On a regular basis jugglers and other entertainers ask me for advice on the subject of working on cruise ships. This is understandable, as it’s something I do that most people don’t do, so I should be some kind of expert.
Instead of answering emails and messages individually, I’ve decided to put my thoughts into a single blog post. (A friend of mine once started writing a similar blog post, but expanded it out into a full book called Cabaret Secrets which is now available as a Kindle ebook. I’ve not read it yet, but I’m sure it will have a lot of material relevant to jugglers as well as singers.)
I’ll list the most common questions I am asked and then give my answers, but I’ll be giving my answers in the order I think they are most important, not the in the order of most popular questions.
How did you get an agent? Can you recommend me to your agent? Are you an agent yourself?
My first reply is in the form of a question:
“Do you have a juggling act or a juggling show?”
Here’s the thing: if you don’t have a show, an agent is waaaaaay down your list of things to worry about.
What I mean by “show” is 50 minutes worth of A-grade material that will entertain a large theatre-full of people who don’t know anything about juggling. Many cruise lines want a 50 minute show plus another 20-25 minutes for a variete show later in the same cruise.
Many jugglers have a really great 5 or 7 minute act. Maybe two. This will not sustain a career as a guest entertainer working for cruise lines, though you may be able to become a cast member in a large production show. I’ve seen a few acrobats and aerialists in this role. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about getting this kind of job.
Many jugglers think they have 50 minute show because their street show lasts about that long. A full length street show is totally unsuitable for a theatre show. You don’t need to build an audience, there is a totally different relationship between you and the audience, audience participation needs to planned (rather than the more free-form crowd work possible on the street), plus loads of other issues. Some street show material does work on stage (I had a lot of success closing my show with a pretty standard rola-bola knife juggling routine until I replaced it with something less stressful) but, as any good street show artist knows, a street show builds to the hat, everything focusing on maximizing those who stay and give money at the end.
So, be honest, if you were to put together only your best material, only the material tried and tested in front of a non-juggler, non-street audience, how long would your show be? And would it be any good?
How much do you get paid?
Let’s back up again. Remember what I said about having a full 50 minute show? This is super important! And you have to be ready with that show before you even start looking for a cruise ship agent.
Because once I got a call back from my current agent, he offered me a job that very weekend. He said “We’re putting you on the Queen Mary 2 this weekend!”
Pola and I flew out to Barcelona, joined the ship the next morning, and that evening we were on stage on one of the largest and most prestigious cruise ships in the world. We had never been on a cruise ship before. We had never seen a show on a cruise ship before. We were just thrown in at the deep end, and the cruise line and our agent waited to see if we would sink or swim.
Thankfully, our show went okay. The cruise director said we were really good jugglers, and commented on how little we dropped (we didn’t tell him that evening was the first time we’d ever performed our Art of Juggling show flawlessly, with no drops or mistakes or wrong ended catches). A few days after we got home we had our next cruise ship booking, and the rest is history.
This might seem cruel, being thrown in at the deep end, but it’s not the job of the agent or cruise line to help develop your show. That’s up to you. And you must be ready on the first try. You won’t get another chance. But why not?
How much you are paid by the cruise line is only one part of the cost. In the case of our first gig, Pola and I got a good fee, but the cruise line also paid for flights to the gig, a hotel overnight before joining, we used a cabin and all the services while we were on board, then on the way home, due to the cruise line mixing up flights, we booked a new ticket home with 35 minutes to spare. For week long gigs where I fly from Germany to Hawaii or Tahiti, my flights probably cost a good proportion of my fee. If you do a good show, the guests are more likely to have a good evening, and they’ll want to come back to that cruise ship or cruise line, knowing they’ll have reliably good entertainment.
Every show and entertainer (in fact everyone and every service on the ship) is rated by the guests on board. The cruise line knows how well you’re received on board by a score out of 100. If, on your first cruise, you’re rated poorly, you won’t be invited back.
I have seen this happen! I have seen new guest entertainers who are, undeniably, great musicians or singers, all in the same position that I was on my first gig. I’ve seen people do well, and I’ve seen people fail. One unfortunate guy had about half the audience walk out of his show, and this was his first ever cruise ship show. Great singer… totally misjudged what he was meant to be doing on stage! Will his agent give him another chance? Maybe. Will that particular cruise line? Probably not.
Why are you being such a dick? Just recommend me to your agent already!
I’m not being a dick! I’m not going to recommend anyone to anyone until I’m sure they will be able to do full 50 minute show, one suitable for a theatre and a cruise ship audience. This is not because I don’t like you, or don’t think you’re a good juggler or a good entertainer. It’s because you might only have one chance to get it right!
Are you ready to take your one chance right now? Personally I’d rather recommend you to my agent in a year or two, when you understand what is needed, and are sure you can achieve it. And I won’t recommend anyone who I’ve not personally seen their show and know the quality holds up over its entire running time.
Where do I post my promo video online?
Are you ready with your full 50 show? If so, I guess YouTube would work.
Back in 2007 I put together a promotional package. In total I spent about â‚¬500 printing 500 promo packs, hours editing videos and cutting paper and glueing and putting stuff in envelopes. It included a DVD too, and I posted it directly to my agent. I only ever sent a handful to other places, and got no work from them. So really I spent all that time and energy to catch one person’s eye… it just happened to be the right person’s eye!
In two years time, when you are ready with your full 50 minute show, YouTube might not exist any more, or there might be a better way to get your show in front of an agent.
My point is that since 2007 the world has changed quite a lot, and my experience won’t transfer to you, and advice that might work currently might not be helpful in two years time when you’re actually ready to apply to an agent.
You keep saying I’ll be ready in two years. How long did it take you to put your show together?
Okay, now you’re beginning to understand. I takes fucking ages.
From about 2000 to 2007 I spent about seven years developing material for my show before my first ever cruise ship gig. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but all the random shit I tried across about 100 one day convention shows, open stages at the EJC, renegade shows all over the world, uncountable times on stage as a show host… all of this taught me about how to be entertaining on stage, plus many of the small ideas I tried out in that time evolved into full routines. This all came after two years studying performing arts at college and two years studying music production at university.
In 2003 I quit my last “real” job and became a juggler full time. I wasn’t earning much money, but I was working hard. Between 2003 and 2005 I developed four or five key routines that form the backbone of my current cruise ship shows. This includes a one diabolo routine I use to open every (first) show I perform for an audience, a three ball and video routine (which has become my “signature” routine, or the routine people will remember about my show to identify me from other jugglers), a five ball audience participation routine which is consistently the funniest thing in my show, plus the aforementioned rola-bola knife juggling routine.
From 2005 to 2007 I worked with Pola on the “Art of Juggling”, which was both a single act, plus the main element in a street show and a theatre show. We also worked for 8 months on a different show called “Tonight” that we performed just once, because when I spoke with my agent for the first time, he didn’t seem to be interested in anything else I said about my show except: “Just tell me, you’re going to the part where you juggle and paint a picture, right?”
In 2008 Pola decided she liked traveling less than spending time on cruise ships, and it turned out I could bring in the same money doing a full show by myself. This meant for about 4 months my show underwent a slightly rough period while I adjusted to doing it all on my own. By then I knew what would and wouldn’t work on stage, and developed low-weight-low-bulk acts like my table tennis juggling routine, tennis ball and can bit, a ring juggling routine (which is now one of my favourite and most successful routines), plus various other bits and pieces.
Since knocking myself out on stage (quite embarrassing) in 2010, I knew I had to have a strong alternative to my rola-bola and knife juggling finale in case of waves at sea and unstable stages. Also, due to audience participation, I never had any idea how long that final would last. I’ve now replaced it in my main show with a ten minute 3-4-5 knife juggling routine (of which about 3 minutes is me laying down on stage with a knife balanced on my face).
Also in the past two years I’ve been asked to do not just one 50 minute show but two different 50 minute shows. This has been a really big challenge, and I’m not quite there yet. It turns out that 100 minutes of juggling show is really hard! The second audience is made up of some people who have already seen my first show and some who are seeing me for the first time. The mix is very difficult to satisfy. I recently had a cruise line cancel a gig because I had such a low rating for my second 50 minute show. This was due to me cutting my show short for safety reasons during a bad Atlantic swell, but I could see the audience wasn’t happy, and neither was I. The said they still want to book me… but they didn’t want to fly me to Vietnam to entertain audiences on the World Cruise, not if it was possible I wouldn’t be able to perform my full second show, and the World Cruise audience expects and deserves the best possible shows (and will complain if unsatisfied).
But seriously, how much money do you make?
For contractual reasons I’m not allowed to share my own specific fees, but there is a wide range depending on the cruise line, the style and quality of your act, how many people in your show, how many full evenings of entertainment you can provide, and how good you or your agent is at bargaining. I’ve known some people who make about 2,000 USD per week (and the weekly fee is the standard measurement) and others who make nearer 4,000 USD.
Your agent will take between 10% and 25%, and in those cases you’ll get what you pay for. For example, those paying 10% constantly complain that they aren’t getting work, or only have work with one cruise line, while those who pay 25% will typically have the pick of gigs, trading the lower income per gig for a full diary booked long in advance. These are rough examples only, so only take a deal you are happy with.
Any other advice?
Do you have a 50 minute show ready to go? If so, email me and I’ll do my best to help you further: firstname.lastname@example.org