On a cruise ship the size of a small European nation, it’s not surprising that the first thing I did was get lost.
I had already seen the vast 1000-seater theatre and the dressing rooms, featuring a Return to Oz-like gallery of wigs, where I would be spending most of my time. I had also been shown to my cabin, the one I would be sharing with a fellow actor, Jen, for the next sixteen weeks – sans porthole, of course, located directly above the anchor and (unfortunately) directly below the foghorn. I was exploring one of the swimming pool decks when I heard Captain’s voice over the public-address system summoning all passengers to their “muster stations”: it was lifeboat drill time.
Retrieving my lifejacket from my cabin, I found a notice on the back of the door informing me that my “muster station” was “D.” I had no idea where that was. Already fearing I would be late, I wandered the Kubrick-style corridors of the ship for a good forty minutes before I managed to find a cluster of people. They all turned to stare at me. “Is this ‘D’?” I asked plaintively. They shook their heads and pointed to a giant letter “J” on the wall. With a whimper, I trailed off once more into deserted halls, clutching my lifejacket to my chest as the captain’s disembodied voice droned on.
“In the unlikely event that the ship should begin taking on water…”
Eventually I had to ask one of the dancers for directions. On my way, finally, to my muster station, I passed a couple at the beginning of their holiday but already at the end of their tether. “Oh, so it was Deck 4!” the woman hissed. “The all-knowing man got it wrong, for once!”
So began my four months as an actor on a cruise ship.
I never thought to find myself performing Shakespeare on a cruise. Less than a year before, I had graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), the London drama school whose alumni roster includes Vivian Leigh, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, and Alan Rickman. (There’s a tiny locked room at the top of the building we referred to as “Alan Rickman’s Room.”) My dream had always been to work for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. I have always preferred theatre; I never wanted to be a movie star (though don’t get me wrong: if Spielberg rings, I’m not going to be precious about it).
But it was never my dream to perform for cruise passengers on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic. When I took the job, I felt as if I’d been exiled from London theatre before I’d really got going. Even now, casting directors glance at my CV and say, “Oh, you worked on a…cruise.”
I wouldn’t have found myself on that cruise liner at all if not for RADA. Thanks to some connection of one of the associate directors, RADA graduates can audition for jobs on board. (That being said, as far as I know, neither Vivian Leigh nor Alan Rickman ever performed Shakespeare on a cruise.) My previous gig had been playing Mole in The Wind in the Willows for three months, so I might not have been entirely in touch with reality when I auditioned for the role of Hero in the ship’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. I also ended up with an ensemble role in the ship’s production of Arabian Nights.
Though I joined a cast of six on the ship, I spent most of my time with two other actors named Jen and Christian, trying to make sense of our new chandelier-lined life at sea. Jen seemed impossibly savoir-faire to me, having worked on this ship before. She was playing my older sister in Arabian Nights, and so perhaps it was fitting that I looked up to her and trailed after her, asking wide-eyed questions. Christian, who had been a year above me at RADA, was a 6’4” Adonis, and everywhere he went people would stop eating their buffet food to stare at him. In between shows, we would congregate as a trio in the coffee lounge — because of course the ship had a coffee lounge, as well as a pub, a spa, and a planetarium: all the essentials of maritime life. Together we would sit and make up back-stories for the other passengers, casting them as everything from Russian oligarchs to twin Mormons.
Our primary job, of course, was to perform in the theatre. We also participated in evening events and ran drama workshops, which were good fun. But we dreaded the “walkabouts,” when we had to dress up in costume for the show we were to perform the following day and parade around the ship, advertising the play to hapless passers-by.
“When the desert sand glows silver in the moonlight, a beautiful young woman whispers enchanting taaales.”
The last thing most people want when trying to eat lunch is for six people in costume to come dancing up to them. Worse yet was when one of us (…me) couldn’t remember the lines.
“When the desert sand glows silver in the star — moonlight, a beautiful young lady — woman! — whispers enchanting…”
It’s still a painfully vivid memory, leaping about while cruise passengers politely lowered their paperbacks to watch us. The low point was when we had to try and awkwardly crowbar relevant performance information into the tune.
“Come to the theatre, see our show at seven. Seven Peeeee Emmmmm.”
Then I would play approximately two notes on the ukulele and smile relentlessly. We trawled the cafeteria, avoiding the eyes of the amused chefs behind the salad bar, before tambourining our way into the lifts.
After that, of course, we still had to perform the shows. As a young actor, I was still caught in the throes of self-doubt. Was I any good? Was I “in character”? How could I feel harder?
I admit it was a thrill to be cast as Hero in Much Ado — I had never thought of myself as pretty enough to play a love interest. When you’re a young actor whose great dream is to one day play Juliet and a director tells you, “You can’t be Juliet, you’re not blonde,” it’s easy to lose some confidence. This is an industry in which looks have value, and I’ve never learned to like mine at all. Yet, ironically, onstage is the one place where I stop worrying about it.
As is the way in small companies, in addition to playing Hero, I was also doubling as the villain trying to frame Hero. During one matinee I was onstage with Jen, making my confession speech, and she was meant to reply, “Art thou the slave that with thy breath hast killed mine innocent child?” But it came out as “the slave that with thy breast hast killed mine innocent child.” We only managed to get through the rest of the scene by looking at our shoes. There were plenty of other light moments onstage — Christian played Hero’s fiancé, Claudio, and we had to pretend to whisper sweet nothings to one another. Christian is from Denmark, so I learned some Danish swear words to murmur in his ear. When I waltzed with the actor playing Don Pedro, we shuffled downstage together and whispered things like “I hate you, you big twat” to try and make each other laugh. The audience never noticed.
We worked hard, although sometimes we felt it didn’t matter much – like the time we realized, about ten minutes into Much Ado, that few of the people watching us from the audience could actually understand English. In such a well-lit auditorium, we could see and count every person who subsequently stood up and left during the performance. Another time, while Christian and I deliberated over whether or not our wedding scene had been emotionally truthful, some audience members came up and told me, “You were very good at fainting! Did you hurt your head when you fell?”
Arabian Nights tended to play best to post-lunch audiences, because it was funnier and we were a cast of storytellers. Jen played Scheherazade, I played her little sister, and Christian was King Shahrayar. I saw very little of either of them during that show, as my character chiefly lived under their bed. My duties included moving cushions about, banging my head on the bed (every single time), and bitching to myself in the dark. My little hiding place meant I was leaning forward most of the time, in a rodent-y crouch, while I listened to Jen and Christian spin magic above me — really, I had the best seat in the house, though it would have been better without the recurring head injury.
While we occasionally put on small-scale readings in the evenings (please, don’t talk to me about jazz poetry), we were free to make the most of the available activities when we weren’t performing onstage. I spent a lot of time swimming and going to the gym, and availed myself of the opportunity to attend Jewish Shabbat services. The first time I ventured down to the designated worship space – a conference room in the bowels of the ship — there were just three of us in attendance: me, a drummer from the ship’s band, and a ballroom dancing instructor named Avi. The drummer was a touchingly Eeyore-esque figure from London’s East End. “So it looks like no one else is coming then,” he sighed after half an hour, and wandered over to a table groaning under the weight of gefilte fish. “The wine they’ve brought is not very nice at all!” Avi, a dancer from Lebanon who now lived in Florida, spent most of the Shabbat teaching me how to foxtrot.
One of the greatest surprises for me was that all of us who made up the entertainment staff — the actors, dancers, musicians, and singers — were considered “public property” as soon as we left our cabins, even when we were off-duty. Passengers sat down with us uninvited at mealtimes, and we met plenty of wonderful people this way. But we also met the less wonderful kind; for example, a gentleman with black teeth (“Black Teeth Ashley”) who liked to casually stroke my hair whilst making smalltalk.
Returning to our cabin one afternoon after a matinee, I found Jen in a state. “Do you have anything I could wear to be cowgirl?” she asked, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice.
“What? I doubt it. Why?”
“Black Teeth Ashley needs me to be a cowgirl.”
As it happened, Black Teeth Ashley was about to perform in the Passenger Talent Show. And he needed “props” to accompany him while he sang “Sweet Violet.” If you don’t know it, count yourself lucky; it’s a classic in the “Censored Rhyme Folksong” genre. I sat on my bed, shaking with mingled hilarity and outrage, as Jen furiously put her hair up in bunches and buttoned on a plaid shirt. “He only asked me because he couldn’t find you, Ailsa!” she said accusingly. Much as I loved and admired Jen, for some reason I couldn’t find the decency to take her place. If God had meant for me to be that cowgirl, I’m sure Black Teeth Ashley would have found me.
The Passenger Talent Show ranks at #3 on the List of Surreally Terrible Productions I’ve Had to Sit Through in my lifetime. There wasn’t a single good act. Not the woman who couldn’t seem to play “Hey Jude” on the piano. Not the cellist (who brings their cello on a cruise?) who tried so hard. And definitely not the godawful poetry. Black Teeth Ashley’s piece was shockingly well-received, although as soon as Jen got a big laugh instead of him, he side-eyed her for the rest of the song. He wouldn’t talk to either of us afterwards.
One of the most bizarre memories I have of that voyage occurred in our very last week on board. On the evening of our final performance, after we had dismantled the set for the last time, a man approached us from the stalls. The man – who was from Arizona – was friendly enough, and told us how much he’d enjoyed our show. “That was wonderful,” he said effusively. “Can I invite you to participate in a dramatic script reading?”
Still caked in makeup, sweat, and feelings, my friends and I were a little taken aback by this. We just wanted to go sit in the coffee lounge and people-watch while we still had the chance. I lived for the ice-cream machine in the cafeteria, and I could already hear its distant call. But in the end, Jen, Christian and I followed our new friend outside. We emerged onto the back deck to find a small crowd waiting. The Arizonan had rounded up an entire cast, and his “dramatic script” was a spoof of The Godfather. Who wrote it? Who knows? Why did he want us to read it? A mystery. He didn’t hesitate to manhandle us — preceding a stage direction that called for Christian’s character to nod, he actually grabbed Christian’s head and nodded it for him. As for me, I saw the “they kiss” stage direction coming a mile off, and eased backwards in my chair so the Arizonan’s lips hit the air.
Just when we thought it was over, he decided to regale us with the story of how he acquired his acting agent after performing in a showcase. “I got a callback for my comedic monologue, which I’d like to perform for you now.”
As a young, ambitious student hoping to become a Shakespearean actor, you never dream that one day you’ll sit in the deserted smoking area beside a swimming pool on a gently rocking cruise ship, watching a complete stranger perform a comedic monologue about fruit. But then, I don’t suppose I ever imagined I’d end up performing Shakespeare on a cruise at all. Three years at RADA did not prepare me for such an eventuality.
As we finally made our excuses and beat a hasty retreat back to our cabin, Jen said to me, “Maybe I’ve been on board too long, but I didn’t find that too weird. That seemed pretty normal for this ship.”
She wasn’t wrong.
Every now and then, RADA sends out emails asking its graduates to audition for new productions on board other Transatlantic cruises. My cursor hovers over these emails for a long time. Like many young actors, I often need work. At times I picture myself in the jacuzzi, or relaxing by the pool. Eating all the free food I could want. Wandering down summer avenues in New York with Jen and Christian. I negotiate with myself: Think of the ice cream machine!
But for some reason, I have never applied again. I close the emails, every time, with the lingering feeling that I have escaped from something. The faint sound of tambourines and ukelele music sound briefly in my ear, and I end up shaking myself out of it, and carrying on with the job hunt.