Adding some MAGIC to an Already MAGICAL Experience
The article below was written by Mr Fred Becker. This information will be very helpful to most any aspiring performer that is considering marketing to perform on Cruise Ships. Personally, it’s not for me. I’d prefer to be enjoying and relaxing on the cruise and perhaps be in the audience in this venue.
WRITTEN by Fred Becker
Occasionally, I hear magicians speak poorly about those that work on cruise ships. This attitude surprises me. The fact is, much of our kind of show business has moved out to sea. The cruise industry continues to grow, with new fully equipped showrooms that need entertainment nightly.
Nearly all ships use some kind of variety entertainment on every cruise. I would guess that magic is the most common, with instrumentalists and jugglers a tie for second place. On a typical ship you might see a cast of (6-16) production show singers and dancers, a comedian, a magician, a juggler or instrumentalist and a feature vocalist. Many cruises have started to buy “name” acts, as well.
So why is there this bad attitude toward cruise ship acts? I can think of several reasons, some justified and some not.
Could it be because of the isolation required by sea travel? You don’t get a lot of press while working a ship. No one except the cruise passengers come to see you work. You may be a headliner on the ship, but once the contract is over you are relatively unknown. This could definitely contribute to a lack of recognition, but the problem maybe deeper than that.
Could it be that ships are not considered as legitimate showplaces, compared to a hotel casino in Las Vegas? Well, much like hotels, there are all types of cruise ships. There is the Ritz Carlton, then again there’s Motel Six! It would be unfair to judge the industry with a blanket statement that cruises are second-class.
Many many magicians have consistently worked on the top rated luxury cruise lines of its class in the world. The company has actually defined a new level of service and amenity, to be considered by Conté Nast a “six star” facility. Even with this air of sophistication the ship has personality and the guests (we never call these people “passengers”) are fun and approachable. The average cost for a cruise is $1000.00 per person per day, and the typical cruise is ten to eighteen days long! It is definitely First Class all the way.
As a “guest entertainer, magicians have full use of the ship and all its luxury. They live in a suite with a double bed, picture window, TV/VCR, video library, a stocked refrigerator, a walk-in closet and marble bathroom with tub! All food and drinks are provided. Plus the ship travels to the most interesting places on Earth accessible by sea!
Is this standard for cruise ship magicians? No. Without being a “name act,” this is as good as it gets for for the average performer. And it takes years to build a reputation in the industry to arrive here. You need to start by working the mass-market cruises and living conditions are nothing close to this standard. Your first job will put you in a cabin that is only a foot longer than the bed and not much wider!
According to its marketing a cruise ship attracts a vacationing crowd from a cross-section of North America, the UK and sprinkles of other nationalities. The material you choose must be appealing to that audience. It doesn’t matter what other magicians think of it, your material has to please those people or you don’t work anymore!
At the end of each cruise, the passengers fill out “Comment Cards.” These forms ask them to grade the performance of many things on the ship including the magician! Who else in the entertainment field gets a “report card” from every member of the audience for every show they perform? Typically, the passengers rate you as Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair or Poor. These are given a number value and an average “rating” is tabulated after each cruise. You must maintain an overall excellent rating. If you don’t make the grade you’re gone.
So the case can be made that those that work consistently must at least be good for their venue, regardless of their peer’s opinion of them. Furthermore, many cruise lines hire through agents as a screening process. Some agents have strong reputations because they consistently provide the right acts for the right ship. Their livelihood is connected to those comment cards too!
Okay, so what IS the problem then? Well, here’s the deal, to do a good job you need a minimum of 80 minutes of material. Does this material need to be entertaining? Yes. Does it need to be artistic? Not always. Does it need to be original? No. Does it need to be toast of the magic community? Not even close.
That minimum of eighty minutes is a real grabber, too. Not that many acts have that much “A” material, especially three openers and closers. There are some fantastic performers that have 10-20 minutes. Incredible acts, yet when they need to fill more time they can really fall apart.
Having said all that, the “seascape” maybe changing. Cruise passengers are generally well-traveled people. They have been to Las Vegas, Broadway and the Palladium. They have also been on many cruises. They have seen a lot of entertainment and a lot of magic. This new “golden age of magic” can only be maintained if the performers keep the audiences engaged with quality and novel performances.
I must plead guilty. I was trained on the, “It’s not what you do, but how you do it,” school of thought. “Classics done well” is the way to go, I believed. However, these days it is very wise to make sure your act doesn’t look like everyone else’s. Ask any cruise entertainment director about magicians’ videotapes, they all look alike. Same routines, same patter, too many card tricks.
This I believe is the problem with the reputation of today’s cruise magicians. If you have thought of working on a cruise ship, don’t be deterred by naysayers. But at the same time don’t think it is not a professional venue. With eighty minutes of solid performance material to develop, it is not a job to be entered into lightly!
Tips on Cruise Work
Compiled here is some advice for those of you interested in working the cruise industry. The following should help you understand what it takes to get and keep your job on board the ship.
First, make sure you have a professional act. Although this is good advice for most markets you may enter as an entertainer, it is particularly true of the cruise industry. Each passenger watching your show receives a “comment card” at the end of the cruise. The audience will in effect grade the professionalism of your act after each cruise you work. It is sink or swim out there, so learn your craft well before attempting a job at sea. Be certain that you not only perform magic but also entertain people.
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, but typically they may need to entertain one group while another is eating, then they shift. The timing must be right; you don’t want to hold up the kitchen!
Prepare cue sheets for light and sound technicians. Early upon your arrival on the ship the stage manager will contact you. 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. If you use recorded music I recommend that you put it on 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 you’d like it to look. Light fixtures change from place to place, but the same mood and affect can be created from various sources.
You have the ability to work with a live band on the ship. If you plan on working on 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 Director’s 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, when you take your 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 possibility of something custom made for you.
Be familiar with 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 judgments 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. I’ve 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 act’s 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 audience’s 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.
On a cruise you will be expected to know how conduct yourself and your act in a real theater setting. This is not always something a magician that is used to working solo is familiar with. You will deal with other professionals like the an emcee, stage manager, sound engineer, light technician, orchestra leader and other professional entertainers that you will share the stage and dressing room with. You should know stage terminology, blocking and what light designs you will need. If all this is foreign to you, get some experience before trying the ship market.
I think it wise to know as much about the situation in which you will find yourself working. Do your homework; research the ships you intend to work. 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 don’t overlook Cruise Line Brochures as a resource. Much can be gleaned from these brochures, including the market they cater to and schematics of the ships’ decks. Once you get used to reading them you can tell at a glance what kind of showroom facilities you will be dealing with.
Also a great deal can be learned from the Internet. For example, Princess Cruise Line’s web site has a feature where you can walk “virtually” around in the showroom of the Grand Princess. Move 360° around the room, zoom in close and you can nearly tell what kind of lighting package is hanging from the grid! Very nice.
Be prepared. You can’t run to the magic shop or hardware store once at sea. Even when the ship calls on a port it can be hard to find the resources you need. Your 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, how many consumables supplies you have and develop a toolkit.
To get work you must have a quality audition video. No one, but no one, gets booked without a video. The better your video; the better your chances of getting booked. All the other promo you send will only support that video.
Remember who will be watching this video. The Cruise Entertainment Director will most likely watch your video only once. He or she will make a quick judgment about you within a few minutes. Put you best foot forward and make sure that what you show is consumable to this venue.
Be patient. Entertainment Directors and agents receive hundreds of videos a week. There is no way they can drop everything to watch each video as it comes in. Chances are they don’t start looking for a new act until one of their usual suspects cannot do the job. Therefore, it will be worth it too make sure you have an attractive video cover design to give your video the edge over the competition.
Have about 70 or 80 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 one hundred minutes of material, but I would never consider doing them as one long 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.
Don’t 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 today’s exploding ship industry has attracted top performers.
Furthermore, there is an invisible network between cruise companies. Although I’ve 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 you’ve 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.
Don’t 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 Magician’s 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. Don’t wait on this either. Airlines and baggage handlers can wreak havoc on equipment. Make sure that you have proper cases and ways to pack your show.
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; don’t let it go to your head.
You are part of an overall entertainment package. I think it important that you support your fellow entertainers. Don’t get caught up in a ratings competition. I have sometimes been blessed with a situation that I receive the highest overall entertainment rating on a 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 that I’m on the ship because I DON’T sing or dance.) Furthermore, when I get lower ratings than other acts I don’t take it personally. To compare properly there would have to be another magician on at the same time. If there were a big disparity in our scores then I’d 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 audience’s enthusiasm builds with each show. This means success for the cruise line and for you.
You are always on, even 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, they’ll 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. I have had a successful career in cruising in part because I dress properly, act appropriately and genuinely care about people that I 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 me for their ships. I am confident that you can do the same.
Good Luck and Calm Seas!
Fred Becker — http://www.fredbecker.com