Stage Management on One of the World’s Largest Cruise Ships – Part 1
By Liam Klenk
In the fall of 2019, Royal Caribbean offered me a contract as Senior Stage & Production Manager on the cruise ship Oasis of the Seas, one of the largest on the planet. I was supposed to take over the Aqua Theater onboard. A beautiful amphitheater with 700 seats.
The aqua theater features a 4m deep, kidney-shaped pool, and three moving hydraulic lifts. This enables the stage to be either dry or at any depth needed for what the director has in mind.
After I had worked on a tiny Maldivian Island for many years and after I had heard stories from other stage managers who had done contracts on cruise ships, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself through what was bound to be an intense experience to say the least. The timing wasn’t ideal either, since I had just gone through a traumatizing break-up and was at a breaking point.
Managing a high-risk venue 24/7 would need me at my best performance. Alert, energetic, on top of everything, constantly vigilant to be able to keep cast and crew safe and the shows running at top quality.
Would I be able to be that leader whilst recovering from what had undoubtedly been the most painful year of my entire life? After careful consideration, my answer was a clear “yes.”
A month earlier, I had finished a 1-year contract with Elekron, an arena vehicle stunt and acrobatics show in Macau. I had been stage management and staging swing, as well as one of the main first responders for all medical emergencies.
No matter how disastrous things had gotten in my private life, I had never wavered backstage, had remained alert, positive, and professional at all times. I had never missed a beat.
If I had been able to do this for Elekron, I could do it again. Life has a way of punching us in the gut every so often. We have to cope somehow. Investing myself into a creative endeavor wasn’t a bad way of doing just that. The show must go on.
Plus, the cruise ship offer was a good opportunity to get more experience in making the impossible possible. I had ample experience in aquatics shows from working for The House of Dancing Water in Macau for 4 years. I had experienced that show all the way from training and formation, through creation, to operation.
Managing the aquatic theater on the Oasis was going to be an excellent way to grow even further, learn, and explore my personal limits.
After several Skype interviews with the recruiters, I allowed myself to feel a bit more positive. They had emphasized again and again that their aquatic theaters were the hardest to manage for any new stage & production manager. It was a high-risk venue and they would make damn sure I was well prepared.
Especially, being new to ships, I was going to receive at least a four-week handover.
A month later, I was on my way to Miami. As the taxi approached the cruise ship harbor, I tried to catch a glimpse of the Oasis of the Seas. Sure enough, a behemoth amongst her peers, a beauty in design, she was moored in a prime position, ahead of the line of the dozen ships in the harbor. Walking towards her was like approaching a high-rise building. Actually getting onboard was like breaking into a vault. I had never seen more security check points in my entire life.
Finally on the crew gangway, I took one last look at the life I was leaving behind and steeled myself with an open mind for whatever was going to come.
The Oasis of the Seas is an Oasis-class cruise ship. She was built in Finland. Her gross tonnage adds up to 226,838 GT. She is 361 meters long, 72 meters high, and sports an impressive 18 decks. Her highest speed is 25 knots. At full capacity she has room for up to 7’000 passengers and 2’200 crew.
That brings us to a stunning ship’s population of over 9’000 people… a number my brain is still struggling to comprehend.
Like most Royal Caribbean cruise ships, the Oasis of the Seas heads out for weekly cruises. Every Sunday is turnaround day, when all current passengers check out, and all new passengers check in. I arrived on a Sunday as well. Needless to say, no one had time for me on the busiest day of the week. I dropped my bags in a safe corner, then headed out to explore my new environment.
My cabin was forward, the stunningly beautiful amphitheater I was supposed to manage was located aft. “Easy,” I thought, “I’ll just walk straight until I hit it.” Within minutes, I was lost in the maze of crew areas, a long hallway (the I-95), and hundreds of smaller hallways branching off of it. “Let yourself get lost,” someone had said “You’ll learn fastest where everything is that way.” I followed their advice and ended up taking almost half an hour until I found my venue.
When I arrived, no one was there yet. I fell in love instantly. The Aquatheater looked incredibly cozy and inviting. Also, majestic. The lifts were up, so I couldn’t see the water. But I loved the organic, elegant round shapes of the stage and auditorium.
Being all the way aft, the theater also offered an amazing view of the horizon. The downstage curtains had been pulled aside to let people enjoy the view of what lay beyond. At this moment it was a vista of the entire harbor framed by the Miami skyline. During performances, the curtains would be pulled shut, to create a white wall and projection surface for the performance.
Towards the early evening, when all onboarding and drills were done, I met my predecessor. I liked him immediately. He seemed to literally burst with energy and enthusiasm. I found this admirable considering he had just done two contracts back-to-back with only a 2-week break in between. Jarrod gave me a speedy tour through the entire theater, followed by sprinting with me through the entire ship, to point out important nooks and crannies.
In between sprints he explained to me that I had arrived just at the right moment. They were in the last week of creation for their new show Aqua80.
This was going to give me the advantage of being there from the get-go and being able to learn the new show call in the end stages of its development. “We’ll have tons of rehearsals still on this next cruise. It’ll give you a chance to find your feet. Performances for the audience won’t start until the next cruise.”
“Great,” I said. “I’m really glad to hear this. I’m looking forward to learn as much from you as I can in the time we’ll have together.”
“Oh yeah, about that,” Jarrod said, “The schedule has changed a bit. I won’t be able to hand over for a month. I am leaving in a week.”
Read more about this intensive work and life experience in Part 2…