Navigating the Business of Musical Theater: Strategies for a Sustainable Career

Navigating the Business of Musical Theater: Strategies for a Sustainable Career

Embracing the Uncertain Curtain Call

Not long after I accepted a job as a musical-theater performer aboard the AIDAluna, a luxury cruise ship based in Germany and owned by Carnival Cruise Lines, I had second thoughts. I watched a series of YouTube videos devoted to cruise-ship life in preparation for my months at sea. One minute I was learning what to pack, and the next I’d fallen down a rabbit hole and was watching clips about the Titanic and the Costa Concordia, a luxury cruise liner that capsized in 2012 after going off course and hitting a rock, killing 32 passengers. This left me doubting my decision to leave my fiancé and our Connecticut home behind and head overseas to Germany. I also didn’t speak German.

But despite my misgivings, I flew to Hamburg for a weeklong seafarer training for new crew members in June 2022. This was a requirement before I was allowed to set sail on what would be my new home for nearly five months. Every spring, performers from all over the world audition for a spot as an entertainer aboard one of AIDA’s 13 passenger ships. My audition was in New York City. I performed two songs and a one-minute dance and returned two days later to sing two more songs. The day after my callback, my phone rang, and I got a job offer — with a slight twist. Instead of a standard six-month contract, my offer was to replace a performer who’d gotten sick and whose contract got cut short. The cast had already been performing together for almost a month and a half, so I’d have to learn everything on my own.

Initially, the thought of playing catch-up was pretty daunting, but I accepted the position, and two weeks later, I made my way to the MTC Marine Training Center Hamburg GmbH. We practiced maneuvers, including climbing down the side of a ship in case of an emergency. There’s also an indoor pool where we learned how to float, get inside a raft, and safely connect people in the event of a water evacuation. Fire is a major concern on cruise ships, so knowing what to do in these instances is crucial, considering no firefighters are on board. There are no police officers on the ship either, but there are security personnel who typically have law-enforcement or military experience. In emergencies, we’re the ones responsible, which is why all crew must undergo this training.

Adapting to Life at Sea

Then, once they begin working on the ship, all crew members must do weekly safety drills for up to two hours. Luckily, there were no emergencies while I was on board. Our cabins are essentially metal boxes, so magnets come in especially handy because you hang everything in your room, from clothing to towels to photos.

I packed a hard drive full of downloaded movies and TV shows, my acoustic guitar, a chord book (since I’m still learning to play), my iPad filled with books, a camera, tarot cards, coloring books, and pencils (which come in handy during long days at sea). I also brought a hanging shoe organizer to store sunglasses, face masks, letters from loved ones, and extra USB drives.

It tends to be very dry on ships, which is not ideal for singers, but humidifiers are a fire hazard. Instead, I came prepared with throat-coat tea, my tea mug, and lots of cough drops. Living inside a small interior cabin with no window felt like living inside a shipping container, but it’s also oddly cozy. There’s no sense of time. Normally, I’m claustrophobic, but I got used to it pretty quickly.

While lots of crew members live in shared quarters, often with bunk beds, I was fortunate enough to have a single cabin and only have to share a bathroom. During my time at sea, I only saw my fiancé (now husband) when he joined me for a four-day cruise to celebrate his 30th birthday. Being apart for that long might not work for many couples, but he’s a touring musician, so we’re used to spending a lot of time away from each other.

There was crew WiFi on board, but FaceTime didn’t work while the ship was moving, so while at sea, I relied on WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family. I used FaceTime while at ports. Occasionally, our WiFi would go down, and I couldn’t contact anyone.

The Show Must Go On (And On, And On…)

Performing can be hard work, but performing on a stage in high heels during rough seas takes it to a new level. It took me 12 days to learn all the shows. I prepared by memorizing all of the music and watching the shows on YouTube before boarding the ship. COVID-19 was still prevalent, which meant performers constantly dropped in and out of shows and needed to quarantine. This led to us having to make last-minute show changes based on who was available. Sometimes that meant learning roles an hour before we took the stage.

Every night, we did two back-to-back shows. We had four different shows in rotation and a finale, and never repeated the same show twice during a trip. Since I only worked in the evenings, on the days we visited ports, I’d always get off the ship and explore. I got to visit Germany, Iceland, Scotland, Norway, and Denmark. It was always a bit nerve-wracking, though, because I wouldn’t want to go too far and lose track of time.

On the ship, there was plenty for the crew to do when not working. Crew bingo was a crowd favorite. There was also a small crew gym and a bar below sea level where we could buy drinks, hang out, play foosball, and celebrate crew birthdays. Most of the time, after performing, I’d head back to my cabin and go to bed to rest my voice for the next day.

The Curtain Closes on a New Beginning

I missed my friends and family, but meeting people from all over and traveling the world was a real gift. It gives you a great perspective on life. My time on the ship ended in October 2022. I now run Sheffy Stage Company, where I direct and produce, and I do paralegal work. I’m always auditioning, and recently, I auditioned to join another cruise-ship cast, so if everything works out, I might be living at sea again.

The business of musical theater can be a winding and unpredictable road, but with the right strategies and a resilient mindset, it’s possible to navigate towards a sustainable career. Whether you’re a seasoned performer or just starting out, the key is to embrace the uncertainty, adapt to the ever-changing landscape, and find ways to make your passion for the stage work for you, even in the most unexpected of settings.

If you’re interested in exploring the world of musical theater and seeking strategies for a fulfilling career, I encourage you to check out the resources and programs offered by Musical Theater Center. From educational opportunities to industry insights, they’re dedicated to helping aspiring and established performers like myself find their footing in this dynamic and rewarding field.

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