Behind the Scenes of Virgin Voyages' Cutting-Edge Nightlife

Virgin Voyages is bringing the avant-garde to the high seas by rethinking cruise ship entertainment. Sex therapy cabaret, anyone?

When Virgin Voyages' first cruise ship launches this spring, every element will be true to Richard Branson’s glam-rebel brand. The 2,770-passenger Scarlet Lady looks more like a mega-yacht, with sprawling deck lounges and suites equipped with hammocks and turntables. Virgin’s adults-only cruises will offer such amenities as a tattoo parlor, sumptuous spa/fitness spaces, and 20 different dining options, from Korean barbecue to drag brunch. Destinations will include Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, each with a stopover at Virgin’s Bimini Beach Club in the Bahamas.

But as for onboard nightlife, what exactly is a Virgin Voyages show? When vice president of entertainment Richard Kilman started thinking about that in 2015, he discovered that, unlike ordinary cruise-goers, Virgin’s target customers weren’t looking for Hamilton Sets Sail or Cirque du Sea. “They wanted to be surprised. They wanted to be discovering something that nobody else really knew about,” he explained.

Thus began a search for cutting-edge talent. Some potential creators, whose career ambitions hadn’t included cruise ships, were skeptical. To win them over, Kilman rolled out floor plans for the ships’ venues: a giant bi-level nightclub and the first-ever at-sea multiform theater that can switch from traditional stage to a catwalk-style alley or open dance floor, depending on the night. Consider these spaces your sandbox, Kilman told artists. Take risks.

During several years of incubation, that’s just what they have done, with New York producer Jenny Gersten (a fixture of downtown theater) fostering crosspollination among the six production teams and Virgin nudging their work into edgier terrain at every step. As varied as the shows are, they share one key element: the audience will play an integral part in each.

For immersive-theater impresario Randy Weiner (Sleep No More), the cruise environment fulfills a career-long dream: “I’ve got all these people sleeping over!” That means that his operatic, risqué dinner theater will filter out into the ship’s corridors and staterooms, before and after performances.

Meanwhile, Sam Pinkleton and Ani Taj have concocted a fully choreographed participatory dance party, the likes of which they usually put on in New York clubs, museums, and “weird basements”—a joyous experiment in “collective intimacy.” From the Montreal-based circus collective 7 Fingers come two shows: Gypsy Snider celebrates gender fluidity through acrobatic dance and Shana Carroll fills her arena-style take on Romeo and Juliet with risky stunts and a juggling battle. Rounding out the roster, Rosyln Hart has made her participatory sex therapy cabaret act even more R-rated, and PigPen Theatre Co. has devised mini musicals to pop up all over the ship.

Some of the deepest insights during the planning came when Virgin sent artists on other cruises to study the mold they were trying to break. On one such trip, Snider started thinking big—about her show and her audience: “Everyone on this ship is actually looking for something more,” she realized, “surrounded by thousands and thousands of souls that are also searching for some deeper feeling of connectivity.”

In late 2019, the teams flew to Genoa and put on white Virgin jumpsuits and hard hats to tour the Scarlet Lady, still under construction. Descending from raw upper decks to finished lower decks, “you could see things come into focus,” recalls Andrew Neisler, director of Weiner’s productions. Counting down to their at-sea debuts, the artists can’t wait to watch their shows connect with one another, with the “ecosystem” of the ship itself, and, finally, with their most important collaborators—the passengers.

To book: virginvoyages.com; four-day trips from $775 per person.