Stage Management on one of the World’s Largest Cruise Ships – Part 4
By Liam Klenk
In the fall of 2019, I entered the world of stage management on cruise ships. At that time, I was offered a position as Senior Stage & Production Manager on the Oasis of the Seas. With no regular handover and no handover notes, it took me about a month to get on top of all admin and organizational duties. Thankfully, I had a wonderful cast and crew, who supported and trusted me. Now, to tackle the show call.
Since I was solely responsible for the stage management and production management of our show, I was also going to be the designated show caller…
In between my intense work schedule, which usually had me up and running at 8 am and falling into bed at 2 am, I tried from day one to find time to practice the show call.
I would get up at 7 am to go through the call once. During the day, I would take any chance to hide in my booth and practice as much as I could before my phone would start ringing again.
The technical director of the ship had been so kind to take over the show call for the first month. This gave me time to first catch up on all my other duties and responsibilities.
I did spend every night in the booth during shows, however. To listen to him, and learn as much from him as I could by looking over his shoulder.
Unfortunately, we did not have time to talk through the show call, to practice together, or to talk through any contingencies and emergency scenarios.
LeRoy was so busy, I was grateful he found enough time to run into the booth (that I had prepared for him) 2 minutes before the show.
As soon as the performance was done, he would jump up and be out the door in a flash to make his rounds through the ship and take care of whatever problems had piled up in the other venues.
Since our show had been produced brand new, nobody had recorded the show call yet. Also, the ship had come straight out of dry dock. Most of our cameras had been uninstalled during the amplification process to protect them. None of the missing ones had been re-installed yet.
The video team onboard was so kind to set up a video camera to film the show for me. LeRoy then embedded the time code into it, so I’d have a video to practice with.
Unfortunately, the video was taken during a night with rough sea conditions. So, the show was modified. Half of our high dives didn’t even take place that night because the ship was moving too much. Also, the video neither showed the entire stage, nor was it in focus.
Everyone, including me, was busy up to our necks. So, I decided to work with what I had been given and, while calling with the video, tried to fill the gaps with my imagination.
Six weeks after I arrived onboard, LeRoy and I did a couple runs together in the booth. Due to the blurry video, my timing was a bit off in places. But, otherwise, we were going in the right direction.
Then we tried to set up several tech runs for me to practice. Winter, the Caribbean, and the venue kept forcing us to postpone though.
Each time we had a scheduled tech run, a lift would break. Or we would have a water leak, or the waves would be several meters high.
Cast and crew were starting to joke that I was cursed. But then, finally, after almost two months onboard, we managed to do our tech runs.
I was worried. The conditions of learning this show call had been less than ideal. I had not had the resources I needed.
And I had not been able to be trained by a fellow show caller. Everything LeRoy and I had talked about had been done on the fly, in short moments in between phone calls and emergencies. I knew, there was no way I was fully prepared for calling our show, Aqua80.
I sought the advice of my peers and contacted old friends of mine who had far more show calling experience than I have. One of them eased my mind considerably.
She said, “Liam, even under better conditions, it’s always a process. In the beginning, it won’t always be pretty. But it has to be safe. What do you think, can you call the show safe?” I pondered this for a long moment.
“Yes, I can call it safe. Definitely not pretty yet, but safe.” “Then, you’ll be fine.” She said.
I felt a million times better and ready to go (thank you Anna!!!).
The next few weeks were a sharp learning curve. One difficulty lay in the fact that I always had to do a million things before each show.
Check backstage, check the pool, turn off heat sensors that kept malfunctioning, turn them back on, take multiple phone calls, fix last minute sound and light problems, etc. etc.
By the time I finally settled in for the 15 min call, I was completely out of breath and sweating buckets. My “Ladies and Gentlemen of the company, this is your 15 min call” came out in gasps.
Then, as I was trying to relax and focus on the show call ahead (a little guardian angel plush toy in my pocket), I still needed to do multiple phone calls with the bridge, the technical director, the cruise director, and sometimes even the hotel director, who all called to ask how it was going and wanted me to go ahead with the show even though the sea felt quite rough again.
In the end, this decision was up to me, and the Captain and I would do our very best to make the impossible possible.
If the movement of the water in our aquatic theater pool was too strong, there was no way our synchro swimmers and high divers would be able to perform safely. Also, wind speeds above 18 knots would prevent us from doing any aerial acts.
I don’t know what I would have done without our Captain Goran. He was amazing. He would position the ship just right so we wouldn’t exceed wind speeds. To calm down movement in our theater pool, he would extend stabilizers.
Often, however, this would not be enough. Then he would try all sorts of maneuvers, including slowing down and speeding up, and changing course.
Several times, Captain Goran turned the entire ship around and went the opposite direction, just so we would be able to perform our show. I’ll be forever grateful for his positive can-do attitude and his love for our show.
Unfortunately, after three months he left, and his replacement, who was far less cooperative, arrived.
Looking back now, I would say that is one of the major difficulties of managing a venue on a cruise ship. Trust and continuity.
I usually like to work a few years for each show. Especially, if it is a high risk acrobatics and circus show.
Over time, people get to know you. They realize, they can trust you and count on you, no matter what.
This is important and it goes both ways. Of course, there is always a little bit of fluctuation.
But, on a cruise ship, this process of growing together as a team is majorly interrupted by cast and crew (as well as the Captain, the engineers, etc.) constantly being replaced, rotated, and sent to other ships. It is very hard to achieve stability and continuity this way.
All being said, the stage management of the aqua theater on a cruise ship turned out to be one of the most intense learning experiences of my entire life so far.
Looking back now, my time on the Oasis of the Seas was so intense, it was almost surreal. I am astonished and sometimes wonder how I was able to work 12-15 hour days for 5 months straight, without any days off. I am amazed, how I was able to hold it all together, run my venue, keep everyone safe, not miss a beat, and how I just functioned like a little engine that refused to stop running.
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