More from: Advice

So you want to work on a cruise ship as a juggler?

On a regular basis jugglers and other entertainers ask me for advice on the subject of working on cruise ships. This is understandable, as it’s something I do that most people don’t do, so I should be some kind of expert.

Instead of answering emails and messages individually, I’ve decided to put my thoughts into a single blog post. (A friend of mine once started writing a similar blog post, but expanded it out into a full book called Cabaret Secrets which is now available as a Kindle ebook. I’ve not read it yet, but I’m sure it will have a lot of material relevant to jugglers as well as singers.)

I’ll list the most common questions I am asked and then give my answers, but I’ll be giving my answers in the order I think they are most important, not the in the order of most popular questions.

How did you get an agent? Can you recommend me to your agent? Are you an agent yourself?

Good questions!

My first reply is in the form of a question:

“Do you have a juggling act or a juggling show?”

Here’s the thing: if you don’t have a show, an agent is waaaaaay down your list of things to worry about.

What I mean by “show” is 50 minutes worth of A-grade material that will entertain a large theatre-full of people who don’t know anything about juggling. Many cruise lines want a 50 minute show plus another 20-25 minutes for a variete show later in the same cruise.

Many jugglers have a really great 5 or 7 minute act. Maybe two. This will not sustain a career as a guest entertainer working for cruise lines, though you may be able to become a cast member in a large production show. I’ve seen a few acrobats and aerialists in this role. Unfortunately I don’t know anything about getting this kind of job.

Many jugglers think they have 50 minute show because their street show lasts about that long. A full length street show is totally unsuitable for a theatre show. You don’t need to build an audience, there is a totally different relationship between you and the audience, audience participation needs to planned (rather than the more free-form crowd work possible on the street), plus loads of other issues. Some street show material does work on stage (I had a lot of success closing my show with a pretty standard rola-bola knife juggling routine until I replaced it with something less stressful) but, as any good street show artist knows, a street show builds to the hat, everything focusing on maximizing those who stay and give money at the end.

So, be honest, if you were to put together only your best material, only the material tried and tested in front of a non-juggler, non-street audience, how long would your show be? And would it be any good?

How much do you get paid?

Let’s back up again. Remember what I said about having a full 50 minute show? This is super important! And you have to be ready with that show before you even start looking for a cruise ship agent.


Because once I got a call back from my current agent, he offered me a job that very weekend. He said “We’re putting you on the Queen Mary 2 this weekend!”

Pola and I flew out to Barcelona, joined the ship the next morning, and that evening we were on stage on one of the largest and most prestigious cruise ships in the world. We had never been on a cruise ship before. We had never seen a show on a cruise ship before. We were just thrown in at the deep end, and the cruise line and our agent waited to see if we would sink or swim.

Thankfully, our show went okay. The cruise director said we were really good jugglers, and commented on how little we dropped (we didn’t tell him that evening was the first time we’d ever performed our Art of Juggling show flawlessly, with no drops or mistakes or wrong ended catches). A few days after we got home we had our next cruise ship booking, and the rest is history.

This might seem cruel, being thrown in at the deep end, but it’s not the job of the agent or cruise line to help develop your show. That’s up to you. And you must be ready on the first try. You won’t get another chance. But why not?

How much you are paid by the cruise line is only one part of the cost. In the case of our first gig, Pola and I got a good fee, but the cruise line also paid for flights to the gig, a hotel overnight before joining, we used a cabin and all the services while we were on board, then on the way home, due to the cruise line mixing up flights, we booked a new ticket home with 35 minutes to spare. For week long gigs where I fly from Germany to Hawaii or Tahiti, my flights probably cost a good proportion of my fee. If you do a good show, the guests are more likely to have a good evening, and they’ll want to come back to that cruise ship or cruise line, knowing they’ll have reliably good entertainment.

Every show and entertainer (in fact everyone and every service on the ship) is rated by the guests on board. The cruise line knows how well you’re received on board by a score out of 100. If, on your first cruise, you’re rated poorly, you won’t be invited back.

I have seen this happen! I have seen new guest entertainers who are, undeniably, great musicians or singers, all in the same position that I was on my first gig. I’ve seen people do well, and I’ve seen people fail. One unfortunate guy had about half the audience walk out of his show, and this was his first ever cruise ship show. Great singer… totally misjudged what he was meant to be doing on stage! Will his agent give him another chance? Maybe. Will that particular cruise line? Probably not.

Why are you being such a dick? Just recommend me to your agent already!

I’m not being a dick! I’m not going to recommend anyone to anyone until I’m sure they will be able to do full 50 minute show, one suitable for a theatre and a cruise ship audience. This is not because I don’t like you, or don’t think you’re a good juggler or a good entertainer. It’s because you might only have one chance to get it right!

Are you ready to take your one chance right now? Personally I’d rather recommend you to my agent in a year or two, when you understand what is needed, and are sure you can achieve it. And I won’t recommend anyone who I’ve not personally seen their show and know the quality holds up over its entire running time.

Where do I post my promo video online?

Are you ready with your full 50 show? If so, I guess YouTube would work.

Back in 2007 I put together a promotional package. In total I spent about €500 printing 500 promo packs, hours editing videos and cutting paper and glueing and putting stuff in envelopes. It included a DVD too, and I posted it directly to my agent. I only ever sent a handful to other places, and got no work from them. So really I spent all that time and energy to catch one person’s eye… it just happened to be the right person’s eye!

In two years time, when you are ready with your full 50 minute show, YouTube might not exist any more, or there might be a better way to get your show in front of an agent.

My point is that since 2007 the world has changed quite a lot, and my experience won’t transfer to you, and advice that might work currently might not be helpful in two years time when you’re actually ready to apply to an agent.

You keep saying I’ll be ready in two years. How long did it take you to put your show together?

Okay, now you’re beginning to understand. I takes fucking ages.

From about 2000 to 2007 I spent about seven years developing material for my show before my first ever cruise ship gig. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but all the random shit I tried across about 100 one day convention shows, open stages at the EJC, renegade shows all over the world, uncountable times on stage as a show host… all of this taught me about how to be entertaining on stage, plus many of the small ideas I tried out in that time evolved into full routines. This all came after two years studying performing arts at college and two years studying music production at university.

In 2003 I quit my last “real” job and became a juggler full time. I wasn’t earning much money, but I was working hard. Between 2003 and 2005 I developed four or five key routines that form the backbone of my current cruise ship shows. This includes a one diabolo routine I use to open every (first) show I perform for an audience, a three ball and video routine (which has become my “signature” routine, or the routine people will remember about my show to identify me from other jugglers), a five ball audience participation routine which is consistently the funniest thing in my show, plus the aforementioned rola-bola knife juggling routine.

From 2005 to 2007 I worked with Pola on the “Art of Juggling”, which was both a single act, plus the main element in a street show and a theatre show. We also worked for 8 months on a different show called “Tonight” that we performed just once, because when I spoke with my agent for the first time, he didn’t seem to be interested in anything else I said about my show except: “Just tell me, you’re going to the part where you juggle and paint a picture, right?”

In 2008 Pola decided she liked traveling less than spending time on cruise ships, and it turned out I could bring in the same money doing a full show by myself. This meant for about 4 months my show underwent a slightly rough period while I adjusted to doing it all on my own. By then I knew what would and wouldn’t work on stage, and developed low-weight-low-bulk acts like my table tennis juggling routine, tennis ball and can bit, a ring juggling routine (which is now one of my favourite and most successful routines), plus various other bits and pieces.

Since knocking myself out on stage (quite embarrassing) in 2010, I knew I had to have a strong alternative to my rola-bola and knife juggling finale in case of waves at sea and unstable stages. Also, due to audience participation, I never had any idea how long that final would last. I’ve now replaced it in my main show with a ten minute 3-4-5 knife juggling routine (of which about 3 minutes is me laying down on stage with a knife balanced on my face).

Also in the past two years I’ve been asked to do not just one 50 minute show but two different 50 minute shows. This has been a really big challenge, and I’m not quite there yet. It turns out that 100 minutes of juggling show is really hard! The second audience is made up of some people who have already seen my first show and some who are seeing me for the first time. The mix is very difficult to satisfy. I recently had a cruise line cancel a gig because I had such a low rating for my second 50 minute show. This was due to me cutting my show short for safety reasons during a bad Atlantic swell, but I could see the audience wasn’t happy, and neither was I. The said they still want to book me… but they didn’t want to fly me to Vietnam to entertain audiences on the World Cruise, not if it was possible I wouldn’t be able to perform my full second show, and the World Cruise audience expects and deserves the best possible shows (and will complain if unsatisfied).

But seriously, how much money do you make?

For contractual reasons I’m not allowed to share my own specific fees, but there is a wide range depending on the cruise line, the style and quality of your act, how many people in your show, how many full evenings of entertainment you can provide, and how good you or your agent is at bargaining. I’ve known some people who make about 2,000 USD per week (and the weekly fee is the standard measurement) and others who make nearer 4,000 USD.

Your agent will take between 10% and 25%, and in those cases you’ll get what you pay for. For example, those paying 10% constantly complain that they aren’t getting work, or only have work with one cruise line, while those who pay 25% will typically have the pick of gigs, trading the lower income per gig for a full diary booked long in advance. These are rough examples only, so only take a deal you are happy with.

Any other advice?

Do you have a 50 minute show ready to go? If so, email me and I’ll do my best to help you further:

Tip: let a member of the opposite sex help you fill out your online dating service profile.

Based on a true story (for real):

“It wants a profile picture.”

“Use the same one as your Facebook profile, as you look cool with the camera in your hand and the way it covers half your face makes you look mysterious.”


“Hell yeah!”

“What should I put in the ‘I’m really good at’ section?”

“Put the video of you juggling in different places around the world. Girls will love that!”

“Really? I thought it was a bit nerdy.”

“You have no idea, do you?”

“Hmmm, okay. Six things I can’t live without? Well, my laptop, obviously…”

“Don’t say your laptop!”

“Why not? It’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought, and without it I wouldn’t be filling out this stupid OkCupid profile… How about ‘I can’t live without hugs’?”


“I was joking.”

“Hugs is cute.”

“You should message me if… You want an interesting adventure.”

“I’d message you.”

“The truth is I’m looking for sex.”

“If the girl is also looking for sex, she’ll interpret that as interesting and adventurous sex.”

“Get a job!” – bootstrap pulling skills and becoming a professional juggler.

This story was originally written as a forum post, when someone asked, in relation to Occupy Wall Street reactionary comments like “Get a job!”:

“Please could some of you successful forum members tell the story of how you became successful at your job, outlining how much that was down to your own skills, and how much help you had along the way?”

Here’s how I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.

My original plan was to be a professional entertainer of some sort. I loved performing, so aged 13 I chose to study performing arts at school (GCSE level). Then aged 15 I decided to study performing arts full time at college for two years.

Of course, during this entire time I had support from my parents. My father is disabled, and hasn’t had a proper job in about 28 years, so my entire family had support from social programs of one type or another.

At college I lived with my parents, of course, and during the course of college I had free meals and free bus transport and grants to help me out. I bought my first PC using a grant.

After college I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do music or theater at university. I took a year out and worked for 9 months in a school kitchen, washing dishes and cleaning tables.

I decided to study music production, a degree called Creative Music Technology. At university I had some grant support, but most expenses were covered by student loans. I supplemented this by working night shifts at a supermarket, stacking shelves. When I left university I moved back in with my parents for a few months, and got a job working at a day care center for mentally and physically disabled people.

During this time I’d taken a lot of time to juggle, and it was a really fun hobby. I didn’t consider it to be a serious career option though.

My brother-in-law worked for a TV station, and mentioned a job opening. I applied, without the company or the interviewers knowing I was related to a manager. I didn’t get the job, as I could edit audio but wasn’t skilled in video edited on their equipment. A week later three people were fired from the company, and so suddenly they needed people to fill the vacancies. They asked if I’d take a job.

I moved to a new city, and stayed at a friends house until I could find a home of my own. I ended up living my friend for the next 18 months.

After two years working for the TV station, doing sound mixing, editing, camera work and other production duties, I quit. I loved the work itself, and the people I worked with, just not the people I had to work for. All four people in my department quit within four weeks of each other, so it wasn’t just me who had problems!

I had another job lined up, but a two month gap with nothing to do. I’d planned to go traveling, but due to weird life events, I ended up studying circus acrobatics. Again I stayed with friends, and when I decided not to take up the other job offer, I stayed with my parents between travels, and even getting a arts council grant to return to study acrobatics for another two months.

Due to not wanting to work in offices and studios, or sitting in an editing suite for eight hours a day, I decided to try to make it as a professional juggler. I made some money from paid gigs, but for a while my largest income was from making juggling beanbags and doing street shows. I traveled a lot, met a girl, and finally moved out of my parents place to Berlin.

I worked as juggler, and also a tour guide, in Berlin. Later Pola and I got a good recommendation from other jugglers to work on cruise ships, and they also recommended us to their agent. That now accounts for about 90% of my income per year.

Now I do well for myself. I could earn more money than I do, but I like to have a healthy work/home balance.

My bootstrap pulling skills:
* I didn’t originally plan to be a professional juggler; it wasn’t more than a hobby.
* The first career I aimed for only lasted two years.
* Once I settled on the idea, I worked very hard to be a juggler and entertainer.

Help I had along the way:
* Parents constantly giving support and a place to live between travel and jobs and even careers.
* Government grants for college, university, and even acrobatics school.
* Student loans.
* Free at point of service healthcare (with national health insurance payments only when an employee, not when self employed).
* Friends helping me out with housing, and even large short term loans.
* Family connections.
* The juggling scene providing unmeasurable teaching, help, advice, encouragement, etc.
* Volunteers organizing juggling conventions and festivals where I could practice juggling and entertaining on stage.
* Other jugglers providing connections and information about gigs and agents.

* Almost everything I rationally decided to do, career-wise, didn’t fit me and my life.
* Almost everything that happened to me accidentally led to better opportunities than anything I consciously planned to do when setting out.
* Without help from other people and government social programs, I’d be totally screwed.
* It takes a lot of hard work to be a professional entertainer.
* I’m very happy to do crazily hard work to give other jugglers the opportunities that I had myself (Eg. running workshops, organizing shows and open stages, helping run conventions, creating the British Young Juggler of the Year show and competition, etc etc etc).
* I’m happy to pay taxes.
* I’m happy to support other artists financially if they need and/or ask for help or a loan.

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The main influence on my songwriting

Over the 15 years I’ve been writing music, who has had the biggest influence over my songwriting? Good question. There are intangible and tangible links between the different styles of songs I write and other musicians, but there is one artist on whom I focus time and time again when actually putting words down on paper.

Britney Spears. Surprised? No, you probably saw the photo. But welcome to my brain.

The time that she released her first single, Hit Me Baby One More Time, was around about when I started writing songs more seriously. There’s a lot to like about Hit Me Baby One More Time, but the chorus really got to me. In a bad way.

From memory, it goes like this:

This loneliness is killing me,
I must admit, I still believe.
When you’re not with me I lose my mind.
Give me a sign,
Hit me baybay one more time.

What the fuck? So many problems. Put aside the weird abusive relationship overtones and just look at the rhyme scheme.

Me doesn’t rhyme with believe. Mind, sign, and time? Are you kidding me? It’s not as if there isn’t a rhyming scheme, because non-rhyming songs can work out fine. This is aiming for, and spectacularly missing, very basic rhymes. Five lines, and none of them rhyme with any other. Is it intentionally bad poetry?

But considering she doesn’t enunciate properly when singing, and is almost gurgling through forcing her voice to sound as young and sultry as possible, nobody notices how fundamentally flawed the chorus really is.

And anyone who does notice doesn’t care, because they’re really just looking at her tits.

I don’t think about Britney as a sex object… actually I do. But I don’t think about her with sexual desire, only about the fact that she was very successful because of her sex appeal. Her song writing skills (or those of whoever wrote her songs) didn’t need to be anything great, as the pop production, music videos, dance choreography, publicity machine and sex appeal could make up for it.

I don’t have the benefit of sex appeal and dance moves and publicity. The majority of my songs are just me and a guitar, or me and a piano, with no pop production to make people tap their feet. My songs stand or fall on the merits of the lyrics in exactly the way that Britney’s don’t.

Why is why, whenever I have two lines that almost rhyme, and I think, “Line and find are close enough, right?” I immediately hum “Hit me baybay one more time” and rewrite the lyric until it’s good enough. Good enough for me. Not good enough for sexy Britney; good enough for someone with no belly button on display.

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