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Rainy Tuesday

Yesterday we woke up in Hilo to a rain storm of epic proportions. Mike, Rance and I sat out on the back deck to grab an early morning breakfast and watched the rain come down in sheets. It was pretty great. Then we  headed into the training room to learn all about Crowd Management and something about personal safety. We also learned that Victoria Secret just opened their largest store in Honolulu and there is no Olive Garden on any of the islands. We also watched a video about fires on board ships that I have to admit to nodding off to a couple of times. But every time I woke up they were showing another ship on fire, somewhere in the world. I get it, ships catch on fire. Fire is bad. Jet lag is not a friend of mine.

We also go a chance to see the first of two improv shows the current cast does on the ship. They were super fun, they had a great audience. I can’t wait to be put to work.

Hello Hawaii

The cast getting ready to board.

The cast getting ready to board.

We made it! We landed in Honolulu after a nine hour flight from Chicago. Here’s the deal with airlines, at least United, even with a nine hour flight they don’t serve any free food. Not even a bag of nuts or stale pretzels. If you want to eat anything on that long flight you best buy it in the airport, bring it from home or have your debit card ready, ’cause they don’t take cash. I bought some nuts and had an early morning breakfast to tie me over. Rance succumbed and had a turkey sandwich with quite possibly the saddest looking piece of lettuce I’ve ever seen. It was the “Love Story’ of lettuce.

All of our luggage managed to come on the same flight with all of us so that was something worth celebrating. We made it to the ship and current cast members, Jeff, Jeannie and Brett met us at the port authority and helped us get on board. It was so great seeing those guys, they looked tan an healthy. And didn’t have the usual “Get me off this ship,” look that a lot of people have after eight months.

The instructor uses me to show what to do if someone's choking. Let the bit fest begin.

The next day was spent in a ship training room learning all about first aid: CPR, bandaging, assisting a choking victim, etc.  It was actually all very interesting and now I don’t feel the need to run away so quickly from a scene of a medical emergency. I at least know enough to yell out, “Call 911!”

The instructor uses me to show what to do if someone’s choking. Let the bit fest begin.

We were in Maui yesterday and had a day off. And by day off I mean we got to get off the ship and walk to a mall, get mailboxes setup, get internet sticks and see a movie. Spoiler alert: “Men Who Stare at Goats” is a good movie to nap too. You won’t miss anything.

Also Rance and sat in as guests on “Aphasia Presents Something” a twice weekly podcasts that our friends Jeff, Jeannie and Brett have been doing on the ship. It was real fun to be a part of it even though a good portion of the podcast was dedicated to the discussion of Farmville. Get a listen by going to itunes and downloading episode 54.

We’re in Hilo today, and I’d write more, but truthfully I’m exhausted. We’ve got another day off from our training tomorrow which will be dedicated to studying our fire safety manual.

Good-bye Chicago

Early Morning View

Early Morning View

For the past week, I’ve been enjoying an early morning three mile walk. Most days I wake up without the need of an alarm. I’m sure I’ve helped by the recent clock adjustment. The weather has been perfect. Cool, crisp air, blue skies, no wind; truly beautiful. I think I wanted to just soak in as much fall as I could before heading off to Hawaii.

Rehearsal here in Chicago could not have gone smoother. It was the easiest process I’ve been through and I’m sure part of that was the fact that this is the fourth contract for every single cast member. So, we know what to expect, anxiety level is low, and we all really like each other. On top of that, our director  made the process fun and our producer seems to have the confidence in us to act  professionally and get what we need to get done, done.

Tomorrow, I’m getting up extra early to grab coffee with my friend Heather and then Rance and I will head out to the airport at 7:30am. The adventure begins. I can’t wait.

Cast of the Scmide of Schemerica

Cast of the Pride of America

Rehearsal Begins

Mike, Piero and Jen work through their blackout. Though Mike looks like he's working the hardest.

Mike, Piero and Jen work through their blackout. Though Mike looks like he's working the hardest.

We began the rehearsal process in earnest today. And seriously we could not be more fortunate. It’s a seasoned cast, with a seasoned director, and an RO that’s filled with sure-fire hits. We started the process by watching a DVD of the current cast’s show on the Pride of America. Which was great, because we all know most of the people in the cast and they’re doing many of the same scenes that are in our show.

Then we started going through the show scene by scene for blocking and notes. Our director Matt, could not be better to work with; he’s open to ideas and opinions but also knows when he wants something  a specific way and can communicate that clearly. It’s the second time he’s directed a show I’ve been in, and he really gets the full picture of what the show needs and how to satisfy the creative drive of the actor.

The current cast manager on board the ship put together a packet of information detailing everything we might need about the ports, the airplane, things to do and see, and places to eat. It’s amazing, we’ve never had anything like this when starting a new contract. It’s all shaping up to be an amazing five months.

First Meeting

The next cast of the Schmide of Schemerica - Larrance, Mike, Piero, Rance & Jen

The next cast of the Pride of America - Larrance, Mike, Piero, Rance & Jen

Our first meeting with the cast went off without a hitch. It’s a really fun group, going on a really great itinerary. We were also told by our producer that the confidentiality of our arrangement needs to be reinforced, which basically means they don’t want us bad mouthing the now unnamed theater or the unnamed cruise ship airplane we’ll be working on over the next five months. Fear not, I will find a way to communicate without divulging this “sensitive” information.

I’m also launching my video blog for this trip hopefully giving all of you (the two people who read this) a real life glimpse into life on a ship.

Piero was kind enough to shoot this for me which is why he’s not in the video, after viewing it that was probably a good choice on his part. For some reason Rance’s coffee apparently hit him right at this moment. And Mike just wants to make sure the unnamed theater does not get discovered by it’s incredibly tiny signage.

Going Down With the Ship

I have now lived twelve months of my life, a whole year, on a cruise ship. I have traveled to places I never dreamed I’d see, let alone on someone else’s dollar. Malta, Athens, Messina, and Istanbul all thanks to Second City for casting me in their shows aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines. It is a great job, a really great job, I make people laugh for money…but it does have its drawbacks.

One of the drawbacks is that for 12 months of my life I have lived with Rance, a man who is 6’5” with size 14 shoes in a 143 sq ft cabin.

If you’re having trouble imagining what 143 sq feet of living space is like, let me help you. Upon opening the door of our 10th floor, passenger cabin located at the back of the ship you are welcomed into a short six-foot hallway that is approximately two and a half feet wide. Immediately on the left wall of the “hallway” is a door that leads into a bathroom containing the usual commodities: toilet, sink, shower all arranged so compactly that it’s impossible to sit on the toilet normally; I ride side-saddle while taking care of business.

On the right side of the “hallway” are foot-wide floor to ceiling shelves, a small closet, and three compact drawers that are at capacity when filled with only 5 shirts, 4 pairs of pants and a handful of underwear and socks. The hallway opens up to the “living area” that is a 9×9 square foot space, housing a small table and chair, with a TV mounted above it, a “desk” which is basically a triangle piece of laminated wood, and a king size bed that allows only a foot and a half of space on either side of the bed.

All this means that there is approximately a 3 X 2 space at the end of the bed for standing room and this is where Rance likes to leave his size 14 shoes.

I like space, I like to move in my space, I don’t like shoes in my space.

“Why do you have to put your shoes right here?”

“I dunno, ‘cause.”

It can be a little crazy making. There’s no window, no room to move, no outlet to the outside world. The cabin can become a cave of hibernation shutting us off from the constant stimulation of the ship. The world could be ending outside and we’d never know it while we’re locked in our 143 square feet of space.

And tonight that’s exactly what happens. We have spent the entire day at sea after leaving New York yesterday for the start of another seven-day cruise to the Bahamas. It’s been a little rocky but nothing out of the ordinary for the trip down the eastern coastline.

Like most evenings Rance and I who have discovered an aversion to hanging out with passengers telling us how funny they are, while spilling strawberry daiquiris down their shirts, and Lady GaGa blaring in the background. We escape to our room around 11pm to slip under the covers of our trademarked Bliss bed and enjoy the subtle rocking of the ship in the relative quiet of our room.

Kaboom! What sounds like a bomb has just dropped on the top deck of the ship, the red lights of the digital clock go out. The room is pitch black. Seconds later the faithful hum of the air conditioner falls mute. And then something you never want to experience on a 93,000-ton ship. The engines go completely dead. There is silence. It is absolute quiet on the ship. We are floating in the middle of the Atlantic with no power.

On a ship with 2,500 passengers 1,000 crew members I have a constant desire to find a place that is completely quiet with no music, no external voices, no constant drone of activity nothing to intrude on my own thoughts and daydreams. It’s impossible to find. Even here in our small little room, the hum of the air conditioner or the random interruption of announcements is heard. So the moment that silence arrives I am completely freaked out because it’s not supposed to be here.

Rance fumbles for his iTouch and turns on the handy flashlight application that I scoffed at and said he’d never use, and now I’m so grateful he has it. We sit up in bed and grasp for each other and whisper as if on cue “what the f*#k”!

We quickly speculate on what just happened. A North Korean missile? Somalian Pirates? ACORN? I’ve only had FOX News as my news source since being on the ship, so it could be any one of those things.

It’s only dark for about 30 seconds before the lights flash on, the air conditioner begins to hum and we hear the growl of the engines start back up. And then. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP the abandon ship alarm which consists of seven short blasts and one long one, that could wake the dead from any watery grave, begins it’s wail.

Oh. My. God. Rance and I look at each other…”WHAT THE F*#K”? Even before the abandon ship alarm is over Rance is dressed and putting on his shoes that were so easily found at the end of the bed. His mission: to get to our muster station, which is oddly placed, at the complete opposite end of the ship. I however am in a state of shock and not sure what is happening and I’ve made little progress in the act of getting dressed. “Is this for real?” I ask. “I’m not gonna sit around and wait to figure it out, get dressed.”

Rance opens our cabin door to see what if anything is happening in the hallway. The emergency lighting that runs down the entire length to guide people in case of darkness has been turned on.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to determine which clothes would be best to drown in. Do I want something heavy but warm or something I think I can swim in for a while before I drown. I opt for a sweatshirt and yoga pants but I’m still working on the shoes. Tennis shoes? No, too many laces? Italian sandals? No, I don’t want them to get ruined if I die. Crocs? Yes, crocs!! I’ve struck the perfect balance. I’ll be warm in the sweatshirt and float a little while longer before dying in Crocs.

Brett, our cast mate and next-door neighbor opens his door and steps into the hallway, looking like he had just awoken from a winter’s slumber. “Hey, what’s going on?”

BEEP, BEEP, BEEP…the abandon ship alarm starts up again. “Looks like this shit’s for real.” Rance says as I come up behind him, fully dressed for my death at sea. He grabs my hand and without another word to Brett busts past the door and drags me down the corridor.

My mind is whirling with all the possibilities we’re about to face. Oh god what if we’re going down? What’s worse getting caught on the inside or thrown to the ocean? What if sharks are circling? What if Rance and I get separated? What if I’m in the same life raft as Julio, the creepy Argentinean chef, who’s always trying to kiss me? How do you go number two on a life raft?

“Excuse us, Excuse US!!”

We pass a few passengers, Rance practically stiff-arming the confused, helpless souls that have wandered into the hallway. I’m a bit embarrassed and yet oh so grateful to realize the man I love is a take-charge kind guy; a real hero. I get the sense that if need be, he would throw me overboard to save my life.

We round the corner and head down three flights of stairs to reach Deck 7 where all of the main public areas of the ship are located. And what strikes me first is that none of the passengers seem concerned or frightened at all. They are all milling about with their cocktails. They’re talking and laughing as if what we’re experiencing is some sort of high school prank.

And then I see them, groups of crew members, mostly young Filipino women, huddled together, crying, they are losing their shit. There are other groups of crew just standing motionless with their mouth dropped open realizing all of their worst fears of living and working on a ship are coming true.

The dichotomy of this situation leaves me to believe that Rance and I are the only ones who will actually be alive once this ship goes down. The passengers will be too drunk and the crew will be too incapacitated by fear to save themselves. And then I recall an odd statistic that was reported in our safety training. In the last five out of seven ship catastrophes it was the guest entertainers on board who went above and beyond to help people to safety. That’s us! That’s Rance and I! We’ll be the ones to save these people’s lives! Rance will lead the charge!

“Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I apologize for the alarms and momentary loss of electricity. The ship was hit by lightening causing a power outage. The abandon ship alarms went off during the reset process of our security and monitoring systems. Again, I apologize if this has caused you any distress, have a good evening.” And with that our life and death moment is over. We won’t have to save any lives tonight, least of all our own. I won’t have to worry about being eaten by sharks, or getting too close to Julio, or going number two in front of people I don’t know.

Rance, whose adrenaline has shot through the roof, lets out a long stress relieving sigh. He grabs me by the waist and hugs me tight. We turn and walk back arm in arm, laughing with the other crew members we pass who are just as relieved and thankful as we are that the drama is over.

I tease Rance as we head back to the room that he was like George Castanza in the Seinfeld episode where George runs out of the children’s birthday party knocking over an old lady to escape a small contained fire. But truthfully, I’m proud of the way he reacted in the face of danger. And I don’t get mad at all when he gets undressed and puts his shoes at the end of the bed. A hero has to be ready in a moments notice.

Good-byes Suck

January 25, 2009

Working on a cruise ship provides a lot of good-byes. Goodbye to land life, family, friends, cable TV, and Taco Bell. Goodbye to cooking your own meals, making your own bed and folding your own towels. Goodbye to driving, finding parking or de-icing your car,

But what can be more difficult is saying good-bye to the people you meet on the ship. It’s like saying goodbye to summer camp counselors when you were a kid, but it happens every few weeks.

Recently we had to say good-bye to both of our room stewards, Gerald and Jun. They were finally getting a vacation after working 9 months straight with no days off…EVER. I really liked these guys, they looked out for us and in turn we looked out for them. More than once on the incredibly and stressful NY port days, when they have to turn their rooms over in a matter of hours and were also responsible for getting everyone’s luggage to the right rooms Rance and I made sure they got food. We would go up to the garden and get a plateful of pizza or sandwiches and leave it in our room with the understanding that whenever they had a moment they could come in and eat. If we didn’t do that, they were expected to work through the day with no breaks.

In turn if there was anything we ever needed Gerald and Jun would get it for us. Gerald hooked me up with the tailor on board and he had my five pair of pants tailored to perfection in less than a day and delivered them back to my room free of charge. (Though I did tip him handsomely.) Gerald also commandeered a soft, downy penthouse pillow for me after I complained of my lack of sleep on the cardboard pillows that are standard in the hovel we stay in. –

At Christmas time Rance and I gave Gerald and Jun Christmas presents and Gerald got teary-eyed saying it’s the first Christmas he had been away from his family and how much our thoughtfulness meant to him. Which of course got me teary eyed and we both stood in the hallway with tears in our eyes and hugged.

The great thing about these good-byes is that now there are hellos. Like a few weeks ago when Rance and I got to see our friends from production cast on the Jewel who all happened to be in NY at the same time. And then a few weeks later we got to see our friend Christopher and spend the day with him. And then just this week we got to see our friends Roman and Sasha who are currently on The Dawn, which was parked right next to us in Tortola.

I get to chat with friends from all over the world on Facebook; from Serbia, Belarus, Australia, Hungary, Canada, The Philippines and even Nashville TN. And sometimes I’m even surprised by a face that I said good-bye to a year ago on the Jewel that is now suddenly with me again here on this ship.

So I’ve learned that the hardest good-byes are required before you can have the best of hellos.

Call of the Wild

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Teenagers on a ship often times become a marauding band of pack animals. While they may make initial contact through the teen club, there is some innate teen call that my over 30 ears cannot hear, that soon has everyone between the ages of 13 and 18 meeting on a passenger stairwell.

At my age and body discomfort level there seems to be at least 53 more conducive meeting places on the ship. The bleachers on deck 14, one of the game rooms, deck 7 outside, just to name a few. But for some reason cruise after cruise the teens find the stairwells. The same stairwells that teetering, older passengers are trying to descend or ascend; and it’s here that they sit for hours on end discussing the day’s important issues. Who likes who, how late can they stay out, and how many soft serve ice creams they’ve eaten already today.

This week’s cruise is particularly animalistic. A group of teens that were on the Jewel with us last year have joined forces with the classic suburban teen group. One of the boys from the returning group has recently learned the word clit. And repeatedly shouted it out during our first improv show. Upon running into them on the stairs he told me I had dropped my clit on the floor. Thank god, I was wondering where it went. One of the other boys told Rance that his name in Syrian means to smoke pot. So Rance is a big hit with this group. Ashley, a member of the suburban group asked me if I thought she was different than any other girl I’d met, and if I’d always remember her. The fact that I’m blogging about her should confirm her belief that I do in fact think she’s “different”.

Rumor has it that one of the returning kids (he’s about 13) was trying to play slots in the casino and when he was approached and asked to leave he opened up his wallet and offered up $100 to the casino host to stay. Ahh today’s youth…they really have learned a lot from our leaders.

A couple of weeks ago Rance watched in horror as a young man who looked to be about 15 berated one of the outdoor cooks who was trying to make him an omelet. This kid who looked like a buff Woody Allen berated the cook for the amount of oil he was using, for not cooking it right, for not using cheddar when it was specifically asked for. And when the chef tried to remake the omelet to the kid’s satisfaction, the kid yelled even louder when the chef tried to put white cheese in his omelet, when clearly that could not be cheddar cheese. Cheddar is yellow! The kid had never heard of white cheddar and wasn’t going to hear of any of the excuses. It was such an ugly display of human behavior Both Rance and I wanted to smack that kid which told us what kind of parents we would be.

I contrast all of this with the family that had the three nicest kids you can imagine. Nina, Zach and Max. Rance had met them the day before when their mom asked Rance to sing Happy Birthday to Nina, for her 18th birthday. And then on New Years Eve they all came into Spinnaker Lounge. Zach noticed Larrance first and came over to tell him how great he thought his music was and to say thanks for performing. And then he looked around and realized the whole cast was standing there. His excitement was radiant. He was literally tongue tied and adorable. He went back and joined his family but he kept looking over at all of us so I went over to talk to him.

And that’s when I got to meet not only him but his older sister Nina and younger brother Max. So polite and so not filled with that teenage angst that is normally prevalent among the pack. I asked them a few questions about themselves and they in turn asked me questions about the show and what it was like to live on the ship.

Then I turned to their mom and asked what was the occasion for them to all be on this cruise? Her expression changed and she said her husband had died in April and it had been a really tough year for all of them and she just wanted to celebrate New Years in a completely different way to get a fresh new start. And as I fumbled for the right words and the “I’m sorrys” came out, I looked again at these kids, and saw that in their father’s death they had learned the secret to life…living each day and appreciating everything they had.

Truth be told these are the kids I will always remember…I’ll probably forget about Ashley once the next set of teenagers arrive on board. But I’ll remember Zach, Max and Nina because in the hoard of pack animals they stood out for being truly different.

Eavesdropping On Life

January 19th 2009

For some vacation brings out their worst personality traits. There’s a heightened sense of only having 7 to 10 days to pack in all the “fun” they think they deserve because they paid for their cruise. And that condenses everything, including their tolerance and humanity into a very small carry on.

I enjoy overhearing snippets of conversation that in a moment tell me everything I need to know about that person. Usually these conversations are at their best on embarkation day when people are getting settled and trying to figure their way around the ship.

This week I overheard a woman in her 70’s say to her husband. “Well, so far Henry you’re batting a zero on this cruise.” They had been on board a total of 30 minutes, I just hope Henry gets another chance at bat.

Heading toward the laundry room on our floor on embarkation day, I heard a woman with a Russian accent make a request of her overworked room steward. “Yes, I need extra white hangers. Eight of them, no make it 10. And I also need extra towels and I need five bars of soap.” Thankfully her room steward and I had the same question. “Five bars, mam?” “Yes, five bars today. I need to shower.” Oh well then, that makes sense.

We live on the 10th floor at the very back of the ship. Last week after coming down from the Spinnaker lounge on 13th at the front of the ship. We turned down our hallway and could see our elderly neighbor sitting outside her room in her wheelchair. It’s a long hall and she just sat out there for the entirety of our walk until right as we approached her grown son opened the door and ushered her in. We heard her say in a weak voice. “This isn’t my room.” “Oh, God mom yes it is.” We had no idea how long his mom had been sitting out in the hallway before he opened the door to let her in, and I was just struck by how sad the whole picture was. This was clearly not a dream vacation for either one of them.

During a recent “The Not So Newlywed Game Show” (an event that happens every week on the ship), when asked “What is your husbands favorite toy,” wife number 1 with her husband out of the room said. “His toenails.” Of course Ray our cruise director wanted a follow up, how could someone’s toenails be their favorite toy? “He clips them and saves them so he can eat on them later.” Yeah….they’d been married for only a few months. I doubt they’ll make it a year.

Be Our Guest

January 15, 2009

Living on a ship as a guest entertainer allows me the opportunity to meet and become friends with people I would never have the chance to otherwise: World champion ballroom dancers, Olympic gymnasts, legendary singers, award winning magicians, and Broadway caliber dancers.

And then there’s the one-off guest entertainers that come on board that I call space fillers. The ship needs entertainment every night of it’s itinerary and so sometimes acts come on board that leave me bewildered.

For example, the comedy duo that has purportedly been working together for the last 33 years, and their act shows it. It’s an act of comedy, impressions and singing and if you’re under the age of 60 you’re going to miss out on over half of their material. The fun for me is not watching the show but watching the audience’s reaction. It’s horrified as they see one of them don a old fashioned pilots cap and goggles and do a Japanese pilot from WWII impression. Their big bit is a French character who tells the audience they need “Happiness” in their life only when he says it with his French accent it sounds like he’s saying “A Penis” Ooh boy does the audience have a hoot over that one. No, no they don’t.

The crazy violinist was interesting. I found myself with my foot in my mouth after breakfast one morning when I asked Rance if he had seen the promotional poster down by the theater advertising his act. He looked like a pervy kids’ programming character. A mix between Albert Einstein and something from The Wiggles. Of course as I turned to leave the restaurant I realized Mr. Crazypants was sitting right behind me. His act like his hair was frenetic and all over the place. And once again I watched the audience sit their unsure of what they were really seeing.

We recently had a banjo virtuoso on board who literally asked “Who’s ready to rock?” while pumping his fist in the air with devil horns at the top of his show. This little man in a three-piece suite then sat down daintily on a white stool and strummed his heart out. He was the rain man of the banjo. And I left the theater with an unfulfilled desire to rock.

The juggler/balancing acts are always confusing to me. Their shows often have a high failure rate; We’re on a rocking ship for god’s sake! And almost all of them have a portion of their act where they say “this is the first time you’ll see something like this performed. I’m the only one in the world who does this” And then the poor guy does a trick that I just saw the juggler from three weeks ago do, only slightly better.

I feel really lucky to be doing a show that I love doing. That I know the audience loves too. And that I’m not doing it because I’ve reached a point in my career that I feel I can’t do anything else. There’s a palatable sense of desperation that comes off such acts. And more than anything I want to keep pushing myself so I don’t put off that scent. But at least I know that if I want, if things get really tough, I can brush off my Carol Channing impression and get work on a cruise ship.