More from: Workshop

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:

How to host a show

Here are some thoughts about hosting shows, based on a workshop I gave many times, and written up in 2006 for an article published in Kaskade Magazine (issue 86, spring 2007). It mostly focuses on variete shows (gala shows, open stages, open mics/Renegade shows) at juggling conventions, so uses juggling shows as examples, but the same can apply to hosting comedy shows, panel or games shows, etc.

If you can’t be bothered to read it all, in 2006 I recorded an audio version of this as an episode of the Juggling Podcast. You can find that here (right click and save a 36mb, 70 minute mp3 file).

(The image above was going to be a photo of me hosting a show, but I couldn’t find one due to me not being able to take one of me on stage. Instead I’ve included a photo I took of the audience while hosting a show, in this case the Opening Show of the EJC 2010 in Finland.)

Ever seen a show where all the acts were really good but in the end you didn’t enjoy the show as a whole? It was probably down to the host of the show not doing their job properly. Simply introducing artists on stage… how hard can it be? Could you do better?

Here’s my guide on how to be a good compere. I’ve developed these ideas over 4 or 5 years of hosting shows (both good and bad) and watching other comperes at work (both good and bad). When I get up to host a show I usually have nothing scripted, nothing written down, no plan in mind. Instead I just keep the following issues in mind and things usually go smoothly. This is condensed down from a 2 hour workshops.

The first thing I keep in mind are the three functions of a show host. They are there to inform, control and entertain. In that order of importance. Being entertaining is the last thing a host should be thinking about, a simple mistake the majority of virgin hosts make. I’ll get on to this later.


An audience that knows what is what and who is who is a happy audience. If they hear something that is relevant to themselves they will show their appreciation too.

The first thing you should do on stage is tell people about the show they are about to watch. Here’s an example:

“Welcome to the British Juggling Convention 2006 Public Show!” – makes sure everyone knows the title of the show, and lets people who are in the wrong theatre to leave. At this announcement the audience will applaud…

“The BJC visits a different city or town every spring, and has done for the past 20 years, but this is the first time we have come here to Cornwall!” – makes the locals feel welcome among all the jugglers… and you are sure to get another round of applause from the locals too…

“This show brings together some the best jugglers and performers, not just from the UK, but the whole world! That’s right, we’ve scoured the face of the entire earth, finding the hottest new act, the greatest numbers, the biggest names from the juggling world, and you’ll see them on stage tonight. We have performers from Britain, Europe, North America and even Japan!”

Of course, if you are just hosting a show at a smaller convention, or even a renegade show, tell the audience what they are doing there, and what they are about to see. If a renegade show, tell people exactly what a renegade show is, many people will never have been to one before, and may be a bit confused when they see random people trying to be entertaining.

Let people know what to expect from the show. One person who didn’t was the host of the opening show of the EJC 2006. It was after the world cup final so was only ever going to be two acts long; Kuka and Kris Kremo. About half the audience knew this already but the other half were never told by the compere until the very end of the show. After Kris Kremo’s forth standing ovation the host just said “That’s the end of the show, folks” and half of the audience left very disappointed. If he had said at the beginning “Due to scheduling issues this show will only have two acts… but we’ve got two of the best acts of the entire convention to kick things off for you” I believe nobody would have been unhappy at the end.

After introducing the show introduce yourself. You’ll be on stage for longer than all of the acts combined and the best way of connecting to the audience is to tell them your name. The reason why I didn’t name the host of the EJC opening show is because he never told us.

Introducing the acts. This is the main reason for a compere to exist in a show but it is amazing to see how many do it so badly. Or not at all, in some cases. I’ve sat through entire shows and at no point knew who I was watching on stage. Almost as bad is a compere who gets the name of the acts wrong or mispronounces them. In the EJC opening show Kuka were called Kaku. During the Tuesday night open stage Devilstick Steve pronounced every single act’s name incorrectly too… Devilstick Steve? Yup! The host of the show was introduced on stage by an announcement over the PA system… and they got Devilstick Peat’s name wrong!

I always say at least three things about all the artists I ever introduce on stage: their name, where they are from and what they are about to do one stage. I talk to each artist individually before the show and get these details clear and repeat their name back to them a few times to make sure I get it right. I also ask for any other information they want me to give about their act and write that down too… or things they don’t want to be said (I’ve been asked by artists who will do magic in their act not to be introduced as magicians, for example). Sometimes I don’t talk to the artists before the show begins but during the act before theirs. This keeps things really clear in my mind and I don’t have to consult a piece of paper all the time.

Again, this is your most important job on stage. If you don’t think you can get all the information right under pressure you can always read off a paper. Don’t hide the fact that you are reading the name of the act off a tatty piece of paper folder in the palm of your hand; the audience will notice and think you are “cheating”. Instead use a clipboard or a clean white sheet of paper… make it presentable.

Other things to tell the audience so they enjoy the show more:

  • Tell them all the boring rules after the first act of the show. Switch off mobile phones, no flash photography, all that stuff. Don’t put a downer on the show during the first link by listing things “not to do”.
  • In the introduction to the last act of the first half of the show tell people there will be a break following that act. There are so many good reasons to do this I don’t have time to go into them all here.
  • Two acts before the end of the show tell people there are just two acts left. Some comperes don’t tell you the show will be over until after the last act. This always leaves me feeling disappointed there isn’t more. Some will tell you the following act is the last in the show… almost as disappointing for me!
  • Alternatively say at the start of the show “There will be 6 acts in the first half, a 15 minute break, then 7 more acts.” The host of the Thursday night show at the EJC this year did that… and everyone was happy and relaxed.
  • Tell people what they can do during the break of the show… if the bar is open, where they can go to smoke, etc. Also tell them they have 5 minutes less in the break than they really do.
  • Tell the audience if something goes wrong. People will notice if the PA system goes on the blink and trying to pretend everything is fine is just insulting to the audience. More on this later.
  • Educate the audience too. If you think a large part of the audience won’t understand something about a following act do your best to explain the history of the artist. Or at least tell them they might find it confusing, and when they are confused they are happy with it.


There are lots of people who make a good show work. There will be the backstage crew and the lighting and sound technicians. There will be the organizers and the person who booked the acts or a director of the show. There will be people doing things who you will probably never even see or meet or know exist.

But once the show begins there is only one person who is really controlling the show. You, the compere. This is certainly true in the mind of the audience as you are the person who LOOKS like they are in control. When you say something, that something happens. The only thing you should use this control for is to make the show as good as possible.

“Good” is defined by the aims of the show, but it will include the planned length of the show. Here is how to work out the length of a show. Ask all the artists how long their acts will be. Take that time and double it. That will cover all your links, introductions, and set changes. Then add on how late you think the show will start. Then add in the length of the break. Add another 10 minutes for good luck and you’ll be left with a number a lot bigger than the show organizers first expected. This does not include time for your own four comedy juggling sketches you want to sprinkle throughout the show either.

It is your job to make the show run on time… this can be the hardest thing about a show to control! I was the first and the last act of the Berlin Juggling Convention show in 2005… it lasted over 4 hours, mainly because the compere kept doing more and more of his own material between the acts, and nobody told him to just get on with it.

Another thing you can control is the audience. Tell them to clap and they’ll clap. Tell them to shout and scream and they will! Because it’s fun! Be wary of telling people to be quiet though. But if the audience is upset for any reason (like having to sit through a 20 minute artistic experiment with a single diabolo handstick) don’t start shouting “How are you enjoying the show? … I can’t hear you! Come on, let’s have some cheering!”

The next thing you control are the artists. As the host you can probably have influence over the order of the acts, if you want it. Here are some examples of the things I tell ALL the artists before any show I do. They keep me from being caught out on stage:

“All of you are going to come on stage from the same side of the stage.”

“When your act is finished, don’t run off to the dressing room or be too busy slapping each other on the back. If the audience is still applauding I will get you back up on stage for another bow. Or maybe not… but be ready.”

“When you are bowing, listen to the audience. By the time the audience have finished clapping be out of sight. Nothing is more embarrassing than walking off stage in silence.”

“During the curtain call, when I say your name, walk to the front, take a bow, and line up stage left. Then take my lead on when to hold hands, walk forward and take a bow. Then follow me off stage when I go. And be ready to go back on stage when I say.”

This last point is the real test of a compere; when the audience is most enthusiastic (or bored and already leaving) and there are up to 20 artists milling about on stage. I’ve been an artist in shows where curtain calls are perfectly choreographed and everyone, in theory, knows exactly what to do. When it goes well it is fantastic. But for most one-off shows there isn’t the time to practice this and it usually ends up a complete mess. On the other hand, if I am hosting a show I never bother with practicing the finale. By telling the artists to take all their cues from ME everyone will acts together and the end of the show is a much more enjoyable and stress-free experience for everyone involved.

Finally a compere should also control the technical side of the show. I always introduce myself to all the technicians before the show and ask them if it OK to instruct them from the stage. So if I want I piece of music played I say “Track 3… hit it!” Or if I want less or more light I can direct that from the stage too.

Telling the technicians you are happy to talk to them from the stage before hand also prepares everyone for when things go wrong… and the chances are things will go wrong! In bigger shows there will be a stage manager to control all the lights and sound and lighting and moving things on and off stage but often there is not. In smaller shows the thing that goes wrong, while not being your fault, will be your responsibility. If there is something left on stage that hasn’t been cleared and you want to introduce the next act… deal with it! Ask someone up on stage to clear it or (if it fits with your style) kick it off the front of the stage yourself. If the PA system blows up it could be up to you to decide if the show can continue as normal or if you need to fill time for 5 minutes while technicians sort it out. If you are unsure ask the stage manager or technician if they can sort it soon. If it will take more time than you think you can fill, it’s better to tell the audience that the show will resume in 10 minutes and just take a break.


As I said at the start of this workshop, entertaining the audience is often the least important part of being a good compere, so I won’t tell you how to be entertaining. To be honest, this isn’t something I can teach in a single magazine article, and I probably couldn’t teach you anyway. If you are a performing artist you’ll already be entertaining in your own way. You’ll have your own routines, your own skills, your own jokes or your own style of comedy. I can’t tell you what will work on a certain audience and what won’t, it’s something that comes after a lot of experience, and a lot of bad shows!

All I can share here is the way I categorize comperes that I see in variete shows. First is the “Neutral” or “Good” compere. They will introduce the acts well, control the audience and be confident on stage. They don’t try to add any entertainment value to the show, they leave that up to the acts.

The second is the “Positive” or “Great” compere. They will fulfill all the functions of hosting a show, informing the audience, controlling the show and, as a big bonus, they are entertaining their own right. They add a lot to the show.

The third is the “Negative” or “Bad” compere. Sometimes this could be someone who simply isn’t suited to being on stage. More often it someone who has past stage experience and thinks their job as a host is just to be entertaining between the acts. It doesn’t matter how entertaining they are, if they don’t introduce the acts and aren’t in control of the audience and the show, they are detracting from the enjoyment of the show. Sticking with my examples from the EJC 2006, the Friday night open stage was a typical example of this; two guys who, in the appropriate setting like a street show, would have been hilarious! They just didn’t understand that doing 10 minute sketches between each act just wasn’t what the audience wanted to see. Another example that comes to my mind was Thomas Dietz and Marcus Furtner hosting a convention show in Dresden. Between them we have one of the greatest jugglers and one of the greatest devilstickers of their generation. Their comedy would have gone down well in a renegade show, but as hosts they killed the energy between every act by concentrating too much on their own material and not enough on the artists.

My message is that you should concentrate on the first two functions of hosting a show to begin with. Once you know you can do those well you can think about adding your own material. But be sensitive to the length of the show, the mood of the audience and the content of the individual acts.

Things not to do

I’ve gone into detail about how to do your job well. Here are some common mistakes made by comperes… the things you should avoid if you want to be a good host.

Often a convention will ask you to host a show and but you won’t be sure of your ability. So the organizers will ask another person. Along the way someone will have the idea for you both to host the show together. Never, ever, ever, ever try this. Don’t work with a partner! Unless, that is, you are an established double act with a lot of performing experience. In this situation admit that the other person working alone would do a better job and let them get on with it. Best case they do a good job and the show is a success. Worst case they do a bad job and the show is a failure… but at least it wasn’t you up there failing! But if you work together you are pretty much 100% guaranteed to do a bad job and fail. You will work out “comedy” routines and forget about actually introducing the acts. You’ll be unsure of who is going to say what when. You’ll look at each other and trip over each other’s lines. One person will do most of the talking and the other one will look like they are there for no reason or just end up following the other host on and off stage. They will start blaming each other for the bad responses from the audience… or start performing to each other rather than the audience. Best to work alone!

I’ve seen one mime manage to host a whole show successfully. I have seen about twenty mimes try to host a show and fail. Unless you are a very, very good mime and have a very clear way to announce the following act silently, just don’t do it. Humans like people who speak to them, especially when they actually want to know something. Silence kills energy in a show… so talk!

Be yourself. Don’t try to be another character on stage when you are a host… unless you have perfected it over years and it’s 100% believable by the audience. The audience wants to see YOU and your own honest reactions to the artists on stage. If a human being says “I believe this next act to be the greatest poi swinger in the world” the audience will trust them. If someone playing a character says the same thing the audience will think, consciously or not, “but that person is acting… do they really mean what they say?” If your whole presence on stage is a lie (that’s what acting is, right?) there is no way for a knowledgeable audience join in with your enthusiasm if there is any doubt that is a lie too. That being said, I’m not my normal self on stage when I’m hosting a show, but everything I do and all my reactions are based on my own character. I pretty much turn off my inhibitions, turn up my personality to 200%… and go with the flow!

Common Questions

In my workshops I always get asked a few questions over and over. These include:

“What happens if an act is really, really bad?” – Tricky! It depends on your own style. I try to be respectful of the artist as far as possible, but subtly acknowledge the fact that the audience was unhappy and quickly move on.

“What happens if there is a drunk person in the audience?” – Deal with it. You are in control, remember? If you aren’t good at dealing with hecklers, say in the introduction to the show “as this is a public show, please respect the artists and don’t heckle”. If the drunkard is really disrupting the show, ask (either from the stage or via the organizers backstage) for security to remove the offender. I’ve had shows ruined by drunks just because I wasn’t confident enough to have them removed from the venue, which in hindsight would have sorted the problem easily.

“What happens if the stage collapses?” – Deal with it. For example, get the audience to move their chairs aside and continue in the center of the hall with the house lights on. If you want there to be a solution to a problem you can probably find one. As the host it will probably be up to you to make any solution happen at all.

I love to read comments and feedback about my blog posts. Please email me, I reply to every message:

Interview with me on via El Circense Magazine

El Circense Jan 2011

Back in January an interview with me was the cover story of El Circense magazine. The problem? It’s only published in Spanish.

Now you can find the entire English language version (the original text) on the blog. It’s quite a long interview, but it’s a good guide to me and my life as a juggler, as well as having useful advice for new performers. Check it out!

Working on a cruise ship Q&A

I get email!

I’m Jan, I’m a Swiss circus artist. We don’t really know each others, we just shook hand briefly at the Bruxelles convention.
I’m mailing you because I study in the new circus school Codarts, a higher education in circus based in Rotterdam.
For my theoretical circus lessons, I’m writing an essay about the different working fields of a juggler.
I decide to send interviews to the jugglers I like. It would help me a lot if you would answer my interview.

1) What brought you to play on cruise ships? Was it your plan for a long time, or an accident?

“Along with Pola, my former girlfriend and performing partner, I created a juggling act called The Art of Juggling. I never intended to perform this act on cruise ships, instead I thought it would fit variety stages and gala shows. We made a version that fit in our street show, and we performed that at festivals around Europe in the summer of 2006.

In January of 2007 we performed at a small juggling convention in Scotland. We met another juggling duo there who told us our show would work well on cruise ships. But with a catch! Not many cruise ships just want a good 7 min act, instead they want a 50 min show. They said “If you can perform a 50 min show, we will recommend you to our agent in the UK.”

I wasn’t so interested in working on cruise ships, but Pola wanted to give it a go. I knew it would take quite a bit of work, but it turned out to be the right goal at the right time.

I had a lot of material after performing for seven years, and Pola and I could draw on our street shows for the way our characters would work in a longer show. That spring we were booked to perform at a theatre festival in Israel, along with a full-length show that the Israeli juggling convention, and that gave me the certainty that we could perform a very good and professional 50 min show.

So I sent some publicity material to the agent, and a few weeks later we performed for the first time at sea, on the Queen Mary 2, which at the time was one of the largest cruise ships in the world!”

2) I read on your website that you have a big passion for the reading of science fiction books and the writing of it!

“See the second part of my next answer.”

3) On cruise ships, is there a possibility to train? If no, not even “small tricks”? Do you get bored to be so much in the ships?

“I try to train every day, for at least an hour or two, but this doesn’t always work out. I normally train in the theatre, but not very often on the stage, because it is usually too dark, or other people are working. On some ships the theatre is too busy for me to train there at all. I sometimes juggle at the bottom of public stairwells, where I can take advantage of the extended ceiling height.

As for getting bored, I have loads of different hobbies to fill my time. I like making videos, writing music, taking and sharing photographs, etc. Reading science fiction is a long-time passion, and for the past three years I have recorded a review of almost every single book I’ve read. I release these reviews as a podcast, and at the moment I have between 3000 and 4000 regular listeners.

Writing novels is an extension of my love of literature, and I can certainly fill many otherwise-empty hours on a ship!

Having a good laptop computer is essential for me and my lifestyle, so early in 2010 I upgraded to a monster MacBook Pro. It heavy, which isn’t great for traveling, but as you can see, my hobbies are computer-hardware intensive.”

4) Is it hard to always behave the “right way” on a ship? (I’m asking this question because , as you know, on corporate events you have some rules on how you are allowed to interact with the clients. How is it on a cruise ship? Is it the same than on events? If yeah, it has to be very hard, when you are on the same ship during 2 weeks with the same client?

“I don’t find it difficult to behave the right way on a cruise ship. It’s just part of being a professional. I’ve never had any problems with the passengers or the crew, although sometimes I’ve made people nervous when I’m the last person back on the ship before it sails from a port of call!”

5) What about the stage performance; is there any format that an artist should respect to create his show?

“When working on a cruise ship I must have one show lasting between 45 and 50 min. On top of that I must have enough material to do another half show, typically 15, 20, or 25 min.

What I do within those shows is completely up to me. As long as I put on a good show, and entertain the audience, I have complete artistic freedom. Most jugglers think that the material I perform juggling conventions, nerdy stuff which only jugglers will understand, would be unsuitable for a cruise ship audience. I take the opposite approach, and respect my audience enough to go along with nerdy routines about site swap and trick names and other topics.

I format my show around two ideas. The first is that I want to tell my story, my life as a juggler. The second is that I want to answer people’s questions about juggling. You know, like how many can you juggle, when did you first start to juggle, can you juggle fire, can you juggle this random object, where is the most interesting place you have juggled, and all those kind of things.

So I combine these two ideas into a single narrative, and by answering different questions at different times I can swap different elements of my shows around from one performance to the next.”

6) Did hosting shows at conventions help you a lot with speaking on stage? Did the motivation to speak on stage came from there? Is your presentation on the cruise ships mainly about the juggling, or the speaking, or 50/50?

“Yes, speaking on stage or in public in any situation is good practice for performing. The only way to get good at anything is to practice hard and often. For the juggling skills this is easy, as you can do it at home by yourself. For performing, it’s a little bit different.

Between 2001 and 2006 I attended 15 to 20 juggling conventions per year, and I performed in some capacity at every one of them. I offered to be in every show, to host renegade and open stages, to host games sessions, and anything else I could think of. Maybe people got sick of me, but I got very comfortable on stage, and by continually trying out new material I developed a wide range of acts to perform on stage.

How much juggling versus talking I do in my show now depends on various factors. I often do 25 min shows containing very little talking, just 1 min of introduction, and then 5 min of juggling, and then another minute of introduction, and another 5 min of juggling, and so on.

To do this in a 50 min show would kill me, as so much juggling would tire anybody out. Also holding people’s attention purely with juggling for 50 minutes, even if spiced up with physical comedy, is a very hard task. Maybe I could do it, maybe not. Either way, it’s best to vary the tone of a show throughout.

So my 50 minute show is split three ways between talking (although I normally have props in my hands to demonstrate tricks), pure juggling routines, and physical comedy routines where the juggling and talking is less important than the clowning. These physical comedy routines often include audience participation, as me looking silly on stage is one thing, whereas getting audience members to look silly on stage is way more interesting.

Also, before talking about science fiction on my podcast, I presented the Juggling Podcast. In total I have recorded about 5 or 6 days worth of audio, the vast majority being me talking. Sitting down with a microphone, with no preparation except for a few lines of notes, and talking for 45 minutes, with no edits, and being entertaining and informative, is a difficult thing to do! Knowing that I can be generally entertaining, purely off the top of my head, gives me a lot of confidence as I walk on stage.”

7)When you play on a ship, do you usually play once, (like in the welcome or the good bye show) or do you present the same show over and over for different audience in the ship?

“I perform my 50 min show twice in one night, and then perform my 20 or 25 min show as part of a longer show twice on another night. Normally there are a few nights in between, and maybe a few nights either end, so while I only perform on two nights I might be on a ship for a week. Sometimes I perform just once on a night, and a few times I’ve been asked to perform my show three times. Three times in one night is simply too much, and the last show, while entertaining, certainly suffers from a lack of energy.

Some cruise companies are clever, knowing that I get paid by the week. They make sure I am on a ship for the last three days of one cruise, and the first three days of the next cruise. This way I perform my main show twice on two nights, and often my short show twice on another night, in the same time I would normally only perform two nights. It’s like 5 hours for the price of 3.”

8) Your website feels to me much more personal than websites of other professional jugglers. You show videos about the different places you travel, you speak about your other passions, which have nothing to do with your stage acts. Do you think the creation of your website like this helps you to sell your acts, because people see the human behind the professional?

“I don’t use my website for promotion. I have an agent who is very good at getting me work. When I worked with Pola, we would do our own promotion through, mainly for street show festivals and variety work. As a solo performer it is now easier and far less stressful to leave the promotion and booking gigs book to my agent, who was happy to do it for 15% commission.

My website is really intended for people interested in me as a person and the kind of things I get up to. Many people see me on stage during a cruise and look me up online afterwards. They have no intention of ever paying me to work, but they’ll be interested to re-watch my routines, check out videos of me juggling around the world, might be interested in other things I do.

I’ve never use my website for promotional purposes, although without it I wouldn’t be a professional juggler now. 10 years ago my website was one of the most popular juggling websites on the Internet, and I constantly shared photographs, videos, tutorials, comedy writing, comics, reviews, and all different kind of things. Most of it was about juggling, but there was just as much about other things I got up to.

Because of my popular website I became one of the more famous jugglers internationally, despite not being that great at juggling, comparatively. This, as well as being known is an interesting performer, led to me being invited to many conventions around the world. I travelled from the UK to Europe many times, to the United States three times, and to Australia once. Those opportunities would never have presented themselves without my website.

Even now, years later, people often tell me how my website was the thing that inspired them to become a juggler, or when they began juggling it was one of their main inspirations. And many of these people never saw me at juggling convention, not for many years. Just how many people I inspired over the years, I’ll never know, but the e-mails trickling all the time, and random people I meet on my travels tell me the same story over and over again.

This, to me, is a way more important reason for a website than lists of clients I’ve worked for, or quotes about how great I am, or details of my show, or TV shows and media appearances I might have made. Really, who gives it shit about that? My validation as a juggler and performer is that A. I keep getting work offers, and B. I’ve helped inspire a whole generation of new jugglers.”

9) To work on cruise ships, is there a better country to officially live in, for administrative reasons?

“I live and pay tax in Germany. Berlin is a cheap place to live, so that suits me! If I worked abroad more, for over six months per year, I could probably apply for non-resident status in the UK or Germany, and pay tax in Switzerland or somewhere. I know a few entertainers who do this, but I’m not interested. I would rather live somewhere cheap, have to earn less money, and take more time off work.

Within the European Union being self-employed and living in a different country is very simple. When I moved to Berlin I just registered that I lived there, and within a few days I had registered myself with the tax office, and I registered myself self-employed a few months later when I was getting regular work.”

10) Are you making a lot of publicity to get hired on cruise ships, or once you got some jobs, others jobs come, if you did the last jobs well plus luck? About how much time do you invest in promotion?

“As I said before, I have an agent who I pay commission to find me work. I have very little interest in working directly with any cruise ship company, even if theoretically I could make a little bit more money. I believe strongly in going for the least stressful course. With my agent I might earn less per week, but with my agent I work many many many more weeks.

In a strict sense I invest no time in promotion. In a wider sense, again referencing my previous answers, everything I do is promotion. The more I share online, for free, the greater I become in the eyes of anyone interested in me. It’s like building a brand, if you want to use marketing speak.”

Thank you if you read the interview until here!

“My pleasure!”

If you have any useful information you want to share, I would be very happy to read it!
Thank you very much.
Best regards,
Jan von Ungern