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Bill Hygate, cruise director of Ruby Princess, says putting on a stage production on a cruise ship is much more challenging than putting on a land-based theater show.

JD Lasica / Special to Cruiseable

Bill Hygate, cruise director of Ruby Princess, says putting on a stage production on a cruise ship is much more challenging than putting on a land-based theater show.

Behind the scenes with the cruise director of Ruby Princess

In which Billy Hygate explains how a cruise ship production differs from a Broadway show

I love chatting up crew members during my sailings on Princess and other cruise lines. On my recent cruise on Ruby Princess, I interviewed several crew members, including the ship captain, the future cruises director, the spa director and others.

Here's my Q&A with Billy Hygate, cruise director of Ruby Princess. Hygate has been a cruise director with Princess Cruises since 1989. My friend and colleague, Kristen Boatright of Shermans Travel, joined me in asking questions during this interview. 

In this series

How long have you been on the Ruby Princess?

Billy Hygate: Oh, I was on all of 2015 and I’m going to be on this one for most of 2016. Four months on and four months off. I’ve been with Princess for 33 years.

And where are you from?

I’m originally from Yorkshire, in England, but now I live in Los Angeles.

What changes have you noticed during your 43 years in the cruise industry?

When I first started cruising, It was on the P&O ship called the S.S. Canberra. That was in 1972. Entertainment was very, very different. We didn’t have the production shows that we have today. We didn’t have the theaters. We had small lounges — some of them weren’t particularly well equipped for entertainers. There were all solo entertainers: singers, comedians, jugglers, magicians.

“The advances in entertainment have been huge, rivaling anything on London's West end or on Broadway.”

Daytime activities were nothing like they are now. People played bridge, saw a movie, went to class. There was no such thing years ago as a semi-formal night or a casual night: Except for the first night and the last night for dinner, people dressed every night. Traditional island night, where you brought your island shirt.

The advances in entertainment have been huge, rivaling anything on London’s West End or on Broadway. The dancers are all here, dancing is their job, they are not primarily waiting on a table. We've got top flight entertainers now. We have the best equipment, just a huge quantum leap from what it was when I first started.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the new things on Ruby Princess?

I think the major renovations that have come since drydock is the Share restaurant. This is something new, Princess going into partnership with a world-renowned chef, Curtis Stone. It is an entirely different concept. It's a beautiful room and the concept of the dining is different. He has created all the dishes himself to his specifications so the people working in the galley know exactly what he wants.

What about the new stage show, “Magic to Do”?

“Magic to Do” just started. Everybody knows Stephen Schwartz from the hit musicals on the West End and Broadway, and he has agreed to produce and direct four shows, this being the first one. All the songs are his songs, and he wrote specific song for this show. This is a great partnership, and I think a first for the cruising industry.

A contestant performs during
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseableA contestant performs during "The Voice of the Ocean" competition on Ruby Princess.
What do you think has been the reaction of passengers to these new innovations?
The passengers have been receptive to this. There's been a lot of money spent doing this. I think Princess is known for the production shows, so I think many will just see this as a plus. I'm sure that Share will be very successful as will “The Voice of the Ocean,” which is based on the show “The Voice.” It's our version, but our guests are the singers. They audition on the first couple of nights on the cruise, and then once we get finalists — the audience decides the eight finalists — then they rehearse and two of our singers on board are their mentors, and help them through. On the last day of the cruise, we have our judges, and at the end of the day, it's the audience members who are going to vote for The Voice of the Ocean. We have the iconic chairs that everybody seems to want to sit in.

Can you walk us through the typical day in the life of a cruise director?

For a day like today, I'll be down in the office by 9 o'clock, answer emails. Then I work on the Princess Patter [the ship's newsletter] for the following day. I’ll go through things with the deputy cruise director, see if there are any things I need to know about. The department heads will come in, the production manager will come in if there is anything she needs. The music manager, the performance manager. The youth activities counselor will get in touch with me if she needs to.

Then I’ll make a couple of announcements, tell everyone what's happening that morning. Have a walk around the ship. Get a cup of coffee, have a chat with people. See how things are going. Have some lunch, then I might have an hour off. Then I come back in, get things ready for the next “Wake Show” [the onboard TV show]. We record the shows starting at 6 in the morning. 

Next I'll go back to the office, looking for anything that may have come in. Once the “Wake Show” is finished, I get ready for the night. I host the shows in the Princess Theater and check out everything that is going on. It’s a full day, and there’s more administration these days than there ever was in the past. 

What kind of interaction do you have with the passengers on your average cruise?

Well, a lot. Speaking to them all day, every day, when I’m out and about. Occasionally, people want to see me about something specific, so we make an appointment to do that. But during the day, we go down to the cafe every day and have coffee. I talk to people as I pass them in the alleyways. I see lots of them at night.

So you ask for feedback on how the cruise is going?

Sure, and they’re always happy to give it. If someone has a  suggestion, or ask why we did something this way, as long as it’s a topic that I can comment on — I don’t comment on why we don’t go faster, it’s not my job to do that.

A lot of cruise directors seem to have the entertainer gene in their DNA. Do you feel that you have that?

That’s what I’ve done before I was a cruise director. I started as a cabaret entertainer in England. I worked in nightclubs in England and Europe, Australia, South Africa. I came to Princess Cruises as an entertainer originally. 

Performers in Stephen Schwartz's
JD Lasica / Special to CruiseablePerformers in Stephen Schwartz's "Magic to Do" aboard a sailing on Ruby Princess.
How is putting on a production on a cruise ship different than the West End or Broadway?
Well, you mean from the point of view of the performers? A show on land, they do the same show every night, it’s a set show. You have one thing to concentrate on for that show and in many cases they have swing performers, so if they’re not feeling great one night, someone can come in and take their part. On this ship, the production cast here, they have three, sometimes four different shows on a cruise. If they are ill or injured, there is no one to replace them, so it’s a lot more challenging than it is with a land-based theater show.  

I haven’t seen a lot of the entertainers on deck. Do they interact or do they stick with their own theater mates?

They come out, the production cast, they’ve all been rehearsing while you’ve been on. They are in that theater every single day. We’ve just had what we call a cast changeover. So the cast that had been on for six months just was replaced by the cast that are on here. So during the course of the cruise, when both casts were on, some of the old cast did some of the show, some of the new cast did others. They left (the old cast), then they (the new cast) has to rehearse the shows they hadn’t done previously. During this particular cruise, the cast has been in the theater, working. They have been busy. At other times, they will be out on deck more.

How do the auditions work out, is it done locally?

It’s worldwide. A lot of people are on eight or nine contracts with us. If people are interested in working, sometimes they’ll just send in a resume. Sometimes they work for another company, they’ll send in a DVD of them dancing. We’ve got dancers from Australia, Canada, Russia, all over the world.

How and where do they audition? 

The production department in Los Angeles. We have an entire rehearsal studio in Santa Clarita in charge of that. They’ll come down there, and the people who oversee the production shows will run the auditions. And if they feel they’re what we want, then they are off to sign a contract.

How about yourself? Do you go into ports of call? What do you like to do?

Personally, I go play golf. I don’t do much sightseeing these days, I’ve been to these ports so many times.

Do you have a favorite itinerary?

I like Alaska. I like the weather, the ports. I’m not much of a lying in the sun beach person.

What’s your favorite golf course?

On Ruby Princess, there’s one in Mazatlan called Estrella del Mar. I like playing there. It’s a little way outside of town, and it's gorgeous. 

You've been around a while. Any stories or anecdotes you can share about interesting mishaps or misadventures over the years?

There are challenges doing a theatrical production on a ship. “First of all, we’re moving, so you have to take into account the fact that it might be rocky. Nothing too extreme is put into a show.”

I remember, going way back to the 1970s, we were at anchor in St. Thomas, we were on the Cambrian, the first ship, and some squall came out of  nowhere, and we ended up on the beach. We were aground, and so we had to wait for the decision from the central office in London. The crew thought, 'This is great, we're going to have three or four days in St. Thomas,' and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the ship kind of just floated off the rocks by itself. It took everybody on the bridge by surprise.

I’m not being untoward, there are a lot of little incidents that happen that you don’t expect that don’t really affect me. When the ship has to disembark a passenger on a medical emergency, we’ve got to do a medivac by helicopter. The ship’s got to stop and the helicopter has to hover and drop a basket down. That’s a really big operation and a lot of pressure on the captain and the deck department and the engineers when we do that.

“The Voice of the Ocean” and “Magic to Do” just started on Ruby Princess. How long do the shows typically run?

“Magic to Do” will probably run for several years, because it takes a year from concept to the first show going on, with everything involved. When you do that kind of show on a ship, there are challenges you wouldn’t get in a theater. First of all, we’re moving, so you do have to create the show where you take into account the fact that it might be rocky. So generally, nothing too extreme is put into a show. If it’s moving one night, the dance captain, the company performance manager will have a backup plan, 'Not going to do these lifts. We’ll bring it down because we want it to be safe.' If it is so bad that it’s dangerous, then I would just cancel the show and tell everybody why. If it’s to that point, we’re not going to have that many people in the audience anyway.

Is there a timeline for the other Stephen Schwartz shows?

I believe he’s working on the next one right now. 

How’s your singing voice? Have you ever been tempted to audition for “The Voice of the Ocean”?

Oh, no. not at all. I might have done 30 years ago, but not now.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

JD Lasica
I'm Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Cruiseable. Follow your cruise bliss to any land where it may lead. Let's connect! I'm @jdlasica on Twitter.