BWW Interview: Kayla Radam Talks Musical Theatre On Cruise Ships
Whether it's Agrabah, Cherry Tree Lane or Baltimore, musical theatre helps to transport audiences into a story and takes them on an all-singing, all-dancing adventure. A newer development in the MT landscape is musicals at sea - with major shows such as Chicago, Hairspray, SIX, We Will Rock You and Burn the Floor all now travelling the world on luxurious cruise liners.
Hundreds of performers take to the seas every year and achieve their dream of performing in a hit musical. We speak to Australian performer Kayla Radam, who has appeared in the musicals Grease and Chicago onboard cruise ships for Royal Caribbean.
What was the audition process like for Chicago and Grease?
The audition process for both shows was very intense and condensed into three to four days. I auditioned for Chicago in Melbourne, Australia. There were around 300 dancers that turned up for the open and private auditions. I was lucky to have a private audition set up through my agency, which meant I didn't have to wait in line to be seen and I had a set audition time allocated with around 50 other dancers.
For Grease, I auditioned in London and I also had a private agent audition slot. The difference was the number of dancers who turned up. There were probably around 500 dancers lined up outside Danceworks in London to audition in the open call and about 100 for the private calls.
The audition process was similar in terms of the structure. There's always a technical round first, which almost halves the number of people auditioning. Then it's followed by a routine from the musical that you're auditioning for. If you make it to the end of the day, you're called back to sing the following day.
If you make it through the singing round, you'll most likely learn another dance from the show, possibly sing again and also read sides. By the end of day two, they would have cut the dancers down to around 50 and you're called back for the final auditions. Then the waiting game begins - until you receive that wonderful email that opens with 'CONGRATULATIONS'.
How long was the rehearsal processes for the shows? Is it similar to the West End?
It's around five weeks, in the studios in North Miami, Florida. You also have two weeks onboard to tech the show before opening. So seven weeks in total. I think that's quite similar to the length of land rehearsals.
The only difference would be the technical rehearsal onboard the ship. As the ship is in full operation with guests, we have to share the stage time with all of the activities that are happening. We also have additional training as crew members for safety and security etc. These obstacles can make the tech rehearsals quite difficult, but we always manage to get the show up and running for opening night.
You not only have to perform in the musical onboard, but you have to perform in a second show. How was it rehearsing two shows at the same time and then having to perform them side by side?
Yes, there is a production show that is performed alongside the musicals. For Chicago, we performed Blue Planet. In that show, I trained for the aerial elements and was a featured aerialist. It was an amazing experience, and as much as I loved Chicago, I really looked forward to Blue Planet as it allowed me to remain versatile and use other skills. How many people get to learn such an incredible skill for free?
Alongside Grease, we actually performed another musical by Royal Caribbean Productions called Columbus! The Musical. It was written and directed by Loren Van Brenk, who's worked on many productions for Royal Caribbean, and also co-directed and choreographed by the West End's Racky Plews [Footloose, American Idiot, Knights of the Rose].
How are the shows received by audience members, and have they been adapted for the cruise ship production?
We perform in a state-of-the-art theatre that has the most modern, cutting-edge technology. It seats approximately 1,400 people and we have a 12-piece orchestra. The theatre is beautiful, and better than many on land, as it's brand new. It is honestly like performing on land, but at the end of the night, it only takes two minutes to walk home.
The shows are adapted into 90-minute condensed versions with no interval and containing all of the best parts. There are around 6,000 guests on board and so much entertainment happening around the ship, with two other theatres (an ice rink and aqua theatre), but we usually have a full house for every show - and, more often than not, a standing ovation.
You were the inaugural dance captain for Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas, where you performed the role of Cha Cha in the David Ian production of Grease. How was it being the first dance captain on that ship?
So exciting! Usually the dance captain role is decided in the studios during rehearsal. You go through an interview process and find out some weeks in. That can be quite difficult, as you want to be absorbing every bit of information about the choreography but you're not 100% sure if you are getting the position.
I was lucky enough to be cast as dance captain in my contract before I started rehearsals. It was really good to be able to step into the rehearsal room and have the cast know I was their leader. The rehearsal process was almost like a workshop, as we were the first bodies they were able to put their vision on. They were extremely happy to have me there, working out the kinks and being a part of the creation. Something I feel super proud of!
Tell us more about being a dance captain at sea - what does it entail?
It's really a two-part job. As dance captain, my duties are maintaining the integrity of the show's choreography, taking extensive notes and giving feedback to the other performers, making sure the spacing and intent of the movement are still intact. When a performer is sick or injured, or an understudy goes on, I'm responsible for re-blocking the show. This means I need to rearrange the spacing onstage, as we don't have standby understudies or swings.
On land, being a dance captain doesn't mean you're suddenly everyone's boss, but on a ship, I'm also the company manager. I make sure to field concerns from company members, complete admin such as scheduling and payroll, liaise with all technical fields in regards to show issues (production manager, sound and light technicians, etc) and attend shipboard meetings. This can be quite an intense position onboard but as long as you stay humble and maintain a good working relationship with your cast, it is an extremely rewarding job!
What was it like working alongside West End and Broadway performers and creatives at sea?
It really proves that Royal Caribbean is competing with West End and Broadway. Not only are they recruiting directors and choreographers of this calibre, but we also have costume, lighting, set and sound designers who have all worked on Broadway and/or the West End. We even have choreographers who are in Cirque to work on our aerial elements. I guess when I first auditioned, I assumed it would be a Royal Caribbean production of the musical, not the 'real deal'. I am so fortunate to be able to work for an amazing company that has truly brought Broadway to sea.
What differences have you noticed between the audiences on land and at sea?
The guests are starting to book their cruises based on what entertainment is on board, so they really are coming in with high expectations - and according to the guests' comments and reviews, our standard is on par with Broadway! So, overall, we have audiences that are excited to be watching the shows.
Occasionally, we have some guests who are not familiar with what we do and maybe don't perceive it as well, but it doesn't affect our performance. You still see the enjoyment on most faces - just a couple of guests nodding off, as they may have had too many margaritas in Cozumel that day!
What do you enjoy about cruising?
The ports! I've done both Mediterranean and Caribbean cruises, and not many people can say that on their day off, they'll be visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy or sitting on the beach in the Bahamas. It's something that most people never get to experience in their whole life and it's part of my job. I have to remind myself not to take it for granted, and I will treasure those moments forever!
Are there any problems that come with working in a cruise ship theatre?
I think the hardest part would be our accessibility to land when needing to resolve issues. This could be anything from technical elements to needing zippers for a costume. The communication is great and we're able to contact our shoreside office via phone or email at any time, but we're still at sea. So if we need something urgently, it's not possible - we have to wait until we're in the next port, or sometimes a port that is able to solve the problem.
Between your two cruise contracts, you moved to London and successfully auditioned for a dance role in Disney's film version of Beauty and the Beast. Did you find that your experience working with international casts helped you to jump straight into life here in London?
It was definitely an easier transition moving to a new city, as I had met a lot of my closest friends onboard who lived in London. Another great perk to working on cruise ships: the friendships you make, and everyone is from a different part of the world!
How was it working on a Disney film?
It was such an incredible experience. We filmed at Shepperton Studios, home to some of the world's best-loved films. We met Emma Watson and were on set with Dan Stevens and Stanley Tucci! The set was amazing and Jacqueline Durran designed the costumes - she's won multiple awards for Best Costume Design. Plus direction by Academy Award-winning Bill Condon and choreography by Tony and Olivier Award nominee Anthony Van Laast, it really was an experience I will never forget!
Would you recommend to performers that they should audition for cruise ships?
Absolutely! I have had the most wonderful career so far, and working for Royal Caribbean has been an amazing platform for the industry. What other land-based company pays you to perform in cutting-edge theatres and explore the world in between?
Working onboard a cruise ship also allows you to explore and create with your craft. You have access to a free gym, stage time to choreograph, and access to recording equipment - to name a few. It's a free space to expand your talents and learn something new. Pretty cool job!