What is it Like to Perform on a Cruise Ship?

auditioning broadway industry Dec 12, 2023

From community theatre to national tours to the big stages on Broadway - there are endless avenues to pursue as a working actor. 

But what about performing at sea?

Being cast to perform on cruise ship productions is a unique (and adventurous) way to build a career as an actor! 

This week we sat down with two former cruise ship performers: Kayla Brandt, who had a 9-month contract with MSC Seascape, and Hugh Entrekin, who had a 10-month contract with Disney Wish.

Is cruise ship life for you? 

Kayla and Hugh shared with us ALL the details on what it's like to perform on a cruise ship! Hear the pros and cons of life on the sea and what they learned from their time aboard.

Q: Kayla, share an overview of your ship experience, who you sailed with, what you performed, and for how long.

Kayla: I was on the MSC Seascape and my contract was for a total of nine months, with about two months of that being a rehearsal period in New York City, and then seven months on board the ship. It was a little bit of a different experience than what my friends have had on cruise ships because it was the inaugural voyage. We did six production shows, but we were the first people to be doing those production shows that were made specifically for this ship.

Once we got on the ship, it was still dry-docked and finishing up construction - we had to wear hard hats and steel-toed boots. So it was quite the experience having to install these brand-new shows in a theater that is still being worked on.

But it was so much fun, we all were in it together. At first, the rehearsals on the ship were without any guests since the ship was still under construction, so we were on board for about a month before we picked up passengers.

Once we picked up passengers, we opened two shows the first week and then opened one show a week from there on until we had opened all six production shows. We started in Italy, which is where MSC as a company is from, and then we picked up passengers in a port outside of Rome.

Then we cruised the Mediterranean and did the christening of the ship, which was a big deal. We had some guest entertainers come on board, Neyo being one of them. And there were some Broadway performers from Phantom of the Opera as well, who came on board to celebrate the christening of the ship in New York.

Once the christening was over, we sailed to Miami and carried out Caribbean and Bahama itineraries from there on.

Q: Hugh, can you kind of give us an overview of what your contract was, who you were sailing with, and what you did on the ship?

Hugh: I was with Disney Cruise Lines on board the Disney Wish's maiden voyage, and it was kind of a similar story. We rehearsed for four months in Toronto when usually it's two since they were setting up new shows. Aladdin had already had some framework, but they were redoing a lot of it, whereas Little Mermaid was completely new to the Disney Cruise Line. And then they were doing a new show called Seas the Adventure, which is kind of a catch-all show that follows Goofy trying to be a captain.

I also think they were giving the ship some more time to be built, because they flew us in April of 2022 to the Netherlands, a shipyard about 30 minutes outside of Groningen, Netherlands, and there she was still being worked on.

We also spent about a month and a half in hard hats and steel-toed boots, while the theater was unfinished. 

And then we started sailing across the Atlantic, got to the Bahamas, and stayed at Disney's private island for about two days. Then we came to the U. S. and they started doing media cruises until our maiden voyage on July 17th, and then my contract was done on October 17th. So, from start to finish, it was about a 10-month contract, where we were in full operation for about three of those months.

Q: Can you each tell us a little about what the audition process was like for shows that weren't even up and running yet?

Kayla: I went to a general audition for RWS Entertainment Group, which is the company that casts the productions shows for MSC Cruises. I sang a general 32-bar pop/rock cut. Then they asked me for a ballad after that. I also stayed for the dance call. 

Afterward, they emailed me and said they'd love to keep my information on file. It was seven months later that I got an email out of the blue asking if I wanted to be a part of the inaugural voyage—which I'm sure is a typical audition story.

Hugh: I got an appointment initially for Hans on the Disney Wonder. I went in, sang all of the Hans packet, and then they asked if I could do a callback the next day, and that I kind of looked like Kristoff.

They shared that they had a new ship in development and asked if that was something I'd be interested in. I told them, sure, why not? So they let me know they'd be in touch. Around Thanksgiving, I got an email asking if I could send a 30-second video of myself singing "Go the Distance".

After I sent it in, they offered me the role on the Disney Wish. I said, "Cool, great, when do rehearsals start?" And they said, "Well, for most people in about three days, but we'll get you there at the beginning of January.

Q: Most people are probably familiar with the Disney properties, so who did you play in the shows?

Hugh: My main track was Hercules and Crush in the Seas the Adventure revue show. They were both a blast. I got to sing Go the Distance every night and hold a giant puppet sea turtle above me.

Then in Aladdin and Little Mermaid, I was more ensemble-based. In The Little Mermaid, I was a blue lobster that was playing the clams, and that concept was kind of like through the lens of storytellers, so we all got together to tell this story and just played around with different things. Then in Aladdin, I was a guard and one of the dancing genies.

Q: Kayla, were you performing story shows or revue shows?

Kayla: MSC hired RWS to create the shows and they were story-based but all of the songs were not original songs. They were like, well-known pop-rock songs or some musical theater or jazz songs. Kind of similar to how you would put together a jukebox musical by creating a storyline and making popular songs fit.

There were six different production shows, four singers, and ten or twelve dancers. There were two female singers and two male singers, and so for a lot of the shows, the singers were the main characters of the story. Then for a few of the shows, some dancers were the leads for the story.

It was really interesting, one show was all about love, and it was garden-themed, and I was dressed as a giant rosebush. Then in another, I was a mermaid princess who took this captain down under the sea with me and I showed him my underwater world. Then there was one show that was more of a traditional rock revue where we were pretending to be rock stars on the stage and it was more of a concert-based story.

Q: In both of your experiences, are there understudies? What did the coverage look like?

Kayla: There were no official understudies, so if you were so sick to the point where you were unable to be on stage, a dancer would have to cover a singer's track, which gets interesting. 

 If a dancer was sick in their original track, then they would just re-block. But thankfully we never had a point where a singer was sick and then their dancer understudy was also sick. Like, thankfully for singers, there was always coverage. But when a dancer was sick, they just re-blocked the choreo.

Hugh: On the Disney cruise, it was kind of more of a Broadway formula. We had 22 main stage performers, 11 had contracted singer tracks and the other 11 were contracted dancers. All of the singers covered different principles tracks, and then we had two swings for the dancers. 

Q: We recently had an episode on the BVC Podcast where we talked all about the Actors Equity Association, and from my understanding, cruises are largely outside of the union. So, what does that contract look like and how might that be different because it's outside of union jurisdiction? 

Hugh: Because it isn't under the Actor's Equity jurisdiction and because it's outside of the country since it's technically international waters, we can have equity performers in the shows. From there, you just have to look at the contract. Disney is going to have a very formal contract, but at a certain point, you or your representation has to kind of stand up for what you can and can't do.

With that, it doesn't pay into insurance or pension, which I know can be a big deterrent. For example, we had two Broadway guest artists on every contract. And with that, those are two people who get different treatment and different jobs, but they still aren't getting things paid into their Actor's Equity benefits.

In our case, we also had some Equity performers, but there are certain stipulations in the contract where it will say, "as cast" next to a show. And should the creative team decide they want you in a specific show, you can't combat it because it's in the contract. 

Kayla: On my ship, we did not have any Equity members in our production shows. But my current roommate is a member of Equity, and she just did a cruise ship contract as well, so I know that it's kind of up to the performer and their agent's discretion, if they have an agent, as to whether the contract seems like it would be a good fit.

I mean, the MSC contracts were very long. I think with any cruise line, the contracts are going to be very specific, and they're going to kind of spell out you know, who can perform, and how many days off you're required to have, and what coverage looks like when you're sick, and all of that.

Q: What are the other requirements of working on a ship?

Kayla: For my contract, I was lucky in that we didn't have a lot of outside duties other than performing. I know for a lot of cruise ships, it might be that you have to perform on certain nights, but then you also have to host trivia or go greet people when they arrive on board. But we didn't have duties like that. 

 For MSC, I've had friends who have done Royal Caribbean, and I've had friends who have done Norwegian, and it does seem like it just varies on the ship and what kind of entertainment they have.

Because if they have enough shows for you to do, then you might not even have time to host trivia or perform other duties. I will say all performers are considered crew members, and so with that, in an emergency, any crew member on board had certain duties to perform to help get guests off the ship and onto the safety boats. Thankfully that never happened, but we did have to participate in the periodic safety drills. 

Hugh: Yeah, Disney is exclusively the main stage. It was pretty straightforward, we had our shows and put in rehearsals. The only thing that kind of varied from that was we also had a maximum of seven hours of character greeting a week, which is basically where you'll see us in attire with the face characters and sculpted characters. So like we would walk with Mickey and our job was to communicate what Mickey was saying to guests

Honestly working with the sculpted characters was so fun, because you got to experience magical moments with different kids and people who had these connections to all of the characters.

Other than that, we had muster duties, so we would be the people standing there explaining what happens in an emergency, etc.

Q: What was daily life like? Like, where and when do you eat? Do you share a room or did you get your own? Are you allowed off the ship? Can friends and family visit you?

Hugh: For me, I had the most structure I think I've ever had in my life. I would wake up, go to the gym for two or three hours, read for an hour on the deck, do my character greeting, perform, eat dinner in between shows, go to bed, and repeat it all the next day. 

In terms of where we ate on board, the main stage performers were allowed at a place called the Marcelline Market, which is a buffet-style area. So that's where we would always go for lunch. And the crew mess was nice, but it just gets crowded, and it was a nice little moment to kind of get to connect with guests if they recognized you. And then for dinner, we only had an hour in between shows, so we'd quickly change, get out of costume, run from the front of the ship to the back of the ship, and eat as quickly as we could, before running back to the front and doing the next show. 

In terms of friends and family, for every six months you're there, you can sign people on for two of those months. So if you don't want loved ones to have to pay anything to visit you, they can stay in your room.

Kayla: I would say my days were pretty similar. Once we had all six shows open, we were pretty structured with a 5 PM rehearsal, where we would run through the show once for tech, and then we would have a little bit of a dinner break, and then do two shows a night, six days a week.

Before 5 PM, you had free time. So, I would normally wake up, go to the gym, maybe try to eat lunch on a deck, or go outside. Our ship would normally dock early in the morning and then guests would have to be back between like 3 or 4 PM. This meant we were able to get off the ship and explore, which was a really awesome privilege.

 As far as rooming, singers got their own, and then dancers were two to a room, where they had bunk beds. So, I had a little bit of a larger room and my own bathroom, which was really nice. But honestly, all the dancers got so close because they were just having slumber parties all the time with their bunk beds. Everybody was, was pretty happy with the rooming situation, it really wasn't bad.

And then for friends and family, I believe that I could have had friends and family stay in my room if I wanted them to. But when my parents came, I got them a discounted rate and they stayed for a week in a regular guest room.

Q: What are the biggest lessons that you learned from this experience? And then what felt like the biggest challenge of taking a cruise contract?

Hugh: The biggest lesson I took away is the maintenance of health and just how important that is. Physical, mental, spiritual -- all of it. You would just have to find the things that fulfill you because it's hard when you're on a cruise where your life is dictated by an itinerary, you have to find the things that center you.

For me, that's carried over into my routine in my normal life. It's not as strict and as regimented as it was then, but I feel like I'm able to assess situations and decide what I need to do to feel as full and healthy as I can.

Also, just the endless friendships you can find from being in hard hats and steel-toed boots with people because they'll have your back no matter what. 😉

The biggest challenge was maintaining and finding the will because it's hard. It's easy to get in your head and to kind of say, I'm just going to take this day to kind of loaf around. But when you do that, you can get into habits. So it's just about making the conscious effort to be consistent.

And that was kind of the motto I live by, that consistency is key. It doesn't matter how well you do it as long as you did it, that's a win for the day. 

Kayla: To echo what Hugh said, I think maintaining your health was such an important thing. When you're on a cruise ship and you have new people coming on every week, especially when it's like cold and flu season, sickness just is going to spread very easily. Especially if one person in the cast gets sick, it's going to get around to everybody at some point.

I think I was sick on and off for probably a good two or three months out of the contract on board. And I'm not somebody that gets sick a lot. But it's just unavoidable, no matter how many precautions you take, you're going to get exposed to different colds and flus.

So I think prioritizing health by going to the gym, making sure that I'm eating correctly, making sure you're getting fresh air, and going out to see the sunlight. If you're not feeling well, it's very easy to just stay in your bed all day and then go to rehearsal. But I found that the more that I was able to get out, it helped me refresh my body and my mind.

I was also reminded of the importance of maintaining my vocal health. That was the first time that I was steaming consistently because I just felt like I had to, in order to keep up with the demanding schedule. I was performing six days a week and that was the most rigorous schedule I'd ever had. I feel like I learned more about my body and my voice, like knowing how to sustain a certain sound, even through sickness, or knowing my limits in that as well.

I feel like with the lessons learned, at one point when I was on the ship, I made a list of daily habits. I know you guys talk a lot about the book, "Atomic Habits", which I love that book. I made a list of daily habits which included things like reaching out to my mom or reaching out to a loved one, getting fresh air, and exercising. It's difficult to be on a ship away from friends and family for so long and to also be in such unfamiliar places in different countries. And so, anything that will make you feel a sense of comfort or a sense of peace is great. Anything to just make sure that you are staying healthy in your mind, body, spirit, soul, and voice.

If you're interested in diving deeper into this interview or exploring other interesting musical theatre conversations - check out the Broadway Vocal Coach podcast! Or check us out on Instagram, and get involved in the conversation! 

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