Just Cruising

It’s 1pm on January 1st 2018. I’m walking around a huge airport terminal in Zurich and it occurs to me I’m not entirely sure which country Zurich is actually in. The idea that you can be unsure as to which country you’re in may seem ludicrous, but to me it’s all too familiar.
It appears that I am once again a ‘cruise ship magician’.

A few years ago the birth of my son coincided with a total burn out in my mental state when it came to performing at sea. I’d been away more than I’d been home for at least a couple of years and found that on consideration it was doing me no good. I was self sabotaging and acting out.

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I decided to take a step back from cruising and without much fanfare, cruising took a step back from me. The law of attraction is a prominent one when it comes to gigs at sea and it seems that if you’re not doing them a lot, you’re not doing them at all.

Recently I’d been talking to my agent about going back. In the past I’d worked for cruise lines where I’d get on board for 2 to 3 weeks and perform only a couple of evenings. This means not much contact with family and very little actual performing. The one thing cruise ship performers don’t do much of is perform. They should be called cruise ship ‘waiting to performers’.

Suddenly my agent calls and says he’s been speaking to the people at TUI (formerly Thomson) and that they’d be interested in having me on board. You only stay for seven days and you perform two nights in that single week. Already, that sounded like something I wanted to do.

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It turned out the week they wanted was at Christmas, starting on December 24th and flying home New Years Eve. After some negotiation they agreed as a special one off that I could take my family on board with me. Then they told me it was to Barbados! My wife nearly exploded when I told her and we decided to keep it entirely secret from our son Joshua.

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Finally the day came around and after a few deflected questions from Joshua about why we were getting him out of bed when it was still dark, we made our way to the airport. Once at the airport we told him that I was going away to work on a cruise ship for the week and that they’d both come to say goodbye to me. We showed him a video of the ‘Marella Discovery’ (the ship we were about to go on) and he said he really wished they could come too.

Then we told him they were.

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After witnessing my second almost family member explosion we went through the usual procedures and were on the plane. The excitement was at fever pitch and my own personal tension matched. I was determined to have a great time and for it to feel like a holiday to my family but, as any performer knows, there’s something about a ‘show day’ that just feels different. Something in the pit of your stomach, a burning fire however small is still a fire and, although I kept it to myself, I knew that mine was lit.

IMG_4606At this point I should say that performing on a cruise ship isn’t like any other gig. Ordinarily you turn up, do the show and go home. On a cruise you turn up, live with the audience for a few days, do the show to a room full of people who are thinking ‘I’m sure that guy was on my flight’ then afterwards you live with them for a few days more. In the days before the show you are entirely anonymous and free to pick your nose as much as you please. Afterwards you can’t stand in the buffet line without someone saying ‘oh, are you going to make that disappear?’ and then laughing like it’s the first time you heard it. Dutifully, you pretend it is.

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Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind that. Actually I like it. I’ve completely died on a cruise ship before. That was the week I realised the only thing worse than everybody talking to you, is nobody talking to you. The unsuccessful cruise performer is a ghost. A semi translucent figure who barely exists in the  cold corridors between speedily eaten buffets and hiding in the cabin. I’ve been that guy, and I’m much happier the other way round.

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Having people walk past you mumbling ‘pick a card, any card’ or telling you that their sisters uncle was a member of the Magic Circle is their way of saying they liked you. Starting a conversation with a stranger can be awkward to the unrehearsed and in the moment they’re suddenly confronted with a person they feel they know but does not know them has people clutching at unusual straws. As performers, we are rehearsed, it’s our job to replace those straws with a handshake that makes them feel like you’re glad that they said hello. Unless you’re a moron or you’ve never had a bad show, you should be glad.

Cruising at Christmas in the Caribbean is surreal. You eat Christmas dinner outside in the blazing sunshine surrounded by palm trees. TUI really went out of their way to make it special for the guests. There was a visit from Santa himself in the atrium and the ship looked amazing.

SantaI watched the Queen’s speech on a giant outdoor movie screen while sitting in a hot tub on the top deck drinking long island ice tea! Incredibly odd but equally amazing.

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My highlight was the day spent in Aruba.

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It’s a beautiful beach town with amazing hotels and lots of casinos. A play pen for the rich and famous. The few hours we spent on the beach, paddling around in the crystal clear waters is a memory I hope I’ll come back to forever. I’ve never seen my wife or son smile like they did that day. I asked Joshua if he was having a good time and he told me it was the best week of his life. In that moment, it was mine too.

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The only thing that could even eclipse those few seconds was about 25 minutes after my show. I came back to my cabin to find Sarah and Joshua excitedly waiting for me. The show finished at 11.15pm so after packing up I made it to the cabin shortly after 11.30pm. Joshua was half asleep and as I lifted him up to the bunk bed he told me it was the best show I’d ever done.
Then as I kissed his cheek he said with eyes now closed ‘I’m so proud of you daddy’. His last sentence before giving in to sleep.

Writing that down makes me cry now as it did then. The best kind of tears.

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Having my show go well on board was a huge relief. The theatre was beautiful, and the audience expectation could only have been very high. I’d seen three shows in there prior to performing my own and they’d all been of the very best quality. PEEL, the company who take care of the entertainment are industry leaders for a very good reason. They cast insanely talented performers and then spend ten whole weeks teaching them incredibly well crafted shows. No expense is spared with costumes, sets or tech. It really is first class. Every night I sat watching those shows I felt my little internal fire growing larger. Every closing number followed by elongated applause felt like wood being thrown into the engine of a runaway train and by show night I was ready to explode. At this point I’d be the third member of my family to almost do so.

I’m not going to talk about my shows themselves really because I do that a lot in other blogs. Suffice to say they went well and that plenty of guests asked me if I was about to make my turkey sandwich disappear. Food by the way, is another thing that TUI do really really well. I got on that ship as a passenger and left as cargo! (though I wasn’t far off to begin with…)

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Before closing I must thank Adam Brooks (cruise director) and his assistants Rebecca & Christina for everything they did for us that week. You guys were amazing and so very friendly. Adam is the best kind of cruise director. Straight talking and very talented. His compliments and advice were taken with equal welcome.
Also to Melissa (stage manager), Leon (sound tech), Kieran (production manager and Blackpool native), Stephanie (Seattle’s best lighting tech) and everyone else involved for helping my show along. I couldn’t have done it without you.

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So, it’s 1pm, January 1st and I’m in Zurich. Every single plane out of the window I’m currently leaning against has SWISS written on it’s tail. There are Swiss chocolates, cheeses and Swatch watches available in the shop.
I’m starting to get the feeling that Zurich may be in Switzerland and a quick google (no I’m really not kidding) tells me I’m right.

Last night I was in Barbados, this morning I’d been in Manchester (where my family headed home) and I’m now in Switzerland. Not for long though as the tannoy announces ‘can all remaining passengers for Lufthansa Flight 108 to Stockholm please make their way to gate A67’. Before I know it I’m sitting on another plane heading to Sweden, where I’ll get onto a ship that’s sailing to Helsinki in Finland!
I hadn’t been to sleep since waking up the previous morning (whenever that was) and I wasn’t about to get any sleep until after I’d done another two 20 minute shows that night.

For the second time I must point out that I’m not complaining. I’ve sat home staring at an empty diary eating beans on toast for the 10th day in a row enough times to know that I’d rather be here than anywhere else. It’s not always glamorous but it’s very rarely boring.

If blessing were my thing I’d be counting them 1000 times a day.

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The thing I’m most thankful for here is options. I was able to step back from cruising for a while. A good amount of time passed and I got some new perspective. I’m a different performer than I was then, but more importantly I’m a different person. I have more respect for my opportunity and I’ve learned to quite literally live with my audience.

They say you should be careful what you wish for but the truth is that you should be ready to accept and appreciate everything that comes with it. You can never be too old or too proud to learn.

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Shorter trips with a higher ratio of performing to waiting, exciting travel destinations and beautiful theatres. The gig has changed a little and I have changed a lot. It seems we’re now a better fit and I can’t wait for us to get to know each other again.

When we do, I’ll tell you more about it. Until then, I hope you all have a Happy New Year. Wish (and work) for anything you want, life’s too short to be careful.

Mark James

http://www.MarkJamesMagician.com

 

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