway. Nothing is suspended on lines in the theatre. Instead, it is all on fixed tracks connected to the grid system.”
Theatres onboard face additional complications, especially for the load-in/load-out processes. “Some ships have direct access to the theatre through an 8-foot-by-8-foot door that allows us to load containers straight into the stage space rather than coming aboard piecemeal,” says Hobbs. “But we’ve had to load in on some ships where everything had to go down decks in a passenger elevator. We’ve brought units into the auditorium space, over a balcony rail and then up onto the stage.”
Shipping containers aren’t the only area that customs and port requirements can affect. Carnival Cruise Line’s Alexis Chirulnicoff points out that pyrotechnics, always a complicating factor for theatres on land, can bring even more complications at sea. “We have customs and even the FBI at times [to answer to] as to how much pyro we can have aboard when we enter a U.S. port. If we’ve just taken on new stocks without having exhausted the earlier supplies, we may have to discharge some just to burn it up before we get into port.”
On board, the work of the stage crew is very much like the work of stage crews anywhere. But, of course, there are some venue-related peculiarities. On land, the stage doesn’t usually sway or rock. At-sea venues need to be capable of withstanding rough seas. Shows can be cancelled or re-scheduled when a ship finds itself in turbulent waters, of course. Aboard the Royal Caribbean ship Vision of the Seas, stage and production manager Mark Hiney says he’s never actually had to cancel a show in progress, although he did once have to announce that a second show of the night wouldn’t go forward after the dancers had difficulty during the early show. “The very few, slightly sickly people in the audience seemed more relieved than disappointed” he says.
While keeping tabs on everything affecting his Masquerade Theatre, Hiney keeps in touch with the officers on the ship’s bridge regarding such things as sea conditions, although he has his own way to judge sway. “When I walk in to the house, the first thing I look at is the main curtain. I know from its sway just how much of a problem we may or may not have.”
Sea state isn’t the only reason that the order in which shows are performed may be altered or even the running order of a particular show changed. “We don’t have room aboard for understudies or replacement casts” Hiney points out. “So, if a singer is sick or a dancer hurts an ankle we may have to shift things around.”
Not all the entertainment developments at sea take place in the ships’ theatres. Las Vegas-based theatrical flight specialists Flying by Foy developed a Centrum Wow show of acrobatic choreography using suspended set pieces in the central atrium aboard Royal Caribbean ships. The latest installation of the Centrum Wow equipment was aboard the Vision of the Seas during its multi- million dollar renovation in dry dock in Cadiz, Spain. Jason Wilson headed Foy’s team aboard the Vision during her transition cruise across the Atlantic when he described the process.
“Ships are such big projects and there aren’t always completely accurate ‘as built’ drawings available. When we cut in to attach our floating truss to the atrium’s center beam we found they hadn’t used one. We had to devise a work-around. Some of our stuff wouldn’t fit in the elevators, so we had to hand carry them down the staircase. But those are just challenges to be met.”
Wilson said that at sea you do have roll, pitch and yaw limitations which place clearance limits on the sway that can be accepted during a performance. But sea state is closely monitored and predictable, so they know when things will be too rough for a performance.
“The real challenge is vibration. The ship has those big engines turning huge screws and the vibration runs right through the structure to which we attach our rigs, so we design tolerances differently than we would on land.” This is also the reason that ship designers place the theatres on a low deck far forward, away from the engines and propellers
Shows stay aboard ships for longer than casts do. Shows may remain on board a given ship for years while casts are signed on for shorter tours. Royal Caribbean’s Broadway-style book shows (Hairspray, Chicago, Saturday Night Fever) have to swap out their casts multiple times. The costumes, however, live aboard. The first thing new cast members do when they get to the ship is have a fitting to adjust the costumes which are designed with two inch seams that can be taken in or let out to fit.
The current cast for Saturday Night Fever is the sixth since the show debuted aboard the Liberty of the Seas in 2011. Before they left to go aboard the Liberty of the Seas, the cast rehearsed in Royal Caribbean’s land-based rehearsal facility in Hollywood, Fla., which fight director J. Alex Cordaro calls “one of the nicest rehearsal spaces in the world.” The land-based facility is a busy place. The cruise line recruits worldwide to fill as many as 60 casts a year for its 20-plus ships. Each new cast spends between six and eight weeks at the facility, depending on the number and complexity of the shows aboard the ship on which they are slated to sail.
Less than two miles from that “nicest rehearsal space in the world” is a more bare-bones but even higher-tech facility that has been set up by Carnival Cruise Lines for the development of its new line of entertainment offerings called Playlist Productions.
Carnival is investing in what their director of creative development Kerry Stables terms “a leap into new technology” so they can standardize across the larger/newer ships with an LED-based structure which will allow something akin to “plug and play” capability. This will allow shows to be duplicated and/or switched between different ships. LED technology also means less power consumption and, as Carnival’s James Keaton pointed out, “at sea the more power you save the more fuel you save.”
Keaton also pointed out that, while the shows on ships now, and those that will be added, rely on show-running computer programs, “all our cues are fired manually. We want people watching the stage, not the computer. Also at sea you are running off of ship’s power, which is not always a constant 60 cycles.” He adds “if you plug in an alarm clock on board you will find that it gains or loses over time — most everyone relies on their phones for wake up calls.”
Such is the life aboard – with its own challenges but its own rewards.
Venues at Sea
The sea presents a whole different set of challenges when putting on a show, from the mundane to the mega