• Jessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part II

Updated: Mar 8


Click for Part I.

Who ever heard of a millennial with a college degree earning a salary as a musician, who was debt free, with financial infrastructures in place to build a nest egg, plan for retirement, and buy a house? I was that anomaly, kicking ass and taking names, until I became the convenient scapegoat caught between corporate finger pointing, and failed to stand up for myself.

My rehearsal period ended, and just like that, my performance contract began. Suddenly I found much of my support network had gone on vacation: the sound engineer who had perfected the mix on my vocal mic; and the other female vocalist who'd been teaching me my onstage marks, backstage traffic, and costume change routines; for starters. Multiple people came to replace them, including Thinh, a newly hired sound engineer; John, the shoreside technical director (or TD) for all theaters in this fleet; Allie, the choreographer for the shows that were being created; Amy, the other artistic associate and colleague to Caroline (who was sent to the ship to make sure I transitioned easily into the position), sent to learn the new shows to be able to teach them to castmembers returning from vacation; and a few other new people joining the cast. Later in the contract would come the costumer, the third and final artistic associate, the head of entertainment for the company, a guest entertainer Elton John impersonator, and a few executives from the new company that had just purchased the fleet.

Why, everyone asked, would you be producing two brand new shows on a ship that just replaced a pregnant vocalist in a rush, with a bunch of new castmembers? Why not do it on the other ship in the fleet? Well, our ship happened to be in Asia, where the headquarters of the new ownership were located. The new executives wanted to inspect the product they'd just bought, and didn't want to travel far to do so. The new owners stated the intention to allow fleet management to remain unchanged -- except they wanted to increase the revenue brought in by the casinos. While aboard, they were looking for departments that could be downsized or cut to make room for a larger gambling scene.

To make it look like entertainment was proactive, irreplaceable, and deserving of all the funds we were used to receiving, our department decided that installing two new shows was just the ticket. We would flex a little muscle, dazzle guests and the new owners alike, and triumph as a department with budget intact.

First things first, I had to move from my temporary (and luxurious) guest cabin to the offical Female Vocalist cabin -- on the morning of my first performance. It was the "Welcome Aboard" show, featuring music from A Chorus Line and The Grand Hotel. Moving three suitcases that weighed 50-plus pounds down four flights isn't the best way to spend preparing for a performance, but I hustled, organized my things, then pulled up the recordings to review the dance routine for "One" -- when there was a knock on my door.

Caroline's anxious smile was on the other side of my peep hole. Not now, I want to focus without you interrupting with your input.

"Hi! How do you like the new cabin?!" she said with strained cheerfulness.

"It's lovely, such an upgrade from my last ship," I replied.

"Wonderful. So...how does it compare?" she continued after an uncomfortable pause.

"My last ship...I was forced to live in a cabin with a guy, and we each had a bunkbed and shared a bathroom, with no window, of course. And there was absolutely no armchair."

"Oh, well I'm glad you're liking the new set up!"

She lingered in my cabin, lounging strangely on my bed, uninvited, making small talk. I stood there awkwardly, because I don't like to do a lot of excess talking before I have to do heavy singing; wishing her gone so I could press play on iTunes and review tonight's show, not wanting her to know that's what I was about to do because I knew she'd bombard me with feedback. But she was my superior, and on ships, the hierarchy of rank determines how you interact with each individual, so I stood patiently and said nothing. Regardless, she was wasting my time.

My debut "Welcome Aboard" went just ok -- I missed some steps in "One" but smiled through it. I did sing extremely well however, better than all the demo recordings and performance videos I'd been provided. The first pitch of "Music and the Mirror" is a tritone -- nicknamed "the devil's tone" -- therefor is difficult for a non-musician singer to hear; evidently that was everyone who'd ever held this position before me. In each recording the singers slid into the opening pitch clumsily, but I didn't. I knew I was in F major and I hit that B natural like it was going out of style. "Enchanting..." the head of entertainment had said when he heard me sing it in rehearsal on land.

My microphone, however, suddenly sounded different than it had during my put-in rehearsals, before the main sound man had gone on vacation. My voice, which previously had been warm and smooth, sounded thin, high, and tinny -- like a cheap speaker at Filipino karaoke night. The EQ was so unbalanced, you could hardly hear anything I sung, especially below middle C (which is not a low pitch). Backstage, David, the male vocalist, was just as perplexed by the new sound, and remarked that his mic and monitor levels had been altered as well, and not for the better.

"I met the new sound man," he mentioned. "He's the Vietnamese guy. I'm not so sure how long he'll be around..."

Every ship I'd ever worked on hired most, if not all, of their technical staff from Asia, where the salary requirements are lower due to a less expensive standard of living. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but there is a strong cultural preference for a different sound aesthetic in Asia: compared with Western culture, they prefer everything to be bright, thin, and ethereal, with tons of reverb. To Western ears, this sounds squeaky and metalic since we as a culture prefer a warm, well-spaced, almost intimate sound to our vocals, and we much prefer the aesthetics of lower frequencies.

This difference makes for some very interesting cultural communication, since most Westerners, when hearing a thin sound, assume this means the Asian engineer has no skill -- and most performers on ships are of Western culture. Few learn that sound, like anything else, is a culturally influenced taste, so few realize that you can ask for what you need -- if you know the technical jargon. And Asian engineers don't always understand why Western performers develop such a bad attitude: since most don't know any technical jargon, the performers attempt to ask for what they need with elaborate descriptions -- always in English. The Asian engineers speak English quite well, as a second, third, or sixth language -- but have difficulty understanding the nuances, and therefor difficulty in guessing correctly how to modify the sound. This all culminates in a downward spiral for a working environment, but with a little awareness on both sides, it could be completely avoided.

I knew this, as I had the blessing of co-producing an EP for my Hourglass project since 2011, with someone born and raised in Tokyo. I was prepared to do what was needed on this ship to smooth it over for everyone.

But once the show ended, I needed to shower and get into bed. Tomorrow was another day with its own set of challenges, as I was going to do my debut performance of "Curtain Call" -- our Broadway and West End review. I was excited to curl up in my new queen sized bed, underneath my porthole letting in the moonlight -- but found my new mattress to be as comfortable as lumpy concrete. I tossed and turned, desperate for rest.

The next day brought about my first department meeting as Female Vocalist, where I was introduced with my new rank. All the new hires were likewise introduced, and all shoreside staff who were aboard to create the new shows. They elaborated further on those at the cast-only meeting later that day -- one show was a tribute to Elton John, featuring a guest entertainer who impersonated Sir Elton for a living; the next was a show inspired by Dancing With the Stars, which was to feature many styles of dance, all set to modern arrangements, performed by the vocalists. What struck me as odd was that the set list for the latter show had not yet been finalized, and rehearsals were starting the next day. There had been no arrangements made, and for the vocalists, the suggestion given was, "Download these songs by these artists, and begin to listen to them, I guess."

With ship wifi? Yikes.

So I went on to polish the material I had been rehearsed on, because tonight's show was the huge blockbuster from this ship's repertoire. I was singing parts of beloved roles such as Millie, Evita, Grizabella, and Fontine, so I was sure to have some "money moments" in there -- it was mainly costume changes and the more complex Mama Mia and Thoroughly Modern Millie choreo I needed to focus on getting right.

We had our pre-show run-through for sound check and spot cleaning later that afternoon. I felt like I was as prepared as I'd ever be, all things considered, but I got many notes from Caroline and my female line captain Marynia nonetheless. I spent an hour or so styling my wigs, then did the rest of my usual show prep.

The 8 o'clock performance of "Curtain Call" happened that night, in a blur -- I had fun, I never felt totally embarrassed by any errors, and I knew the next run of the show would be even cleaner.

We were standing in our Mama Mia spandex in the lobby, as was customary after every performance, doing a meet and greet. Everyone was there...the officers from the bridge, the cruise director (or CD), and hotel director (or HD), and any crew who could get off work for the evening. Everyone came to see how the new vocalist would fare in her first full show.

"I cannot believe you just did that well!" remarked our CD Patrick. "That was astounding -- I could only tell where the hiccups were because I've seen the show hundreds of times!"

"Congratulations, you should be so happy!" my line captains hugged me.

"Nice work, Jessika," said Caroline tersely, holding a wrinkled program in her boney fingers with notes scribbled all over it. "There are just a few things I need to bring to your attention before the 10 o'clock show. So first off..."

My jaw dropped as she ticked off items on her list. Right there, in public, in front of the guests who were standing in line for their turn to greet me. It is taboo in theatre to give someone notes outside of a rehearsal, and especially not right before a show -- it's discourteous to expect someone to perform a note they never get a chance to practice. And I had less than an hour to reset my make-up, hair, wigs, shoes, and costumes for the top of the next run -- maybe sprint to the mess for a cup of tea and a snack. Caroline was oblivious, and kept on rattling.

"We need to find something more attractive to do with your arms during the ABBA line, when you do your hip circles?"

"OK," I strained.

"How about your arms circling straight, parallel with your thighs?"

"Whatever you decide," I mumbled. Why didn't I tell her to hold her thoughts until the next time we were scheduled to rehearse this show with the cast? Surely she knew this was bad form on her part, but maybe my performance was so atrocious, I couldn't be seen on stage like that again without compromising the integrity of the company.

Amy, Caroline's fellow artistic associate, stood a few paces away from our conversation, looking on in disdain. When I caught her eye, she mouthed genuinely "Good job!" with a smile, then resumed glowering -- at Caroline, it seemed. Amy listened in, but said nothing, lips pursed.

One by one, the cast departed, glancing back over their shoulders in irritation with Caroline, on their way to recharge before the next go. No one else wanted to risk getting stuck receiving a laundry list to work on, in case she'd also taken notes about them.

When I was finally dismissed, I couldn't look anyone in the eye -- I needed to up my game, evidently. I knew my performance wasn't totally clean, but I had no idea it was that weak -- or whether Caroline was making mountains out of a molehill.

Caroline hadn't been doing so well since we'd joined the ship. It had been 20 years since she had been at sea, and how things had changed in that time. The internet now reigned supreme and made it so that while traveling, people could manage their accounts and run their lives remotely. The whole world was dependent on smart phones now, as a critical tool with which to access the internet. Even the people in the third world countries we were visiting relied on them. Unlike 20 years ago, Caroline now had a house, an elderly dog, a tennant, a car, and a college-aged son to manage, and these things worried her excessively. The cruise line gave her free, unlimited access to wifi because of her high rank -- but in all my years at sea, this particular ship had the worst wifi I'd ever encountered. Who remembers dial-up? That was better than this ship, times ten.

Loading emails took ten minutes, opening a short message with nothing but text took five, and opening Facebook? That would take at least 20. We millennials learned instantly to rely on land wifi in restaurants, malls, and coffee shops, or better still -- SIM cards in our phones with data. When this ship docked, the crew came pouring out in hordes -- just to pay bills and communicate with loved ones. Other perks of going ashore also included eating land food (ships tend to over-sterilize their food, you'll notice a change in your stool immediately after embarking); setting foot on solid land and breathing non-recirculated air (both do wonders for sanity); and especially in Vietnam, deck hands flocked to brothels in herds. Yet all these other perks aside, wifi is, and likely will remain, the number one motivating factor in getting crew ashore.

But Caroline would partake in none of these things, because her wifi was free and unlimited. I pointed out that she could get off the ship and go buy a decent coffee (another perk -- ship coffee tastes like second-hand beans percolated with urine), and that purchase would grant her access to wifi fast enough to load email in half a second, like the rest of the world. She would get fresh air, see the sky, eat healthier food, and get all her work done in less than half an hour, if she would only follow everyone's advice. But she didn't, and remained sequestered in her cabin, all alone, for hours on end waiting for her emails to send and bills to be confirmed, just because she didn't want to spend 60,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $3 US dollars) on a coffee and biscotti if she didn't have to; and because she claimed that she felt very uncomfortable in Asia. She refused to pay a few bucks for a SIM card too -- and instead ended up paying about $900 a month for using her US carrier's data abroad.

"My son needs to get in touch with me!" she'd insist.

"But Caroline, he can text you and call you at your email address, because you have an iPhone. It works the same way as your phone number!" I'd repeat. "Trust me, it'll save you thousands of dollars!"

"I just can't..."

"I'll set it up for you, you won't even notice a difference. It'll take me ten minutes."

"It's all so overwhelming..."

"I know, but saving money is great, and once set up, it's not overwhelming."

Nothing ever worked. So she stayed in the solitude of her cabin, plastered against the screens of her devices, for hours. Her skin became pale and dusty, her ballerina frame put on weight, and her mental state continued to decline. The worse she got, the harder we all pleaded with her to get out, because she became impossible to work with.

"I just can't," she'd sigh. "I have so much work to do..."

"What takes hours on board takes minutes at Starbucks. Then you can relax and have a minute to put everything into a healthy perspective. Bring your stuff, come with us -- we'll all be doing the same thing."

"But I know how it works on the ship..."

She insisted on staying with the evil that was familiar, rather than taking the leap for something that could potentially be better. And thus, the contract began to spiral into ruin.

The second show of "Curtain Call" did go a little better than the first, although the volume of my microphone seemed to diminish with time. What was happening with the sound?

And the one note I retained from Caroline's laundry list, about swinging my arms parallel to my thighs while in the ABBA line? Totally invalid -- I karate-chopped my male line captain Orynko, who was standing next to me in line -- in the crotch. This is why you never have a performer try something new without a rehearsal. I apologized to him profusely.

The cast had a day off from live performances and began rehearsals for the new shows the next day. Singers were given music for the Elton show, but were otherwise dismissed, thankfully. I had to prepare for my next debut in the show "Route 66", which was another crazy one for costumes and choreo.

The run-through the next day was rough on the technical side of things. I approached our new sound engineer Thinh, and wondered if he might have a bit of time to work with me on my mic levels before tonight's shows -- he agreed, and later that afternoon we hashed it out to our satisfaction. We added some low-mids, decreased the squeaky high's, and relaxed the reverb, then took a break before showtime.

Downbeat to "Route 66", and before I knew it, I was center stage for my opening number, a tribute to the late great Billie Holiday, which began as a crossfade from some video of a woman who clearly wasn't Billie, with some music theatre singer -- also clearly not Billie -- singing the beginning of "T'ain't Nobody's Business". It crossfaded to my live singing. The sequence offended me in every way -- as someone who is one class shy of having a degree in Jazz Studies, who religiously poured over recordings of jazz greats to commit their voicings and phrasings to memory -- I could pick Billie Holiday out of a crowd blindfolded if she sung only one syllable. That authentically raw, unpolished, heroine-scarred, heartfelt sound cannot be duplicated -- and this show's recording was so far from well-researched and intelligently performed that my blood boiled every time.

Yet I put on a smile and went out there, determined to rectify the situation with my own spin. I began my first phrase, But I'm gonna do what I want to anyway... where my mic is supposed to crescendo on top of the recorded track. The dreadful studio vocalist faded away with do what I want to... and there was silence coming from my mic! I was phonating, that's for sure. I put my entire chest voice underneath my support to project as far as possible -- maybe the first row could hear me then -- but singing like that is exhausting. Why couldn't I hear my vocals? I didn't forget to turn on my headset, it was handed to me by a tech cued up and ready to go! My vocals faded up slightly, slowly, just as the audience looked around uncomfortably, about to complain that they couldn't hear the singer.

Why were my levels once again different!? I spent half an hour perfecting them with Thinh! What was going on?

The light special changed, so I could slightly see the audience, and I glanced at the sound booth. Thinh was standing contritely off to the side, hands aggressively in his pockets -- and John, the head TD in the fleet, was behind the board, irritatedly adjusting knobs and sliders with panicked haste. What the hell is going on?

I got to my eight bar scat solo, over the opening chords of "Our Love is Here to Stay", with the turn-around changes removed before taking the melody into the next phrase -- such bad arranging. In the vocalist's chart, a scat solo had been written out, but it was as basic as they come, and I'd specifically sought permission to improvise. At least here I could shine, and show that not everyone in our department was totally uneducated about jazz. The cast might have a conniption from hearing something different than what had always been done (most music theatre performers do), but on the chance there could be jazz afficionados in the audience, I wasn't going to look ignorant.

I took my solo, finished the segment with Ella's and Louie's tag ending of "Our Love is Here to Stay", and sprinted to my first costume change. While it had gradually become apparent that my mic was working, I still could hardly hear and it was making me anxious.

My Filipina dressers stripped me of Billie's gown and dressed me in Diana Ross's. Out I strutted with the other ladies dressed like the Supremes, and stood on a platform directly in front of the band. Stop, in the name of love... I couldn't hear a peep of my own voice. The drummer was pounding just feet behind me, and the track was blaring from the monitor hung above my head. I inhaled as deeply as possible considering the choreography, and sung as loudly as I could without risking getting off pitch -- and there was nothing else in my power to do. I felt helpless, like a puppet in sequins and heels; I might as well have been lip synching for all the sound my mic was producing. WHAT HAD GONE WRONG!?

Another costume change, into a 1950s waitress dress this time. The sequins of Diana Ross pulled on my nude fishnets in our rush, but over my head the waitress dress went, with a dresser standing before me to zip the zipper going down my front. The zipper, likely more than ten years old on this costume piece, got stuck. Then it broke off.

My dressers froze in a panic. I had less than two minutes before my next entrance, and I still had to cross from the dressing room on Stage Right to my entrance on Stage Left.

They began shouting at each other in Tagalog, frantically waving their hands in the air.

"Safety pins!" I shouted. "I have some in that drawer!"

One lady opened where I gestured and pulled out two of the largest pins. She handed one to another dresser and began to attach the second below my collar. Her pin clipped shut.

The other dresser struggled -- her hands were shaking with adrenaline. I stayed calm for her, we all cajoled her, some ladies interjected their hands to assist -- and downbeat of my song started.

I broke free of their hands and sprinted backstage, fiddling with the unclosed safety pin on my belly. No luck -- and I ran to my mark on centerstage, in the spotlight.

You'd better think, think about what you're trying to do to me... I was gingerly executing my choreo -- the more I moved my arms, the more the pin pulled loose.

Freedom, freedom... My choreo involved ochos with my hands held straight above my head -- there was no avoiding the new-found freedom my breasts were unhappily granted. The pin pulled out, and there were my titties, cupped in a nude bra, on display to be seen by practically everyone on the entire ship.

And WHERE WAS MY VOCAL MIC? I sing extraordinarily loud when I'm angry, and there I was belting Aretha Franklin with my bosoms out, unable to hear myself through the PA? What was going on in that booth!?

My number ended, and I made a hasty exit. My dressers were apologetic, to the point where I was anxious we'd miss the next costume change.

"It's ok! It's not your fault. That zipper was so old..." I kept repeating, comforting them. As if it had been their ta-ta's front and center for the viewing pleasure of the entire ship.

The rest of the show whirled by in a depressing haze of warped microphones, surging adrenaline, and choreography bloopers. A crowd began to gather by the sound booth -- hands were flying in aggressive gestures -- what was happening?

Thank God the show ended. I put on pajamas to rest before the next show, which was in an hour. I kept my gaze low. My dressers were practicing with safety pins to be able to close the waitress costume successfully during the 10 o'clock run. My fellow castmates were playing games on their phones, or grabbing food in the mess hall.

Caroline came backstage to ask about what happened, why did it all go wrong? Absentminded and defeated, I explained as best I could. She kept yacking with more notes of improvements -- I saw her mouth moving but retained nothing.

Then it was time for round two.

I donned my faux Billie Holiday gown and made my entrance. The studio vocalist crossfaded down, do what I want to anyway... and there was my voice! Warm and pleasant and on top of the mix, drowning out her terrible phrasing as she faded away -- and I wasn't even pushing! Who took over the sound board?

Unbeknownst to me, in the back of the theatre, the CD Patrick had started having a fit over the poor quality of the show, in front of Gina, our resident guest entertainer, and a vocal impressionist. She had also been appalled at the hot mess on stage, and spent the rest of last performance looking over the shoulder of John, the TD. John had initially walked in to see how his newest hire Thinh was faring behind the sound board, and decided to oust Thinh from his post and take over -- thus changing all the settings that had been agreed upon in rehearsal. Gina saw him crank up the compression on each vocal line, before either of us vocalists had even begun singing, and this snapped her into an outraged frenzy.

When the CD got angry, the first thing Gina did was call out John for tampering with the settings.

"I'm a vocalist, and I should know!" she allegedly declared. "Only on this cruise line has anyone ever tried to compress my vocals to the point where you can't hear, which is why my contract forbids compression from being used on my line during my show! Compression should be used in the studio only! Jessika is up there and she can't hear! Take her compression off! Look at her, she brings her hand to her ear every time the choreography allows, she's so uncomfortable! How dare you do this to anyone on stage, and not even with a rehearsal for her to get used to the settings?"

Thank God for Gina. She apparently won the argument, and later recounted to me that Patrick had trusted her judgement and insisted that John do as she said. My second performance of "Route 66" went off without a hitch. My dressers were also able to safety pin the broken costume closed, so I was able to sing well and be fully dressed.

The broken costume got sent to the tailor the next day, when I received a call from the CD's office. "Jessika, I don't know your schedule, but I'd like to speak with you when you have free time," Patrick said.

"Yessir, how about now?"

"That would be good."

When the CD was stepping in, it could not be a good sign. But what else could he have me do? For what else could I possibly be held accountable?

"Good morning," I said, as he beckoned me to close the door and take a seat. I shuffled my feet and looked down. Patrick was not a particularly warm or outgoing man -- he was all business, and from what I could tell, difficult to impress.

"Let me start off by apologizing for the way this company has treated you," he began.

My eyes flew from staring at his desk up to meet his eye contact. Could I believe what I was hearing?

"The rehearsal time cut in half, the costumes that don't work, and then to top it all off -- sending you to the ship with Caroline assigned to you."

How could he possibly know that having her around was particularly stressful?

"I've worked with her many times over the years. She means well, but she doesn't know when to drop it. She doesn't know when enough is enough, when too much is counterproductive."

So nice to know it's not just me that finds her overwhelming...

"I can tell you're unhappy. We all can. You boarded so positive and energetic and ready to go, and they've just smothered you to death. I know you're not content with the level of your performances -- quite frankly, with as little training as they gave you, I'm amazed you're performing as well as you are -- and I know you know they're not at the level they need to be -- but that's not your fault."

My jaw was on my chest by that point, I'm sure.

"Basically, it saddens me to see you have a negative experience working here, one that is entirely the company's fault," he continued. "You're very talented, you belong here, and I want you to try to have a bit of fun. This is a great place to work. Everyone has always been supportive like a family, and just know that we all see what is going on, and we all want to help you succeed."

"How do you know all this?" I stammered.

"We all keep each other abreast of everything," he explained. "In fact, I'm sending an email to shoreside to tell them how disappointed I am in how they dealt with hiring and training you."

"Oh, thank you."

"And last night, Gina was irate by how they were changing sound levels on the vocals. I'm not a vocalist myself, so I really don't know, but Gina explained some things, and now I better understand."

"I even had an extra rehearsal with the new sound guy --"

"Thinh," he added.

"Yes -- so we could discuss my needs in depth without wasting anyone else's time, and we ended up with levels that worked. I guess John went and undid them?"

"So it seems."

"But I know those mics and that sound system are capable of providing the EQ I need, because Sam set up and saved those settings before he went on vacation! I don't know why they got changed..."

"I know. Thinh's new, a lot of people are new, there's lots of changes going on, we all just have to be patient and persistent." Then he added, "I'm going on vacation at the end of this cruise as well, and Mike is the other CD who comes to this ship. I'm leaving him a detailed account of what's going on, so he can continue to help."

"Thank you."

"So Jessika, I just want to see you have fun. I know you'll keep working on your material, but let loose once in a while. It'll do you good."

"Yessir."

"And if Caroline or anyone else gives you a problem, let me know so I can mediate."

"Thank you sir!"

He shook my hand, and I was dismissed.

A tremendous emotional burden had been relieved, which made facing the other two shows I had left to premier that cruise more of a do-able task. As long as people could see what I was going through, I felt less crazy, and I could better go about my job.

You ready for more yet? Click for Part III. #thankyouLinManuelMiranda

Click for Part VI.

Click for Part V.

Click for Part VI.

Click for Part VII.

Click for Part VIII.

#millennial #vocalist #cruiseship #cruise #cruisedirector #corporate #soundengineer #dresscode #debut #Broadway #WestEnd #jazzstudies #jazz #BillieHoliday #Filipino #Tagalog #breasts #brokenzipper #compression #TheHourglass #michrophone #DianaRoss #ArethaFranklin #rehearsal #tritone

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© 2015 by Jessika Brust

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