The UK musical theatre scene is truly leading the pack at the moment. We have a thriving West End, wonderful UK tours, heightened interest in community and inclusive theatre, and now… a musical theatre cruise. Yes, you did hear that right. Later this year, Floating Festivals are premiering Stages At Sea, a 4 night immersive cruise experience with musical theatre appreciation at its’ core. WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE!
Departing from Southampton on Monday 15th October 2018, the four-night voyage promises a musical theatre adventure like no other: intimate shows, interactive stagey activities, themed nights, and a star-studded line up of performers. The wonderful MICHAEL BALL will be headlining, accompanied by BEVERLEY KNIGHT, Collabro, CHRISTINA BIANCO and many more… including my ultimate fave, SHOWSTOPPER, THE IMPROVISED MUSICAL. Also incorporating a day in the scenic Amsterdam as the ship’s port of call, the voyage promises a satisfyingly immersive musical experience like no other.
If you’re a regular reader of my Blog, you’ll know that as well as being a mega musical theatre enthusiast myself, I also have the joy of living with a long-term illness. So for me, upon first hearing about Stages At Sea, my thoughts quickly flipped from “STOP EVERYTHING, LET ME GRAB MY PASSPORT AND FEATHER BOA” to “… but is this something that would even be do-able for me?”
Luckily for me, I recently had the opportunity to speak to the brilliant Jonathan Blackburn, the mastermind behind Stages At Sea, about all things accessibility, as well as the Stages At Sea experience in general. We had a really good chat, and I couldn’t not share some of the things we discussed.
I suppose my initial concern with the concept of a cruise was the accessibility of the ship itself. However, as Stages At Sea are chartering a Royal Caribbean ship (Navigation of the Seas) for the occasion, it was reassuring to discover that multiple accessibility measures were already being well implemented. The organisation is able to accommodate multiple needs, from providing accessible staterooms and specialist equipment, to assisting guests whilst boarding and departing, and they’re even ready to accommodate specialist dietary requirements. Jonathan recognises the unique challenges that disabled people can face, and explains that the ship was built whilst taking these issues into account. “It’s designed to look after everybody that has an interest in musical theatre. People shouldn’t have to ask for us to go that extra mile to ensure their needs are met”. You can also view the Royal Caribbean’s accessibility information and point of contact online: this is a handy starting point for anybody with additional needs.
Whilst the cruise aims to encompass the festival vibe, it’s clear that four days on a deluxe liner is naturally going to be more accessible than four days at an outdoor UK festival. Having everything you could possibly need on board reduces travel time, exertion and sensory overload- all factors that have to be taken into consideration when you have a chronic illness. As Jonathan says, “even though it’s a very big ship, you can get around it very easily. You can get from your cabin or from wherever you are, to the theatre, in a matter of minutes” – again, a Godsend for us horizontally challenged folk. Additionally, I’m sure you’ll agree that manoeuvring a wheelchair through spacious corridors and into convenient lifts holds much more appeal than trying valiantly to ram one through a muddy field in pursuit of a desolate outdoor toilet queue.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve created”, explains Jonathan, “this is a fairly new venture for us and for the UK market. It’s not just a case of people going to a venue to see somebody perform. That’s all great, but what we’re trying to create is a very immersive experience. There’ll be pop-up surprise things happening around the ship, Q and A’s with the stars, there’ll be people telling their life stories, book signing and CD signing opportunities, there’ll be game shows, quizzes, great music… it’s not so much a destination experience, but more of an experience in itself. Don’t be surprised if you’re sat having dinner and somebody pops up and starts singing… it’s going to be very interactive and very immersive”.
“We want to re-educate the expectations that people have of cruises”, he adds, “what we’re trying to create will have a structure, but also that surprise element- that feeling of stuff happening there and then. I think people are under-estimating just how great this is going to be.”
So, if somebody with a disability or chronic illness was considering booking this cruise, what would Jonathan say to them? “If you like musical theatre, it’s a no brainer”, he laughs, “the ships are designed to look after people, so I would say come along and have a great time!”
Before our conversation, I was unsure whether Stages At Sea would be just a single event: a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would be forever envied by all those who missed out. However, I was delighted to find out that plans for 2019’s festival are already been implemented… a line-up specially selected from the West End scene is being hand-picked as I type, and the save the date has been issued: 14th-19th October 2019. Get it in your diary, ladies, gentlemen and those of you to yet make up your minds!
I’ve had a good feeling about Stages At Sea ever since the day it was first teased on social media, and after speaking to those involved and getting that additional confirmation that accessibility was being embraced wholeheartedly, I think I’m a little bit in love with this entire concept. Floating Festivals is something very new to the UK entertainment industry, but something I desperately hope to be a part of at least once in my life.