More from: lukes history

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:

Ten Years Ago: Fire Jump of Death!

In an effort to keep this blog up to date with all the other stuff I’m posting on the internet, there will (hopefully) be a flurry of posts over the next few weeks. For a start: stupidity.

What I was up to roughly 10 years ago: Hosting the Renegade Show at the British Juggling Convention 2003 in Brighton. After the “Rocket Poi” in 2001 I had to make things ever more stupid and dangerous!

This videos was posted on my website back in 2003. Between 2001 and 2003 I posted about 100 video clips online, and I still have most of them available for download on my old “Thing on the Net” archive.

I notice on that page, I wrote about the above video “This is by far the most popular video I’ve ever posted due to a mention on the b3ta newsletter resulting in about 15,000 dowloads over one week.” 15,000 views in one week is more than all but a handful of videos I’ve posted to YouTube!

Luke Wilson

I’m not sure where this is going, but I have to write something. Luke Wilson died a few days ago, and the news hit me really hard. Hopefully this can clear up, for myself and anyone interested, just what he meant to me, and what’s going to change in my life now he has gone.

Pretty often I’d meet a juggler for the first time, and after a brief introduction, they would ask me: “Are you Luke Wilson?”

“No,” I’d say, “I’m the other British professional juggler who lives in Germany, has a German girlfriend, travels and performs around the world, hosts shows at many conventions, etc, etc… and who is also called Luke. I’m the tall skinny club juggler called Luke, and Luke is the small skinny club juggler called Luke.”

I can see where the confusion might arise. Luke and I acknowledged the confusion, and our position of being the two Lukes in the juggling world, with a our online rivalry both claiming to be the Real Luke.

Back in early 2001 I invented a ring trick. You place a ring on one ear, and with a shake of the head, you transfer it to the other ear. I showed it off in a best trick competition at the BJC 2001, and it got a good reaction. Other jugglers started calling it Luke’s Ear Ring Trick, which I thought was pretty cool. Then someone said they had seen Ian Merchant doing it a few months before. Which I also found pretty cool, as so many times two jugglers build on the same existing concept to come up with the same new trick.

After writing about this on my website, I got an email from Luke Wilson saying:

“What is the trick? If it involves hanging the ring on one ear, and then
flipping it around your face to a catch on the other, then the name is
correct :-)

If the trick is another: please expand details!


Luke (Not Barrage But Wilson)”

As you can see, right from the start, we had more in common than just our name. We’d both invented the same trick! The ambiguity of “Luke’s Ear Ring Trick” seemed to make sense. We stayed in contact from then on for various reasons, including the fact that people presumed that the email address would reach the Luke Wilson, and not the actual Real Luke (why would the non-Real Luke have the address?).

Later in 2001 I attended Luke and Ben Richter’s workshop at the London Juggling Convention called “Encyclopedia of Contemporary Club Juggling”. It inspired me to write up my thoughts about ring juggling in a similar categorical way, leading to The Endless Possibilities of Ring Juggling essay/workshop guide.

I could go on and on about the small ways Luke Wilson influenced and inspired me in my early years as a juggler. I’m sure everyone has similar stories. His presence in my life grew though, into a friendship. We weren’t as close friends as others, but we were good friends, and constant friends, due to the similar paths we’d chosen in life, and due to the similar paths life had chosen for us.

It’s only now Luke has died do I realize that Luke’s constant presence became the guide for my entire life. I never thought “If I could be like anyone, I’d be just like Luke Wilson!” and, as I said, so much of life is outside of anyone’s control.

But Luke was four years older than me, and so often the same number of years ahead of me in terms of his juggling career. Sometimes more, sometimes less, I guess. If ever I wondered if I was doing okay in my progression as a juggler, Luke’s life and career was my go-to guide to know I was on the right track.

Luke Wilson performed in the BJC public show in 2000 as a Gandini, and in 2003 in his Luka Luka double act with Ilka Licht. Well, once I’d performed in the same show, I knew I’d be on my way. In 2004 I performed in the BJC Public Show as a solo act, and headlined the Dutch convention gala show… but then I met Luke backstage at the EJC that same year, and he was performing his devilstick act. In the Gala show… for second year in a row, having already performed with Ilka in in the 2003 EJC Gala.

Well, not to worry, the EJC Gala was a still a few years off for me. Pola and I performed our double act in both the BJC and EJC Gala shows in 2006.

At Bamberg Zaubert, a street show festival, I noticed Luka Luka listed as a previous winner. Once Pola and I won the main competition, I sent Luke a message about it. His response?

“I won it twice, once with Ilka and once as a solo magician.”

12 months later, when Pola and I won the same competition for the second year in a row, I felt I could continue the conversation with Luke as an equal.

“Luka Luka” and “Luke and Pola”, two English-German juggling couple duo club juggling shows. Here’s Luke Wilson and Luke Burrage similarity trivia fun fact number 83: both Ilka and Pola, our respective juggling partners and first German girlfriends, lived in Aachen. Ilka also studied architecture, and Pola worked as a graphic designer for an architecture firm.

Of course, both of our relationships with our German juggling/life partners ended, and we both had to go through the same issues that brings up, professionally and otherwise. Thankfully Luke had gone through that years before me, and while I we didn’t talk about that in depth, I remember thinking “It won’t be a problem… Luke’s been there and done that, so I should aim to be as professional about it as he was.” Pola and I went on to perform our last contracted shows together, despite the pain and annoyance of breaking up, and we’ve stayed friends since. Both Luke and I found new German girlfriends (you know, because we both lived in Germany), and earlier this year he followed my lead, for once, moving to Berlin.

So it was never conscious decision to do what Luke did, but in any professional situation, Luke was my go-to guy. Often we’d chat online or in person, and our conversations would typically revolve around our common job and work. To be clear, our work was traveling. We had ongoing battles comparing how many flights we took per year… with the loser being the one who’d flown more times.

But our common job was performing juggling. We weren’t just jugglers, we were performing jugglers. I don’t remember a single conversation in the last 6 years about juggling itself, or any kinds of trick. It was all about performing. Which is good, because we could both talk endlessly about our views on performing and our approaches to stage craft.

Here’s a random exchange from Skype:

Luke Burrage: Just found a video on an old hard drive of you performing a club routine, outside, in the wind, with trees behind, and you’re wearing a pink top. When was this?
Luke Wilson: EJC Edinburgh opening show, 1998.
Luke Wilson: I think, to my shame, that I even hold up a moistened finger to indicate the wind…

Our onstage personas and juggling style differed in so many ways, with his based on crisp precision and mine on exuberant freedom. However, at the roots of both our shows we always found similar ideas and ideals, with both of use knowing the reason for every single element of our acts, and why we included or excluded simple things such as individual blinks or turns of our hands.

In 2008 I was in charge of the EJC open stage tent, and I decided to make a list of all the possible jugglers I knew I could rely on to host a show in a professional manner. I wanted someone who I knew could do a good job, and because I’d be busy doing other work, I wanted them to be able to do it without any input or help, and more importantly, would cause me no stress at all.

When I’d finished compiling that list, Luke Wilson’s name wasn’t just at the top of the list, it was the only name on the list. Just Luke. Nobody else I’d worked with before or since at juggling conventions came close to his level of preparedness and experience.

And so, of course, I spent some of my meager budget to make sure Luke would be there to host a show. In the end Pola and I only ran four of the open stage shows, so I hosted two, Pola one and Luke the other. Luke was, of course, utterly professional, so much so that we hardly had to talk about the show itself at all. Which is exactly how it should be! The technical crew of the open stage venue said that the four shows we put on were all better organized and presented than gala shows at other conventions.

At the EJC in 2010 I once again ran the Open Stage shows, and asked Luke Wilson to host again. Throughout 2008, 2010 and 2011 (when I was running the open stages at the EJC) I was always inviting new people to host shows, with varied results, some bad and some good. With Luke though, I knew that even his worst show would be good. I knew because everything he did, and every decision he took, and every way he responded on stage, was based on a strong foundation of technical performing knowledge and a deep understanding of the concepts and philosophies of being entertaining. This was backed up by a successful career as a professional juggler and show moderator.

So often I didn’t even have to ask Luke about a subject, it was good enough to consider “What would Luke do?” Then next time we chatted online it could be about Star Wars or bikes or all the other geeky interests we had in common.

What all this builds up to is why Luke’s death it me so hard. Like I said, we weren’t close personal friends, which is why I didn’t know he was struggling with cancer until a few days before he died. Our busy work and travel schedules rarely coincided enough to schedule social visits. But Luke was a good friend, and a constant friend.

The fact is, I always presumed Luke would be around, and I always presumed he’d be a few years ahead of me as a professional juggler. Time after time I’d perform somewhere, and Luke had performed there before me. At the Israeli Juggling Convention in 2002, I found it amusing how many jugglers were doing his style of club juggling, as he’d been there in 2001. Repeat this and other similar stories over 10 years, and I gained a huge appreciation on how treasured he was in the juggling world.

More recently, Luke taught at circus schools, and he directed a show at the Leipzig Krystalpalast. My unconscious presumption was that, within about four years, I’d also be teaching at circus schools and directing shows. It’s not something I’ve been actively pursuing, but because Luke has gone there before me, I kind of assumed that it was where I’d be heading in the future. I have my own projects and plans, of course, but it’s more on the level of what I can be proud of accomplishing.

Luke Wilson has always been the standard, or the yardstick, that I’ve used to measure my own progress. He hasn’t been my guide in terms of “I have to do what Luke does” but instead in terms of “how am I doing? (glance at Luke) Okay, I’m doing just fine.”

And now I don’t have guide. I’m now the only Luke who is a professional juggler from England living in Germany… with all the other similarities we shared, those we chose and those which just came with the job and life.

In four years time, I’ll have caught up with the end of Luke’s path ahead of me. I’ll be striking out without him. Our journey together, offset as it was, will end.

The reason I’m crying as I finish writing this is that I never told Luke how much he meant to me. Partially this is because he kept his suffering private, and I simply had no opportunity to explain all this.

But the main reason is that I didn’t even understand this all until he died. I didn’t just lose a someone, a friend, I lost something else I didn’t even realize I had until it was gone.

I thought that when a friend died I’d not mourn their death, but celebrate their life. I tried to do that with Luke, but all I could think about was Luke’s future and how much it meant to me. I didn’t understand my grief over the loss of Luke’s future for a few days, but I think I worked it out. It’s selfish, I know, this presumption that he’d always be Luke A and I’d always be Luke B. I was invested in Luke’s future in a way that can only come all the facets of life we shared, and I didn’t understand that until it was too late to tell him.

Now I’ve got to get on with life myself.

Thanks for reading.

Invergordon and Newcastle – June 2011.

The first few photos are from Invergorden, Scotland. The rest are from a visit to Newcastle. I lived in Newcastle back in 2001 to 2003. It’s really weird to visit a city in which you once lived on a cruise ship. Or it is for me.

I arranged to meet up with my two old flat mates, Ewan and Matt. This was the first time the three of us had been in the same place at the same since 2003, so it was great fun to catch up and reminisce about the old times. Becky, Ewan’s girlfriend, joined us too.

Summer cruising

Summer cruising: Invergordon, Scotland.

Invergordon, Scotland.

Summer cruising: Invergordon, Scotland.

Summer cruising: Invergordon, Scotland.

Summer cruising: Invergordon, Scotland.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

Summer cruising: Newcastle, England.

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