You Me Bum Bum Train – a bum deal for performers?

Upon its return to the London scene as part of the London 2012 festival, You Me Bum Bum Train has again found itself being questioned about its reliance on large numbers of unpaid volunteers.  According to The Guardian, Equity is considering taking legal action against the company on the grounds that cast and crew are unpaid for a show which charges £20 a ticket.  But is the situation as black-and-white as it appears?

I’ll open by stating that – with regards to my own practice as a producer – I feel wholly uncomfortable asking anyone to work for free.  Although I may be frequently working on the Fringe level where money is tight, I’m always keen to ensure everyone is paid something – although it may not necessarily be feasible to offer Equity rates, I feel the gesture of paying a fee acts as a recognition of the time and talent offered by those involved in a production, and allows both parties to enter into an agreement which validates a professional relationship.  In the early days of my producing career I have been engaged in projects where offering pay has not been possible – but I was always keen to ensure that something was offered so that appreciation was shown for those involved – particularly important for building long-term relationships with artists, looking forward to a time where they could be paid a rate reflective of their worth.  Also, most importantly – and perhaps most foolishly considering my frequent financial woes – I always prioritise paying other creatives over myself; the onus is on me as a producer to raise the funds necessary to stage a production, and thus there is incentive to put my pay as one of the final budget lines in order to push myself to raise the maximum funds possible.

Taking my own views regarding the paying of artists into consideration, I can’t help but take issue with You Me Bum Bum Train – a company who not only have enjoyed numerous sell-out runs at prices far beyond what is charged for my own work, but who have also received funding beyond the levels which I have ever received (at least £40k in 2010).  Morally-speaking, I’d feel hugely uncomfortable asking people to be the core of a production without being paid knowing how much money was coming in to stage it; I’m aware that there are huge costs to meet regarding the physical production of the show, but if they don’t have the full amount of money available then should they scale back their ideas – or simply not do the show until they are able to with the right money?  Being generous I could understand to some extent the reliance on volunteers in the production’s early outings, but to still be using so many at this stage suggests that no effort has been made to make the production self-sustaining – I would at least hope that plans would have been in place to allow participants to be paid once the show was ‘making’ money.  If the company had perhaps drawn up a recoupment schedule (as with most West End shows), then they may have been able to get an idea of how long it may take the show to make its money back, and then to plan a fairer distribution of funds throughout the company.

And it doesn’t all come down to money.  With regards to the number of performers involved, I have a number of friends trying to forge a career as actors who have taken part in YMBBT, as having the credit for such a successful show seems like a good thing to have on one’s CV; however, with so many people taking part, is the credit devalued?  Friends have told me that, upon taking part, they have felt like their work has not been truly appreciated, which has been hugely disappointing to them and demoralising – not offering what they wanted and, in some respects, actually putting them off the idea of being involved in something similar again.  With such huge reliance on volunteers across the production – beyond just performers – the responsibility becomes increasingly on those volunteers to support and motivate each other; consider this alongside the notion that volunteers can quit whenever they please, and there is a great amount of risk in the artistic team being so removed should this relationship fail.

All this being said, though – I am aware that I am looking at this from a particular perspective.  For every friend who has shared with me a negative anecdote, I have heard through others of people who have massively enjoyed the experience.  And, in light of the numerous positive reviews the show has received, it seems somewhat idealistic of me to suggest that the show shouldn’t have taken place without the proper funds.  I come at this issue very much from an outsider’s perspective – relying on second-hand accounts and my own feelings about the working model of the company to shape my opinions regarding whether or not I believe they are being exploitative of others.  And, if I am to take such a strong stance against YMBBT, then should I not also take a similar stance against events such as Secret Cinema and even the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony?  These are also events which rely on volunteers to go ahead, whilst charging the public to attend.

There is also a lot to be said for the fact that YMBBT has challenged the notion of audience in a way rarely seen at this scale.  Rather than be bound by the traditional performer/audience dichotomy, YMBBT effectively fuses the two together – people can take part in the production as a means of seeing it, and through that role they then perform for an audience of one who has paid for a ticket.  In some respects, YMBBT is the ultimate audience participation event – offering its audience the opportunity to be part of a huge spectacle which would keep them very much at arm’s length.  This in itself provides excellent opportunities for audience development – the word spreads about the production much more effectively than if only performed by ‘professional’ actors, and both the demand for tickets and the reputation of the production increases.  With the show only being performed to an ‘audience’ of one, YMBBT is constantly referred to as a ‘hot ticket’.

This then brings us back to our original issue – if the show is in such demand and is enjoying such great success, then why are people not being paid to take part?  Ultimately, our problems lies with the company’s lack of transparency; when questioned about this issue the argument always is made that the production costs are great for a show of this scale, but as yet these figures do not appear to have been published – whilst this is the case, people will continue to ask the questions about where the money is going.  I doubt anyone believes that Morgan Lloyd and Kate Bond are pocketing the profits and sitting on piles of cash in their mansions, and it is obvious that staging such a production is going to cost a lot of money – but I truly believe it would be in their best interests to explain how the books are being balanced.  At present, the effects of cuts to arts funding are beginning to be seen and thus greater attention is being paid to how money is spent by the industry; whilst the numbers don’t appear to add up to people, then YMBBT will continue to be under close scrutiny and will face animosity from other sections of the industry.

I’ve previously discussed on this blog the case of The Cock Tavern, and the apparent unfair distribution of funds from La Bohème; the biggest problem they encountered over the issue was of their own making, namely their appalling approach to public relations.  Thus far, the company have yet to reveal any actual accounts relating to the production, instead mentioning how much it would cost to pay everyone Equity rates and saying how expensive the show is to stage.  Unfortunately, such an approach is going to do little to satisfy those asking the questions, and instead leaves them open to criticism should any information leak out of context – a budget has already been leaked online (in the form of a Google Doc) which suggests that a number of people are being pad whilst cast are not.  With this not being a complete budget (and with the amounts of pay blanked out) it is impossible to put the spending in context of the whole production’s costs – but it is enough information for the company’s critics to use against them.

I shall always be idealistic about the idea of paying all people involved in a production, and as such I shall continue to have an issue with YMBBT – but I am also willing to allow the company right of reply and to be open-minded enough to accept that there are some reasons which may offset the unpaid nature of the work against the benefits it brings, both to participants and to the arts through its innovation and successes.  Unfortunately, I fear that Morgan Lloyd and Kate Bond will continue to be unmoved by these requests – and so I hope they are accepting of the criticism they will receive because of this stance.

For further reading on this issue, then I’d advise you to check out the following blog posts:

Marcus Romer (concerning the moral concerns of using unpaid performers)

Matt Trueman (further exploring the idea of unpaid performers being an ‘audience’)

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8 Responses to “You Me Bum Bum Train – a bum deal for performers?”

  1. […] about this subsidised show which runs on volunteers and doesn’t pay the performers. Read producer Dan Baker’s thoughts it. Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Really? 250 performers a night in a format that takes 70 guests? Suppose you pay them £100, which for some of them is pathetically low as over 50 of them are professionals and standard rate would be triple that, then you have a nightly wage bill of £25,000, not to mention the 2-3 accountants needed to deal with it all. So yes, you could charge guests a little over £350 each to come but then where would we be? You’d still owe rent and you wouldn’t have even built any sets, lighting, sound or anything else come to that. You’ve hit £500 a ticket and you’re a couple of young people facing bankruptcy having come up with a show format.

    Morgan and Kate by all accounts live in a council house and certainly one of them is on the dole, which they forgo during the shows run due to lack of time. I suspect they do the unpaid job they do because they love to do it and yes there are professional luvvies who will find it disappointing but really this is about giving people who can’t afford a theatre show an incredibly special time. I like your writing and your honesty is refreshing but really this sort of critique is better suited to the daily mail.

  3. As a professional actor, having just finished a sell out run in Chichester and a transfer to the West End, I am now volunteering for YMBBT.

    Not only am I a cast member but also a ‘crew/scene leader’ and I am telling you now that no one is having a bum deal. It is made perfectly clear to all applicants that it is a voluntary performing job yet we still have thousands of people wanting to take part. It is an opportunity for people to get involved in a theatrical experience that that is frankly amazing.

    For Kate and Morgan (as stated in the previous anonymous comment) this is not about making money, its about getting the funding for the next project, or paying off the current one.

    I Advise you apply to Volunteer for at least one night, Speak to other volunteers and ask them why and how they got into doing such a show.

    cheers x

  4. YMBBT directors and creatives were paid on a production. This document demonstrates they were paid a fee – who’s the mug now?

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzEgzmG0KEmDTjVNYnZWR3JZcWs/edit?pli=1

    • ReplyToAnonymous Says:

      Honestly, anyone who is critiquing the shows use of volunteers has not volunteered for a show, but, like this author, is mingling their own one-way perspective with second hand opinions. I am volunteering for the second time and am persuading my friends to volunteer too simply because it was great fun, you met people you would never have met, you experience something completely new, you hear and see the joy you are giving to the audience members. More than half of the volunteers are not professionals. Any Actor who decides to participate simply for their own aggrandisement has 1) not attended any of the YMBBT recruitment nights in which they explain everything, 2) are completely missing the spirit of YMBBT.

      As the author points out, should we also pay everyone in costume on a Notting Hill Carnival float? Because this is essentially the vibe of YMBBT. And of course, the major organisers of the carnival get paid, bars/shops/stalls make a profit and everyone else feels paid by the experience and enjoyment. And if you think that £20 is a lot to pay for a theatre ticket, then I can only say that the author does not go to theatres in London!

      For many of the volunteers, as was in my case the first time round, I was unemployed for a month and wanted to do something with my time and skills and to get out the house! There are a lot of people like this, just been made redundant, in between jobs, having a work break, who have some sort of skills or simply the energy to join in.

      I understand the demoralising situation of artists not being paid or paid well enough for their art (my partner is an actor and I was a dancer), but I just can not apply the same intentions and atmosphere to this production. I cannot compare rehearsing for weeks to someone elses schedule to perfect a set choreography to then perform for low pay in Sadlers to volunteering a couple of nights a week of my choosing for a very relaxed “role”- you really don’t need to rehearse longer than a couple hours at the start- and you basically hang out and lend a hand when needed.

      Don’t let money commit its usual crime of commercialising creative fun and simply kindness! What next? Schools start charging for playtime?

  5. […] this year around You Me Bum Bum Train using unpaid performers. Critic Matt Trueman and producer Dan Baker were two of a large number of commentators to respond in one way or another to Marcus Romer’s […]

  6. […] I’ve made my feelings clear on this issue in the past when looking at the example of You Me Bum Bum Train; taking advantage of actors/performers by asking them to perform for free is something I don’t agree with when evidence suggests others are getting paid and making money from their work.  In situations such as that of YMBBT, I’m a strong advocate of open-book accounting – allowing everyone involved to see where the money is going, in order to ensure transparency and reassure everyone that there are no parties being treated as ‘favoured nations’ within the company.  As theatre and the performing arts can often operate on an uneven playing field – where opportunities can only afford to be taken up by those who can afford to work for no pay, be it in a performance or as an internship – we run the risk of primarily supporting those who can afford to participate, rather than those who most deserve to. […]

  7. An interesting response and one that I think hasn’t really examined an underlying contradiction here.
    The writer seems to believe that ‘open books’ accounting is somehow an acceptable form of profit share. An ethical halfway house if you like. But there’s insufficient evidence to justify this beyond the platitudes of ‘honesty and transparency’.
    If you want your profit-share producers to be honest and transparent then surely you should be able to ask them to see the accounts. It shouldn’t need this ‘forced honest’ and formality. A formal process doesn’t negate the intent.
    Open books accounting does not, I repeat does not, mean that the work is lawful. Neither does it mean that the producer is being open or honest, its all to easy for a producer filling in the spreadsheet to inflate costs and hide a few items. This will not guarantee actors payment. Those that want to avoid setting up legitimate theatre companies will continue to do so, this provides them with another excuse to not get around to paying actors and crew.
    Don’t be mislead, open book accounting means very little, it doesn’t mean you will be treated well and it doesn’t mean you will be paid, it does mean that instead of being in the dark you can now see you’re being ripped off – but only IF the producer wants you to see it.
    The National Minimum Wage Act is the law, opening up your books wont get around it, however much one tries to sweeten that pill.

    To position open books accounting as a panacea is both misguided and impractical.

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