“Imagine a slew of your favorite rock songs from the 1970s or pop rock anthems from the ’90s. [Then], add a proscenium stage, pyrotechnics, a 20-foot interactive LED wall, moving set pieces and 12 turning, flipping, flying, belting performers in costumes.”
That’s what a typical day is like for John Banes, a 2016 Ball State musical theatre alumnus who has performed on cruise ships for the past three years, traveling to five continents and more than 30 countries.
“On any cruise ship at any time, the crew on board, the people that become a home away from home — [they] represent at least 50 different nationalities,” Banes said. “What I’ve learned is that while the people of the world have many incredible, phenomenal differences, we all have far more in common than we do in contrast. This is the one thing from ships I hope to carry with me always.”
In past years, Banes said, he has been a part of previous shows’ casts with Carnival Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises. Now, Banes is part of the inaugural cast of performers for Carnival Cruise Line’s cruise ship, “Carnival Panorama.”
With “Carnival Panorama,” Banes has been able to work with choreographer Rudy Abreu and director Jonathan Tessero, who Banes said are “both very active in the Los Angeles TV and music video scene.”
“I sometimes almost feel out of place,” Banes said. “What is my Hoosier butt doing with [Jennifer Lopez’s] tour choreographer? But once we are in the rehearsal room, everyone works together very hard to make the best possible product. The long hours and extreme demands on my voice and body have been challenging but also an absolute blast.”
Ron Hellems, assistant teaching professor of theatre, said becoming a performer like Banes on cruise ships is “a natural progression” for theater and dance students after graduation.
“For [students] who really like to sing and dance, it's a great way to get started in the business,” Hellems said. “It’s easier than going to New York, and just walking the streets for auditions and all that. They make fantastic money. They see the world … We've had several [students] who have gone that route.
“The intent of the whole [Theatre and Dance] program is to prepare them with the skills to go out and do all of this work. It's all tied together — theme parks, cruise ships, musical theater. They get all kinds of experience here.”
From his time as Banes’ vocal coach, Hellems said, he thought Banes was talented, driven, responsive and coachable.
“He’s just one of my favorite people that I've ever worked with,” Hellems said. “Just because of his willingness and his desire to not just get in the business and not just be famous, but he wanted to learn about the business, and he wanted to learn skills and wanted to get better all the time.”
Being an entertainer on a cruise ship is different than a typical theater show, Banes said, because of the additional rehearsals and training he has to prepare for.
“Most [cruise ship] performances are at night after the ship has already departed whatever port it visited that day, out on the open water,” Banes said. “So, the ground on which you perform moves … Imagine doing a leap and the ground not consistently being in the same place.”
In addition to 60-hour work weeks, Banes said, all cruise ship employees are also expected to receive maritime training and certification to ensure the guests' safety in case of an emergency.
“The biggest challenge I have faced [as a cruise ship performer] is maintaining my spiritual well-being,” Banes said. “It took some time for me to find the right recipe of protection and receptivity, generosity and selfishness that keeps my head and heart healthy and happy.”
Banes’ contracts as a cruise line entertainer typically last from six to 11 months. During these months, Banes said, he has learned how to regularly deliver his best without damaging his voice and body by watching and listening to his other cast members.
“The people I have worked with on ships have been some of the most consistently stellar performers, vocalists and dancers I have ever worked alongside,” Banes said. “It also goes without saying that spending every single — and I mean every single — day for six to11 months with the same group of people means that I have made some friendships that will certainly last a lifetime.”
The shows for “Carnival Panorama” include “Rock Revolution,” “Broadway Beats,” “Celestial Strings” and “Soulbound.” Because he is part of “Carnival Panorama’s” inaugural cast, rehearsals for the shows have lasted for about half of his contract, Banes said, having started June 24 in Miami, Florida.
While “Carnival Panorama” will begin its inaugural three-day voyage to Ensenada, Mexico, Dec. 11 in Long Beach, California, Banes said his family will see him perform in spring 2020 for the first time since graduating from Ball State.
“The people that come to see shows on cruise ships are not typically the same people that go to see theatre on land,” Banes said. “The arts, to me, are the connective tissue between all people everywhere. My highest hope for people who see our shows is that they debark at the end of their cruise vacation and become regular patrons at theatres in their respective communities.”