Theatre Critic and Journalist

You (watch) Me (ride the) Bum Bum Train

You (watch) Me (ride the) Bum Bum Train

You Me Bum Bum Train is back; presumably it’s as much of a head-rush as ever. You know what, this time round, I decided not to go. I figured that I’ve said everything I’ve got to say on the subject of the experience. It’s great and all, but it could be so much more. It may be that it is this time around, but I didn’t really fancy repeating myself for the sake of forty minutes of fun.

Anyway, the one thing I’ve not written about is the issue of payment. You Me Bum Bum Train uses – and, indeed, relies on – unpaid performers. Equity are taking them to task. Judging from a quick look at Twitter one night last week while desperately trying to keep my overseas 3G usage to a minimum, it seems they’re not the only ones.

Pilot Theatre’s Marcus Romer has written on the subject here, and basically says that unpaid work cannot be a permanent state of affairs, that companies have a responsibility to aim to pay their employees. At one level, I think that’s very fair cop. It seems unreasonable for the company to grow before it has laid the foundations to pay those it relies on.

However, at the same time, I’ve not got that much of a problem, economically, with You Me Bum Bum Train’s use of volunteers. To put it another way, it seems less problematic that the scale of the event should grow while the same relationships remain intact. Plus, everyone knows the deal. I don’t know what that experience is like, but no one’s under duress, so what’s the fuss? Is anyone really using it as an acting credit? Is anyone under the illusion that performing in You Me Bum Bum Train will advance their career? Is anyone doing it for any other reason than that it might be quite fun? I’m inclined to believe Morgan and Lloyd that You Me Bum Bum Train wouldn’t be possible without unpaid performers. After all, they have to host a ridiculously expensive final performance – tickets £250 each, must be bought in batches of 10 – to make ends meet. I don’t have a problem with them making a living from it – if they even do – despite using unpaid performers, because its their baby and I highly doubt they’re raking it in as a result.

However, I want to put forward an aesthetic argument against the use of unpaid performers. It’s more of a thought experiment than an all-out declaration of wrongdoing. There’ll be no boycott as a result. However, from a critical perspective, the use of volunteer or non-professional performers does impact on the nature of the event.

So, here goes.

You Me Bum Bum Train pitches itself as a safe space to play. Before you start the ride, you’re reassured that you won’t be filmed, for example. You’re also advised that your actions are real and, as such, have real consequences. Fine. Essentially, the message is that, as in Deal or No Deal, this is your ride to do with as you please. But that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility in any way. Your actions remain real and they remain yours.

However, because You Me Bum Bum Train’s performers are unpaid they are, in a very real way, another audience. When the event sells out, for example, emails whizz round explaining that you’re only hope of being involved in You Me Bum Bum Train is to volunteer as a performer. Essentially – and this doesn’t apply only to those who volunteer as a last resort – by volunteering you get to watch You Me Bum Bum Train from the other side.

I would argue, then, that You Me Bum Bum Train has two distinct and entirely contradictory audiences. To spell that out, there is the audience that pays, comes in one-by-one, sits in a wheelchair, rushing through scenarios. And there is the audience that watches them do so, albeit only in part. The first audience gets to ‘experience’ different situations. The second one gets to witness different people encounter and respond to a single situation. In other words, the second audience is watching something akin to a candid camera show – and that entirely undermines the first paying audience’s experience and their freedom to do as they please, unguarded on account of being in a safe space, unwatched and unjudged.

The first time I rode the Bum Bum Train, I held back from further praise because I couldn’t shake the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the joke was on us. On my second ride, something I blurted out impulsively in response to a question (I think I ran through the Beatles names as a politician facing the press, simply because they leapt to mind despite being a non-sequitor), caused one of the volunteer performers to get the giggles. In that moment, I realised that the relationship was not as simple as the show’s creators would like us to think.

On my last ride, there was at least one scenario that involved being in front of an audience. Here things get even more complicated. Stepping out into a mock-up television studio, set up to look and feel like my own prime-time chatshow, I was suddenly in front of an audience of about 50 people, maybe more, made up of volunteer performers. So, at that point, they are volunteer performers who represent an audience to us, the real audience. They represent an audience by being an audience, sitting and watching, but the two audiences – the real and the represented – are very different: the represented audience is a chat show audience, the real audience is watching the You Me Bum Bum Train audient try to host a fake chat show. The question, at this point, is who is the real performer? Who is the participant and who the audience?

Now, I really liked the heightened stakes that this ‘audience’ added. It made You Me Bum Bum Train difficult and stressful and exciting again, as I said at the time. However, that ‘audience’ is no different in status to any other volunteer performer encountered along the way. It’s just more honest (and at the same time more dishonest) about the relationship. The point is that, however much we might give in to You Me Bum Bum Train, we are being watched at all times by people who have turned up to watch our unwitting performance.

Ultimately, until You Me Bum Bum Train achieves a level of professionalism that means those performing can just perform, it can’t offer the safe space that it claims to. And that, to my mind, is fundamentally problematic. Especially as we’re the ones paying…

(In the interests of full disclosure: I had press comps to my first two You Me Bum Bum Trains and paid for my third, last year.)

Photograph: Morgan Lloyd and Kate Bond

One Comment

  1. And it's a job.
    Work of art should be valued as much as any other.

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