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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part IV

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Click for Part I.

Click for Part II.

Click for Part III.

Rehearsals for the new shows started right as I finished being installed in the current ones. Fortunately, vocalists weren't needed initially, because we were mainly used to create audio ambiance, and otherwise weren't featured. We'd be inserted once the dancers knew what they were doing.

The new Elton John tribute show was transferred from another ship, and only needed to be taught, not created. It featured a guest entertainer who impersonated Elton for a living, and would be joining us just before the show premiered. I was given music to learn, with show recordings of the actual arrangements that made it easy as pie to memorize. We incrementally learned the choreography, and other than practicing finding the correct spike marks to stand on, the vocalists were ready to go.

The new Dancing With the Stars-esque show, "5-6-7-8", took a lot more work. By the time rehearsals began, the song list had only just been finalized, and there were no arrangements in sight. The Head of Entertainment hadn't even gone into the studio yet to record performance tracks, so we were working on recordings from iTunes that, we'd been told, were inspiring the arrangements to come. Vocalists hadn't been provided charts yet either. But our deadlines were fast approaching, so we spent our spare time learning the tunes by ear with lyrics pulled up on Google.

The choreographer Allie remained calm about this set back, and it checked everyone else's nerves. Staying with her on board were her husband and newborn son, so she seemed able to maintain a healthier perspective. She was determined but serene, talented while aware that each individual brought a different set of strengths and weaknesses to the table. In the working environment that we'd grown accustomed to, which was manic, self-righteous, and high strung, Allie was a pure joy to work for -- a breath of fresh air.

In between the intensity of show creating, I was still being rehearsed extensively to polish the shows that were currently being performed -- my supervising Artistic Associate, Caroline, was relentless with my time. I was still having problems, consistently in every show, with the sound. Our engineer Thinh was a new hire like me, and he was under just as much pressure, since his shoreside boss was also aboard, to install new equipment. We both wished his boss would simply focus on installing the multi-million dollar light sled coming in, and trust his staff to do their jobs without being micromanaged -- the first time Thinh's boss took over the sound board and changed the settings (read that story in Part II), had not been the last time. It happened every night. There was no consistency from show to show, or even from sound check to show. It was a vocalist's nightmare.

Performing ceased to be fun when I wondered what I would and wouldn't hear every time I stepped on stage; when I anticipated the complaints I would receive from Caroline about not being able to hear me, as if it were my fault the mics weren't being mixed properly.

"Jessika, we simply can't hear you when you sing the lower songs," she sat me down after a rehearsal to say.

"Caroline, I'm up there, phonating," I pleaded. "You heard me sing all the music, all day every day, during rehearsals on land. And you heard me sing every note during the sitzprobe, before the original sound engineer went on vacation."

"Can't you sing any louder?" she pressed.

"No! On a normal show day, without any extra rehearsals for anything else, I'm already singing belt-y, range-y, challenging stuff for three hours! I have to pace myself, especially while I'm developing the muscle memory for these shows. And at the bottom of my range, I'm already giving you all I've got."

My eyes started tearing. It was happening -- my emotions were finally getting to me and I was beginning to shut down.

"What more can I do?" I continued. "My job is to sing, and do all the right moves on the right marks. Well, I've got the singing under control -- but if they can't manage to do their job behind the sound board, it looks as if I'm not doing mine, and there's nothing I can do about it! Then that makes it extremely hard to focus on getting my choreo correctly. I've tried everything I can think of -- extra meetings to fix mic levels, asking engineers who've worked well with my voice in the past, for tips -- everything -- but we continue to have this problem!"

The unexpected display of emotions suddenly disproved the widespread theory of my complacency and apathy, and Caroline finally showed genuine concern for my struggle. She actually took what I said to heart -- even though it may have been the fiftieth time I'd said it. Apparently my tears made my viewpoint credible. But why did it have to get to that point before anyone believed me in this company?

"I know the sound system can do what I need," I added. "Sam had it perfectly set up before he went on vacation -- you heard it. So why they're giving me all these excuses like 'these mics aren't strong enough', or 'the monitor wedges are hung in places that feedback if your mic is as loud as you need' -- I just don't know. It worked before. You heard it work!"

"Yes, I did," she nodded. "Maybe you should write an email to Bryce," she suggested. "There is technical jargon I don't understand, so it's best if you explain what's happening."

Bryce was the head of the fleet's entertainment department. At my audition, he loved me. When I sung for him again after having memorized his shows, he'd showered me with lavish praise.

"How enchanting!" he'd said. "It's so nice to have a musician as a vocalist. That's so rare."

I crafted a letter to him, hoping he'd trust me. The response I got was placating and reassuring, saying that as soon as he was on board, he'd work on my EQ himself and make sure it remained consistent.

I eagerly anticipated his arrival.

Another voyage began, with a fresh set of guests, and as the ship sailed out of the harbor, we were in the Galaxy Lounge, performing our "Welcome Aboard" show. The sound crew had become aware of radio interference with the headset microphones, and had preset handheld mics on either side of the stage, just in case the headsets cut out all together. Those of us in the cast who sung were made aware, and the show had to go on.

Everyone backstage was flustered. "How can I do choreography if I'm holding a mic?" the people in the singer/dancer tracks grumbled.

At that point you aren't responsible for flawless choreo, I thought. If the equipment doesn't work, you improvise -- you make it work. That's part of being a professional.

Lo and behold, every headset cut out, and we all gave up and grabbed a handheld. And I came alive -- I love performing when you don't know how it's going to go down. Having the freedom to act on my impulses is invigorating, and is a skillset that few music theatre performers possess -- in fact, having to perform something that isn't specifically set is aggressively opposed in this industry. But because I liked it, this was my chance to shine.

As soon as I grabbed that mic, my voice filled the room like molten gold -- finally, a mic that worked. To hell with the choreo -- it would look stupid with only one hand, so I danced as I felt it, making a point to be in my light specials. I was able to cater to the audience with my choices, as opposed to thinking turn, turn, kick-down, hold eight, and a-one... I was the only person on stage, so I didn't have to worry about matching what others did, and I just did me. It had been months, and how I'd missed being myself. I sung the piss out of those numbers.

Deviating from the strictness was especially nice, because we had another show where any deviation at all could mean life or death: in that show the entire cast was dressed head to toe in LED light suits, and danced in a completely blackened theater with no spotlights or backstage lighting whatsoever. There was no singing -- only dancing and prop moving. Hundreds of glow tape spikes were flecked over the stage's black cover to prevent us from falling off the edge, and we had to get used to seeing them through the eye slits in our face masks without angling our head to look down while the LED's on our head were lit and therefor visible.

Learning the light show was simultaneously terrifying and awe-inspiring. The special effects created by the timing of the light suits with the dancing were mind blowing. Danced to a sound track of popular music mixed together to create a story line, it was by far the best show we offered.

But it was intense in its exactness -- not only to prevent life or death situations, but to align all the light suits to create the effects. I was totally out of my element, and to over compensate, I'd watched the show videos ad nauseam and typed up a four page document of all the details I had to juggle, in consecutive order. I prioritized getting this show's choreo perfectly, since so much was at stake. I put the document on my iPad and carried it with me to every rehearsal, and took notes as my instructions became more and more specific. Join the dance circle, hold up the rose, be the sassy flirt in the café, make butterflies with my hands, hold the box while the robot sits on it, have a dance party to David Bowie's "Magic Dance" (my personal favorite), stand on a chair and do the choreo from the waist up...the list was all over the place. The detail and clearness of vision that went into this show blew my mind.

Every night before the show, I calmed my anxiety and did my very best to execute my track perfectly. I made mistakes occasionally, but nothing that caused anyone harm. Once in a while a prop wouldn't light, or the LED on a limb would short out, but those were mishaps outside of my control. My line captains practiced and practiced the timing of everything with me, and eventually I got it right.

Rehearsals were well underway for "5-6-7-8", and as more production elements came together, our blocking got altered and improved. Nothing had sunk in yet, because it kept changing -- but this was par for the course, and I would take notes in an attempt to roll with the punches. On the second time we worked on the opening number, I missed the timing of my entrance by eight bars. Myself and David, the male vocalist, entered at the same time, since we had been watching each other from behind our respective curtain legs -- each hoping the other knew the correct timing of our entrance. Well we missed it, but missed it together. The choreographer laughed and sent us back, we had a good giggle, and on the next runthrough we got it right. The rest of rehearsal went by uneventfully. I still felt insecure about some of the music I'd studied, and wanted to spend more time with it.

I shut myself up in my cabin, and pulled up the charts that had finally been provided to us, to fix my errors while they were still fresh on my mind.

I started the playlist, and the phone rang. I paused my iTunes.

"Jessika, what happened in rehearsal today?" Caroline's voice rang indignantly through the receiver.

"What do you mean?"

"You missed that entrance! You learned that number yesterday and you're supposed to come to rehearsals prepared!"

"Caroline -- I don't know. I just made a mistake." David made it too, I thought. Did you call and lecture him?

"There is simply no excuse! We have no time to waste!"

"Well I won't make that error again, I've fixed it now. The good thing about me is I don't consistently make the same error -- in any of the shows I've learned."

"But you need to spend your time reviewing!" she scolded shrilly.

"That's what I'm doing right now! That's what this phone call interrupted!! I know when I mess up and I do what I have to do to fix it!"

"Oh," she said contritely. After an awkward pause, she said, "I'll let you get back to that, then."

"Thank you. Have a good day."

"You too."

I replaced the receiver and fumed. How dare she. I wasn't the only one to make mistakes at that rehearsal, and there were many others besides David too. Yet I guarantee I was the only one who got a phone call. How was it that I'd developed a reputation as a slacker, especially in her eyes, when she'd worked with me from the beginning? There were no more hours left in the day to spend rehearsing. All I did was work! And up until that instant, I worked happily, objectively. But now my emotions had gotten the better of me, and I couldn't function. I closed my computer, put away my iPad, sat on the edge of my bed, and trembled.

I rallied for a performance of "Maestro", our show paying tribute to modern composers, later that night. The 8 o'clock show had its usual disasters of sound problems and old, dilapidated costumes falling apart, tripping the cast. After that night, that show had only one more voyage before it was put to rest.

Marcelo, the lighting designer, wanted to help me get some of my marks correctly, because he knew Caroline was riding my ass over every little thing. He requested that before the 10 o'clock show, we run "Send in the Clowns" so I could see which lights changed on which moments.

"Ahhh, I can't unmute your headset!" he exclaimed in exasperation. "Take the cruise director's mic--"

He passed me the hand-held mic with the yellow battery pack.

"Sing, so you know on exactly which words the lights change."

"OK," I sighed.

My voice was tired. So much effort for a show on the cutting board; and singing the lower pitched songs, like this one, wore out my voice the most. But I did as I was told.

I sat on my prop bed and inhaled. Isn't it rich...

"Woah!" I was jolted at the sound of my voice, coming through the PA loud, rich, and clear, without any stress on my part. This mic was EQ-ed for Mike, our cruise director who frequently worked as a voiceover actor, with his rich bass resonance. This mic was set to flatter such a voice, and it certainly was working wonders for mine!

"This is the EQ I was asking them for, with my other mic!" I exclaimed.

"Jessika, sing! You're missing the lighting cues," Marcelo chucked through the stage manager's mic.

"Oh, yeah. Right."

He started the number over. If only anyone who'd ever accused me of not singing then blaming it on the sound man, had been there. It was heavenly, if I do say so myself.

Marcelo paused the song to point out the specials I missed.

"I was instructed to walk to this spike," I gestured at some tape on the floor.

"Well you're too tall, the light isn't hitting your face. Take a step forward. One more -- now THERE. Look where you're standing now."

I had no distinguishing mark at my feet to help me find it again. He jogged to the stage, smacked a piece of tape down, and labeled it "JESS".

"Now you look beautiful, and you sound beautiful. Go back out there tonight and have some fun."

He gave me a hug and sent me to prep for the 10 o'clock show.

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

Click for Part VI.

Click for Part VII.

Click for Part VIII.

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