Being There: You Me Bum Bum Train

Feature in Issue 22-3 | Autumn 2010

A threeway view of a rollercoaster theatre experience at BITE 2010.

Immersive theatre is of course a la mode at present, and YMBBT continues the trend, offering up a fragmented and gently invasive experience that feels in equal measures both delicately crafted and roughly hewn. Arriving in the scruffy reception you warily hand over your possessions before entering the ‘train’. Riding on wheelchairs and gurneys, as well as crawling through air ducts and rushing down narrow corridors, you encounter scenarios in rapid succession, journeying from American football coach to karaoke singer via jobseeker and politician.

Where the general idea of immersive theatre is an attempt to get the audience to feel part of a wider experience, here, in role, you ‘live’ an experience, whether alone as a newsreader or assisting a burglary. Although this transition from spectator to performer is daunting for some, there are a number of subtle strategies in place to support you – for example the drip-feeding of information by a civil servant and the ‘gentle’ encouragement by a burglar. These tactics all serve to elicit responses from you that drive your own narrative forward.

Through this, YMBBT manages to effect a semi-democratisation of performance: you are not just subjected to the narrative and shape of a piece but, firmly in the tradition of theatre, you are the final part of the jigsaw. Hurled from scene to scene this is the closest I have come to a dream-like experience in theatre, the twists and surprises eliciting thrilled titters, whether crowd surfing or giving a sermon. It is a rare, and touching, opportunity to have a significant connection with performers and their worlds.

Particularly memorable moments include turning to hear an improvised choral a capella rendition of your sermon as you close the scene – a real ego booster; and the final scene, in which you emerge into a Karaoke bar, sing your number and then realise that the audience are your fellow audience members – devilishly cheeky stuff.

What makes all this work is the immense generosity of spirit of the huge cast, they enable you to respond to the work, and feel part of an ensemble. They carry you along, gently depositing you back into the real world feeling like you’ve had the ride of your (and other people’s) lives.
Tom Wilson

If I’m honest, weariness was the predominant feeling before last night’s show. We had spent most of the day laying a new carpet in our scene. The previous one had a tendency to creep across the floor and up the wall when no one was looking.

The room is decorated to look like a rather swanky hotel suite in which I play a government spin-doctor. With a barber, manicurist and shoeshine boy to complete the very impressive picture, we are ready just minutes before the first passenger appears from the next-door scene, where they have just been crowd-surfed by dozens of sweaty young people.

In staggers a rather perplexed looking lady who is about to become the Energy Minister. She slumps into the chair like she may never get up again and, while the rest of the team pamper her, listens bemusedly to me eulogising about the brilliant speech on climate change she can’t quite remember making this morning.

Just as we intended the lady soon starts to feel rather powerful. One of the many reasons I love Bum Bum Train so much is that I get to play the same scene 80 times a night and I can observe with delight the realisation dawn on the passengers that they are likely to be confronted by a pack of press hacks all demanding a quote – and their resignation following their decision to allow BP to drill oil wells off the British coast.

Moments later, thanks to the preparation by me and my team, the lady is able to passionately justify herself to the journalists and she sees no reason to resign. She heads for her next encounter beaming a self-satisfied smile, just as we intended. In scene after scene, that’s what the Bum Bum Train does for people.

Five hours later my work is done and I can go home and sleep… But wait, is that the sound of the final scene, the party in the bar? Maybe just a quick one…
James Clossick is an actor and writer who performed a lead role throughout this run of You Me Bum Bum Train.

I arrive at the LEB building at 9.00am to meet the team with partner Kate Bond, stage and cast management, and the core workers to do the usual audit of what we need to get us through to tomorrow. We are short of American footballers; we have no mechanic, shoe shiner or barber; we have new co-ordinators on front of house who are as yet untrained on the crucial timings of the show; the carpets in three of the scenes are totally destroyed; we are still missing a real sushi conveyor belt; the wheels on the bouncy ball room are perishing.

After the intensive preparation for the show and the manic build I was hoping that by the mid-show date our days would be more predictable with more of a daily routine to follow. That is not the case: we constantly need to find and train new actors for our 200+ voluntary cast, and we never feel that our sets are fully finished; so throughout the show we are improving the set, adding new parts, and in some cases adding more scenes. There is no routine: every show brings different demands.

Time flies with trying to fix and improve the set and before I know it, it’s minutes to showtime. The actor for the role of the captain in the American football scene is late. Being the only person who knows the lines I have no choice but to step in. The first passenger enters the scene just as I announce to the other actors that I’ll be joining them.

It’s a thrill to don one of these brilliant outfits, empowering, but the scene is exhausting. We want it to feel serious and real therefore it requires a massive burst of energy from the players towards the end. You have to be prepared to shout till your voice wears out. I have to commend all the actors who took part in this scene, it’s achievable only through the understanding that each passenger is worth it.

At the half-time break I quickly shower and change in time to join Kate for our cast break pep talk on the roof. We make sure that they all know how grateful we are for their level of commitment to the project and deliver the best bits of feedback from passenger’s testimonials. When the cast are all together like this it is exciting, a large group of enthusiastic people dedicated to an altruistic cause – wearing an unusual range of outfits.

The second half feels more settled: you can always tell when things are good; there is no activity on the walkie-talkies. Either that or your walkie-talkie’s not working.

I join the church congregation, book signing entourage, bouncy ball room backstage operators; I check in regularly with stage managers and become an extra Minister’s assistant. Other than give the odd bit of feedback to actors I wasn’t in demand and things were running smoothly.

Show dates are always rife with unexpected challenges, especially when working with a giant voluntary cast. Only three more nights till our last show date then we don’t have to recruit any more cast members! That is something I can’t fathom right now.
Morgan lloyd is the Joint Artistic Director of You Me Bum Bum Train

You Me Bum Bum Train was presented at the LEB Building, Bethnal Green, London July 2010. Funded by The Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award and co-produced by barbicanbite10 and CREATE10. The performance reflected on in Being There took place 21 July 2010. www.barbican.org.uk/theatre

CREATE is the cultural partnership of the London boroughs of Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest. you Me Bum Bum Train is supported by Tower Hamlets Council.

You Me Bum Bum Train were winners of the 2010 Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. The OSBTT Award is in its fourth year of collaboration with Barbican BITE. It is currently an award of £32,000 for a company or individual to create a site-responsive, non-traditional show to take place in one of the five host boroughs for the Olympic and Paralympic games. Details of the 2012 Award will be posted in November 2010. www.osbttrust.com

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Issue 22-3
p. 28 - 29