Have It All, Lose It All, Part VII
Updated: Mar 8
Click for Part I.
Click for Part II.
Click for Part III.
Click for Part IV.
Click for Part V.
Click for Part VI.
One more voyage until I went on my first paid vacation. In preparation for our "debark" (disembarkation), crew had to wait in line for HR to get our paperwork in order. In line with me was my closest friend on board, Michelle, who sung with the jazz trio in the lounge upstairs.
"So what are your plans for vacation?" she began.
"Going to Sydney to visit my man! Then my little brother is getting married and I'm a bridesmaid...then I guess I'll spend the rest of the time polishing these shows if I don't run away back to Oz..."
"When do you come back after vacation?"
"In July, in Reykjavik. And you?"
"I don't know..." her voice trailed. "This company is very hard on me -- I sing seven nights a week with no days off unless I get medically signed off duty. I was thinking of going back to my old company. But they asked me to rejoin this ship in mid-July."
"That's brutal...but I'll be so happy if you come back..."
"Did I tell you what happened when I got super seasick in a storm?"
"I could not stop vomiting -- nothing would help. So I called the cruise director to say I couldn't perform that night. He told me to get over it, get upstairs, and keep singing."
"Yeah. I have to have the ship doctor prove I'm sick in order to be relieved of my duties. Because throwing up doesn't f*** up your voice at all," she finished sarcastically.
"Who was the cruise director, Patrick?"
"I knew it wasn't Mike..."
Conversation turned to the ironies of musician life at sea. Those who worked the most hours and had to produce their own material got paid the stingiest salary. She didn't have every detail of her life and body micromanaged like I did -- but she was solely responsible for the content of her performances. I was responsible for being force-fed my performance material as if I didn't have a brain cell to my name. Michelle's position required more background education and homework, yet I got paid significantly more, and performed only four nights a week, at most. But even with my better paycheck, and her better artistic freedom, we both felt dissatisfied in our positions and knew we had more to contribute.
"I used to produce my own main stage shows for my last cruise line," I reminisced. "I have charts for the band and everything. It'd be nice if I got to use them again..."
"I have a main stage show too!" she exclaimed. "During a slow cruise they occasionally will let me do it."
"Next contract should be more calm for me," I thought aloud. "They won't be creating any new shows...so what if...you and I put a duo show together!"
"Yeah! I'd love to work with you!"
"Do you play any instruments?"
"I could play ukulele, or maybe guitar... This could be great!" she started getting excited. "'Cause you're an opera singer who sings jazz, and I'm a jazz singer who's studied opera...and we can both do everything in between!"
"Wait, when did you study opera?!"
"So we could do the duet from Contes d'Hoffmann?"
And just like that, in a frenzied whirlwind of excitement, we had an entire concept for a new act thought up, while standing in line for ten minutes. After meeting with HR, I hugged Michelle before bounding gleefully back to my cabin to prepare for our Broadway review. For the first time since joining the ship, I was looking forward to returning for the next contract. It was good to finally have a friend.
According to my calculations: if I'd been granted the company standard of six weeks of land rehearsal (instead of the three I got), and had I gotten the company standard of two voyages for put-in rehearsals (instead of the one voyage I had), I would be starting my performance contract during the voyage that we were currently in. The last cruise before my vacation should've been my first on the stage.
Interesting -- because it was just now that I was starting to feel comfortable in all eight shows. My confidence was slowly returning, and I was starting to disregard the nagging I got from the Artistic Associate Caroline, who seemed to be giving incessant notes out of habit more than necessity. Her demands were becoming more superfluous, and were invading the territory of conclusions and performance decisions I needed to begin making for myself. As I felt like I knew the material well enough to make these choices, my performances improved exponentially. So what if Caroline was still fussing -- it was white noise by this point.
Also deflating Caroline's influence was Bryce -- the VP of entertainment for the entire fleet. He finally flew out to join the ship to assist with the premiers of the two new shows. He knew things were not going well for me, because I'd been advised to send him an email about my struggles. I'd diplomatically outlined my troubles, everything from the sound levels being tampered with that deleted my voice from the mix, to Caroline micromanaging my every breath. A meeting was scheduled for us to discuss ideas for conflict resolution and to set effective microphone levels.
I loved Bryce -- he was a bundle of positive energy and creativity, and he'd been so enthusiastic about hiring me, and figuring out ways to work my fiddle playing into at least one show. We clicked because he was a beast of a musician, and he loved that I could sight read, hear a tritone, improvise, and fix a musical correction on the spot. The last I saw him was at my final land rehearsal before flying to Singapore to board the ship. I'd sung through the (then) five shows, received the stamp of approval, and was sent on my way. I'd wished many times throughout my contract that he'd been sent to the ship with me instead of Caroline -- a fellow musician was more likely to understand my concerns and know how to better address them, than a dancer with no musical ear whatsoever.
In our meeting, Bryce listened intently, as if he were my closest confidant, and he devised a plan to clear up the issues. It was so comforting -- and Step One of the plan was to give me a wider berth from Caroline's iron grip.
"We have to get your confidence back," he declared. "Where's the cool, confident, sexy Jessika who could do anything, that I met back in L.A.? You're still that woman, you're still that performer. We've got to bring that back out of you again."
So with tonight's Broadway performance, I took that advice to heart. Apparently it worked.
I stood in the lobby with the cast to greet the guests after the show, dressed in our Mama Mia spandex onesies.
A group of petite elderly Chinese ladies came up to me, smiling mischievously, and gesturing me to lean down to their height from atop my platform boots.
"You have dee best body," they whispered delightedly.
"Oh, thank you," I responded, confused.
"Dee otha girrs, day too skinny."
"You -- curvy, have bosom. Just right. We watch you, you're our favorite."
"Thanks ladies," I gave them light hugs, then furrowed my brow as they walked away.
That certainly was different feedback from what I was used to. Cultural differences in beauty perception are fascinating.
Before I could get lost in thought, Clint approached me. He's arguably Australia's most famous violinist, and I'd met him on my previous ship. He was an ex-gig partner of the concert pianist I was dating (read about him here), so Clint and I tread lightly with each other. He used to hit on me to cause his ex-bandmate grief, but on this contract, he was better behaved. Clint had been gigging on my current cruise line for years, and was considered guest entertainer royalty. As such, he was privy to insider gossip, and knew there was much tension directed at me.
Clint had just watched me deliver a clean, solid performance of the Broadway show, and likely had developed his own opinions regarding my suitability for the job. Without a word, he locked eyes with me sympathetically, and shook his head, wearing a half smile. He grabbed my arm and pulled my face down to his small stature, and gave me a firm kiss on the cheek. He squeezed my elbows in both his hands, nodded, and walked down the corridor. He didn't acknowledge anyone else.
The new dance show premiered that voyage. Anything performed for the first time, no matter how meticulously rehearsed, has the potential to become a chaotic mess, and backstage, this one certainly was. But on stage, it was fine. A lift was missed in the swing dancing segment but at least the backup track didn't clip in the speakers. The only thing that wasn't going right at all was the audience reaction. They were barely clapping. Were they Canadian? It didn't help morale backstage.
At last it was time for the finale -- a salsa choreographed to Ricky Martin's "The Cup of Life". I had a quick change from a slinky long black gown into a short sequin dress with three-quarter length sleeves. Both dresses had been made from scratch by the fabulous costumer who was staying aboard the ship.
My troop of Filipina dressers worked like busy bees removing the gown and replacing it with the salsa dress. I bent over to clip the straps on my heels while they pulled the sequins taught to zip up the back.
"Uh oh!" they muttered, when the zipper snagged.
I stood up straight having secured my shoes.
Marilyn established a vice grip on the zipper and jerked at it with all her might. The zipper slid down instead of up, resting at my waist.
"Huh." she tugged at it again, and it refused to move any further. It had never done this in any of the dress rehearsals -- why now? It was brand new.
Not again, I rolled my eyes. At least this time the zipper wasn't down my front. (read about that here)
I sighed. "Ladies, I have to get into place for my entrance. Move with me over here..."
We stood behind the curtain leg, fighting with the stubborn zipper that clocked out a few minutes too early.
Here we go, ale ale ale...
Those lyrics were my cue. Out I strutted to assume my position on a platform, slightly downstage of our male vocalist, David.
Go go go, ale ale ale...
If you're in it, you're in it to win it, I reminded myself. I attacked that song with every ounce of my salsera experience.
The cup of life, we're gonna celebrate...
The collar on my dress was suddenly getting wider, and began sliding off my shoulders as the neckline got lower. I felt a hand on my lower back -- David saw my predicament and caught the zipper on its way down. I felt some tugs and the zipper surrendered an inch to his efforts. But we were out of time. I turned to give him a "thank you" glance out of the corner of my eye, and saw him shrug helplessly.
The cup of life, it's do or die...
My solo began, and I had to strut downstage left to stand at the center of our male dancers.
It's here, it's now, turn up the lights...
My neckline fell winder and lower once more. I stopped using my arms as I danced, and focused the motion in my hips. My shoulder blades clenched in an attempt to hold the dress up. Unfortunately, sequins are heavy.
Do you really want it? Do you really want it?
Thank God, it was time to move downstage center and stand behind the dancers, once again next to David, who took the opportunity to make another attempt at my zipper. Up an inch, then stuck again.
Here we go, ale ale ale...
Great. Time to go into the audience. Not only was I getting more and more naked, but they were staring at the performance completely unimpressed -- arms crossed, duck faced, heads tilted. Not even a toe tapping. What a joke.
Finally it was time for the curtain call. The cruise director announced our names, then ooh goody, we got to give a short reprise of "The Cup of Life". The crowd was so not having it.
I dropped my music theatre smile at the curtain leg once I exited, and pulled the disobedient dress off as I walked to my dressing room. Modesty is not required backstage, and I was covered in fishnets anyway.
Who f****** cares, I vented to myself. I was so frustrated, even though this snafu wasn't my fault -- but like the production team needed one more reason to complain about me. I'd learned my part in this show and executed it as well as anyone, but likely wouldn't get credit for it now.
My cabin phone rang, and I cringed. I was relieved to hear the cruise director's cheerful voice on the other end, instead of Caroline's.
"Good morning Jessika! How are you?" Mike boomed in his perfect movie trailer bass voice.
"I'm alright, and you?"
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "Listen, it's your last voyage before vacation, and it's coming to the end of your new-hire probation period. So I need to set up a meeting with you to do your evaluations. Would you happen to be free tomorrow morning?"
"Yes sir, how about 10:30?"
"That works perfectly! I'll see you then. It'll be lovely to have a discussion with you, without Caroline there. Marynia will join us at some point, to give you line captain feedback that I cannot."
"OK, I'll be sure not to mention it to Caroline."
"Yes, that's for the best," he chuckled. "I'll see you then, if not sooner tonight."
"Yes sir, thank you!"
"Marynia will be delivering an eval form to you, if you could fill that out beforehand."
"Thank you!" and he hung up.
It took me over an hour to fill out that form. Of course I wasn't pleased with the quality of my performances -- I had only just begun to feel confident with the shows. And there were too many chefs in the kitchen, giving me too many conflicting instructions, with Caroline being the worst perpetrator on that front. She scheduled rehearsals and spent them reviewing what she wanted, not what I needed. It mentally fried me and used up my scarce, spare waking hours. I mentioned my frustration with the sound levels being altered by shoreside staff going behind the sound engineer's back. I made sure to include that I was honored to have the most coveted production performance position at sea, and promised to study fervently on vacation, and said I was looking forward to coming back after the break to experience what a contract was normally like, without having to learn any new shows.
Marynia met me at the cruise director's office the next morning. Mike greeted us warmly and had us take a seat.
"Well Jessika," he began. "We are so delighted to have you on the entertainment team. And we do apologize for the unneeded chaos of how this contract--"
Two sharp knocks rapped on the door, which was hastily pushed open without waiting for an invitation.
"Sorry I'm late," panted Caroline.
My eyes, Marynia's eyes, and Mike's eyes widened in suppressed, irritated surprise. How in hell did she know about this meeting? Why does she assume that anything and everything pertaining to me requires her input? Can't I do a contract, or even have just one day, without her riding my ass -- the way that every other female vocalist that came before me got to have? What was so wrong with me that I required this special treatment?
"I don't know why you didn't tell me about this meeting," she addressed me anxiously, then turning to Mike, "But I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Caroline helped herself to a chair.
"So I just have a few notes I want to go over with you," she rambled. "Not just from the last show, but--"
"We were going through the evaluation packet," Mike cut her off firmly. "So as I was saying--"
"Oh. Right. Ok, sorry," she interrupted him once again, then cleared her throat.
Mike paused and stared her down over the rim of his glasses, to assure he'd have the silence to continue.
"I know you're not satisfied with your performances in the shows," he resumed. "And I know how they're supposed to be, but that's only because I've seen them a bajillion times. To the guests seeing them for the first time, they have no idea, or they think it's a tech error. They all like you, and you do have moments of brilliance. And you improve with each repetition of each show. I see you working on it, and I know you know what to review--"
"Well that's just it," interjected Caroline. The three of us let out a collective sigh.
"There is so much review that is needed, and after watching the shows and reviewing the videos, there's so much I need to make sure gets fixed..."
As she spoke, my gaze settled on Mike. My heart pounded in my throat. Through eye contact I pleaded, Make it stop. Mike reciprocated my gaze.
"...but you're so hard to get in touch with these days..."
That's because everyone's intervening to give me space from YOU!
"...I give you notes but nothing seems to be changing..."
That's because the dance captains give me different notes, and frequently tell me to disregard yours. And ultimately it's THEIR instruction that has the final say, because they know what the rest of the cast is doing!
"...you've become more and more distant and reclusive. So how can I help you? What do you need from me?!" she implored.
I turned my eyes back to her incredulously. Could she really be this clueless? Or was she in denial? I waited for her to continue talking, but she actually looked like she wanted an answer.
"Space!" I exclaimed. "I need space! I have to be left alone so I can study! I have to begin to make decisions and fix problems by myself! I have all the resources I need, but until you let me do it alone, what I learn will never become internalized. You have to let me be responsible for it!"
"OK," she looked visibly relieved to finally be receiving my undivided attention, and she wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to get everything off her chest. "So how can I give you these instructions? How can I give you these notes?"
WHAT!?! my brain screamed.
"The line captains are supposed to be in charge of giving me notes now!" I barely prevented myself from screaming. "From you I need space! Space to work on my own, without getting constant feedback before I can use it."
"So how can I give you these notes?" she repeated. She was completely ignoring Marynia and Mike. Rudely interrupting and then blowing them off was a disrespect she was willing to give if it meant she got my undivided attention -- as if they weren't a necessary part of my eval.
"You give me so many notes, I don't have enough time to commit them to memory! I have to prioritize now, and work on the changes I've been given before you make new changes! I need space to work on it on my own!"
You used to do that for me on land, why have you completely lost your senses on the ship?
"So how about we schedule a handful of our rehearsals before the end of the contract?" Caroline insisted. "That way you'll know exactly when they are, we'll limit ourselves to only those times, and you can plan around it."
Is she completely deaf? Does she not comprehend the English language? Have I somehow been unclear?
"No! I need space, not more rehearsals!" I repeated helplessly. "I still have all the usual rehearsals with the cast to practice what I'm studying."
Mike's lips were pursed. Marynia's eyes were gaping.
"Alright then, we'll find time to go over these notes," Caroline concluded. "I just need to know how I can help you. I'm here to help get you what you need. I'm a resource for you, your advocate."
She clenched her fingers together at her breasts, simultaneously pleading and reassuring.
"Caroline," Mike snapped her out of her reverie. "I need to have an official meeting with Jessika, one on one."
"Right," she whispered. But looking satisfied that our meeting was a success -- after all, she got to speak her piece in front of the cruise director -- she threw her cardigan and her tote over her frail, elderly frame, and glided out the door.
"I'll be filling out my own eval form and I'll give it to you just before vacation," Marynia stated as she stood up to leave. She gave me a knowing grin as if to say, "Oh my God," and shut the door behind her.
"Wow," Mike said as soon as we were alone. His reaction to Caroline validated my sanity. "Unbelievable."
"That's been my whole contract," I was on the brink of tears.
"She asked you what you needed. You point blank told her. And she completely disregarded it."
"I've worked with Caroline for years. She's a sweet lady, very dedicated to her work, devoted to the company. She means well, but she doesn't know when to stop. Never knows when to let things go."
"On land she was lovely," I said. "We were so close, got along so well. Then she just...went crazy on the ship. I tried to help her...I don't know what happened."
"You're fine. You don't need her rehearsals. She needs to back off, for your sake and hers. I know I've said this before," he concluded. "But I can't believe how far you've come, with how disorganized everything has been. You sound wonderful, you look beautiful. You belong here, we just want to see you have fun."
"Next contract will be better for you, and for everyone -- when the shoreside team goes home everything returns to normal and people stop stressing out."