Below is a guest post from my student Rachel Manson. In the winter term of her third year, Rachel spent the semester at Queen’s UK campus, the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle. While in London, she reconnected with a recent Queen’s Drama grad, Ellen Brooker, who has been studying in London. Through Ellen, Rachel had the opportunity to work as an extra on the immersive performance piece You Me Bum Bum Train created by Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd. When I heard that Rachel was off to do this, I asked her to write about her experiences for my blog. Here she is:
“My Ride on the Bum Bum Train” by Rachel Manson
“Last week we crowd surfed Lindsey Lohan; I didn’t know who it was until I caught her…She reeked of whiskey,” said the eighteen-year-old British fake raver standing next to me, as we ate the free gummy worms being thrown around the fake club and fixed our face paint. This was You Me Bum Bum Train.
A fellow Canadian who I had done theatre with back in university, told me about You Me Bum Bum Train while we were both studying in England. The show is an immersive theatre experience hidden behind an inconspicuous door in the West End theatre district. It’s a warehouse full of specially designed rooms, where audience members, or “passengers”, go from room to room alone, each room emulating a completely different sensory and emotional experience. The passenger could begin in a room that smelled like stale McDonalds and looked like a frat boy’s living room, only to be shooed away into the next room, a high fashion institution where they are treated like Meryl Streep. Each room is manipulated so that every smell, sight and sound occurs in a specific order to cater to the passenger’s personal experience.
The show sounded to me like a free range Disney ride, so I insisted that my friend and I go see it, thinking how cool it was that this was so underground. My friend laughed, and said that getting tickets is nearly impossible, as the lottery system only opens online for moments at random, and the last person that got tickets was Prince Harry. If I wanted to be a passenger, I would have to have a crap load of luck, a lot more time or be in the Royal Family. Or in Parent Trap. As it turns out, the entire company is volunteer run. Every room needs a certain amount of people to make the experience look real for the passenger, from a jail cell guard to a room full of protesters at a political rally, and every single one of those people are not actors, but volunteers. While my friend had been volunteering for a while, and could therefore be in more intimate scenes, the company always needed extras to be in the larger scenes. She wanted to know if I was willing to spend my Saturday night in the club rave room. If I had said no, this would be an incredibly boring and short article.
The night that followed I can only describe as reminiscent of that scene in Inside Out where Joy and Sadness are on the set of Dream Productions. I was an acting extra in someone else’s dream. The building looked like a photo shoot was about to take place, with people running clothing racks from one steel corridor to another. We were ushered over to the rave room where they gave us our instructions; we were to quietly mingle and hang out in the “club”, until the signal light went on, whereupon the passenger would open a small door in the wall. The DJ would blare club music and we would crowd surf the passenger to the middle of the dance floor for some non-threatening parents-at-a-rave dancing. Then the bouncer would grab the passenger and kick them out into the next room. When the door to the next room shut, the music would be cut and we would have to be dead silent for 10 seconds until the passenger cleared the area by the door (supposedly the next room was a Buddhist monk temple). It was a realistic club setting, strobe lights and all, with no music and casual mingling. I half expected Jim Carrey to come through as Truman from The Truman Show forcing us to snap back into character.
Talking to the other volunteers, I realized I was one of the only people in the room with a theatre background. In fact, I felt uncomfortable calling You Me Bum Bum Train theatre at all. When a space is transformed into an alternate reality, not a play-like performance divide, but a lived experience in an artificial world, does the word “theatre” really cut it? This is a consistent question that is brought up as immersive theatre continues to stretch and mould. In cities like London, New York and Toronto immersive theatre experiences are moving into the mainstream as TV shows like Gossip Girl film episodes at New York’s Sleep No More and Benedict Cumberbatch stands in the waiting room of the Bum Bum train. While seasoned theatre students would be able to classify anything from a person walking across a room while being watched as theatre, the average audience member may have difficulty giving You Me Bum Bum Train the same name, making it difficult to approach the experience with appropriate expectations. As these worlds are being opened up to a more general audience, our vocabulary surrounding immersive theatre may need to expand to encompass this new medium of performance.
The most incredible moment of the evening was the dinner break. All volunteers received free dinner during our 30-minute dinner break in between the two waves of passengers. Every volunteer got a dinner break at this time in the same place. The bouncer was laughing about a rowdy passenger with a Buddhist monk. Doctors were conversing with football players in full gear. A construction worker was playing with the two real dogs from a veterinarian scene. This was not built for the experience of just one lucky passenger. The volunteers got to be just as much a part of that world as the passenger. People from every age and demographic took a night out of their normal lives to play pretend. You Me Bum Bum Train is a theatrical experience that not only blurs the lines between performance and audience, it erases the lines completely and draws cartoons in its place.