Stage Management on one of the World’s Largest Cruise Ships – Part 2
By Liam Klenk
In the fall of 2019, I was offered a contract as Senior Stage & Production Manager on the Oasis of the Seas, one of the World’s largest cruise ships. As soon as I arrived onboard, I found out that nothing was going to be as I had thought. I wasn’t too surprised. Changing plans are the norm rather than the exception in the entertainment industry, be the venue located on the ocean or elsewhere.
After my predecessor informed me that my handover period had been shortened from one month to one week, I was worried, yet quickly decided to simply do my best, adapt, and go with the flow.
I was supposed to stage manage an aquatic circus show with many high risk acts such as high dives, synchro swimming, high line, slack line, and aerial acts.
First and foremost, I wanted to make sure I would be able to have at least enough knowledge to keep my cast and crew safe at all times.
How I was going to achieve this, I had no idea.
The technical director onboard offered to help me by trying to facilitate a handover as best as he could in his free time. However, we both knew this was going to be a major challenge for him, since he didn’t really have any free time. He was responsible for all technical concerns of three large theater venues with multiple shows. As well as for at least 20 more smaller venues and a myriad of events around the ship.
His position had only recently been established on the larger cruise ships and our TD was literally drowning in work.
Also, we were are all under a lot of pressure from shoreside since the Oasis of the Seas had just come out of dry dock where she had undergone a complete revamp. Now, shining in new glory, the 10-year old behemoth boasted all the latest technology. Thus, Royal Caribbean as well as our customers expected everything and everyone to be absolutely perfect at all times.
While the TD, LeRoy, explained all this, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I had wanted a challenge. And a challenge I was going to get. This was going to be a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for.”
But, I would also most likely learn more in the five months of my contract than I would in several years in another venue. So, I nodded bravely and vowed to make this work, no matter what.
Luckily, LeRoy had held my position in the Aqua Theater some years before. We agreed that he would at least take over the show call for the first few weeks, until I was settled in and had figured out the basics of managing my venue as well as ship life. We also agreed that I would only contact him at times when I wasn’t able to find the information I needed on my own.
The stage management control booth doubled as my office space. No matter how hard ship life got, no matter how long and exhausting each day turned out to be, coming up to deck twelve and walking into my booth was amazing every time.
It was most definitely the office with the world’s greatest view. I did get a bit worried about calling the show with such a backdrop. What if a whale breached in our wake one day during the show? I was bound to forget all cues. Well, even more reason to practice that show call until I could do it in my sleep.
The first two weeks were a blur. I had ship safety classes every morning, emergency drills, and first aid classes. Then, I would go to my venue before anyone else arrived, to get an idea of the backstage layout. Since the ship had just come out of dry dock, everything was still a mess.
My predecessor was amazing in that first week before he left. He took me with him wherever he could and kept a running commentary, explaining the whole world to me. We even crawled through the engine room underneath our Aqua Theater pool as he tried to familiarize me with every nut and bolt. It wasn’t a huge venue.
Everything was a smaller version of our performance space at The House of Dancing Water in Macau. So, thankfully many technical aspects of the show were familiar to me.
The underwater backstage area, the lifts, the pumps, the astragals, the performer handling techniques during the show, requirements for our high divers so their dives were safe during shows and rehearsals, sudden lift stops, oil leaks, trouble shooting, etc.
With every passing hour, I realized I was better prepared for this challenge than I had thought.
During this first week, the creation of our new show Aqua80 was also still in full swing. We would start rehearsals at noon and work until late at night. The production team was still onboard with us, too. This was lucky, since Gail Malatesta, a very experienced stage manager from Disney was still there, too.
She had developed our entire show call and talked me through every single detail and concern she thought notable.
Our timecode programmer, Leo, a quiet genius from Greece, was also still tweaking and adjusting the final timecode sequence for Aqua80. Working together with Gail, he built in loops and contingency scenarios. Additionally, he spent many extra hours with me late at night to explain every cue. He also taught me about the Coolux system which I had never used before. It is based on QLab and very intuitive.
I filled notebook after notebook with scribbles I could barely decipher after. Everyone talked a mile a minute and shared all their knowledge as quickly as they could before time ran out and I would be left on my own at the end of this first week.
But, it being the last week of creation turned out to be a stroke of luck for me. We had no regular performances all week. Instead we focused solely on getting the show up and running.
Each rehearsal brought me a bit more understanding of the show, the choreography, the transitions, possible dangers to look out for… I also got to know my team faster due to the creation process.
Overall, I was responsible for a cast of twenty performers, and a crew of twelve technicians. All of them were working twelve to fifteen hours a day. Not just in our venue but helping out in others as well. Many of the crew had been onboard during dry dock. Hard months of extra duties. Many had done back-to-back contracts and were now almost at the end of their current one, exhausted.
Read more about this intensive work and life experience in Part 3…