So you want my arts job: Cruise Entertainer

As cruising returns, we talk with entertainer Neven Connelly about opportunities for this unique travelling gig.

Neven Connelly works a variety act across various genres of live performance, from dance and musicals to cabaret. While he has performed in theatres across the world, his current job is in a particularly intimate theatre. He is part of the cast of Scott Maidment’s new Blanc du Blanc production Uncorked, performed on board P&O’s Pacific Encounter.

Connolly first worked as a cruise entertainer in the Cirque du Soleil productions Cosmos and Exentricks, touring coast to coast in the USA as well as in Australia as part of Russall Beattie’s The Empire Strips Back burlesque. He has also performed in Immersive Cinema Company’s Dirty Dancing, working with Phly Crew interstate and aboard P&O Cruise lines.

ArtsHub spoke to him before he embarked with the Pacific Encounter.

How would you describe what you do to your parents?

I would tell them that I use my body to make people happy; and to make people laugh. That’s the baseline. And then after a few years, I’ll tell them a bit more and say that I do a blend of physical theatre and dance, and voice, and clown. And by then, some of those words they would understand.

What qualifications do you need for this job?

I do have formal qualifications, but you don’t need them. I actually studied dance full time – I have two certificate fours in dance. When I was younger, I started off in theatre acting, pantomime, and got into music theatre. I saw dancers and I thought, ‘I want to learn to dance’. So after high school, I focused on dance.

In the last few years, I’ve come back to theatre and acting, and that’s resulted in me always mixing the two, especially in the genres cabaret and burlesque and circus. You can be an incredible specialist, like Misha in Uncorked with me, but I found that for me that mix is where I gravitate.

How collaborative is this job?

Very collaborative. There’s only six of us in the cast, for 70 minutes. And so everyone is on stage for every other number, which means we all need a super, super precise track through the show, and we need to avoid bumping into each other, and stepping on each other’s toes and saying ‘me first’.

That’s a very slow and deliberate process, because you want to set it up for the long term, and create that blueprint so that everyone helps each other backstage, as well as on stage.

And then you’re also living with people on a cruise ship, so treat people as you want to be treated, because you’re not going to get rid of anyone on this cruise ship.

How do you manage your mental health and endurance?

Endurance helps on a ship with a very strict schedule. But it’s way easier to schedule your life on a cruise ship than on land. I have found that actually really good for my mental health.

I’ve never had such a scheduled life; every day, every week, every month is planned. You can know exactly what you’re going to have each meal, or you can say which port [and] which café you’re going to go to. Getting off the ship as often as possible is very important for mental health, because you’re living in a big house.

You can get a bit stuck doing the same [thing] over and over again on a cruise ship, but this show, you don’t get stuck.

Neven Connelly, performing Uncorked on the Pacific Encounter. Image supplied.

What’s an average week like?

In an average week we do a few shows, and we plan around them. We’re in a ship, so we need to make sure we have the right props on board, because you can’t just duck off to the supermarket to grab something before the show.

We dance together, we hang out together. There’s a whole other cast on the ship of other entertainers too. You end up seeing those whose schedules line up with yours, like if you always have breakfast at seven there’s that guy from the café and you’ll see each other at seven every day of the week.

How do you separate your stage persona and just Neven living on the ship?

You do have some separate staff areas but I kinda like the passenger areas; people get chatty on a cruise ship. And they get, ‘Oh, you’re in the show’, and then you have a great talk. I think that’s important to keep meeting people while you’re in this ‘big house’.

How was the last few years for you with COVID and cruising gigs drying up?

It was hard. I was on a cruise ship show before COVID in Italy, which went so bad so quickly. We managed to get out at the last second. That show never came back again. So that was hard.

And the first year, there were a few months that were a breath of fresh air with help to be gotten from the government. Not all countries had that. But we got some help. And really we just got to sit down and breathe for a moment.

Then we started getting hungry to do shows again. I got lined up to choreograph my first show as a creative. Then two days before auditions, in July last year, Delta locked [us] down. That show got pushed back a year, and then Omicron put an end to it. A lot of creatives had that. And if the creatives can’t put on shows, then the cast can’t be in shows.

But there was a lot more discussion about mental health, how to live through the unstable arts career; everyone talked about it a lot more because it was hard for everyone. So we took steps [forward] there.

What kind of skills do you need in this job, and what kind of personality suits cruising?

You want to be someone that people want to work with. And that’s before the skills; you just want people who are happy to have lunch with, because you will have lunch together every day.

In terms of skills, it is important to give yourselves time to learn who you are in the process of creation, so that when someone asks you, ‘what do you think of this?’, you have an opinion. I think a lot of people want to be really set. I am so different to how I was five, six years ago in my opinions and ideas. Giving yourself time to develop those ideas and to stay very open – that’s what a director will say. Scott [Maidment] will go, ‘what can we do with you?’ It’s very exciting.

What about equity and diversity in this job?

Well, there’s definitely so much conversation about diversity, especially during the last few years – it’s just household conversation in the arts community. I have friends in Sydney now who work as diversity consultants. Five years ago was anyone doing this job?

People are also speaking out more, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Some production companies are doing more than others. But we need creators and teams having the hard conversations at the top.

What’s your advice to someone wanting to work on cruise ships?

You need to be open minded about a really different lifestyle. That requires a bit of ‘easy-goingness’. You need to be ready to compromise between what you want to do and what’s achievable, because you might have a really good flip trick, but you have to adjust the production on the spot if the ship is rocking. It’s about precaution.

Keep in mind that you want to treat people how you want to be treated, like if your rooms get cleaned or whoever’s doing the laundry, because you are living in the same house. That goes a long way.

Neven Connelly is staring in Uncorked on P&Os recently refurbished ship, Pacific Encounter. It is the second in the company’s fleet to return to sailing after COVID.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina