Sunday, 15 July 2012


'We are an immersive, interactive show that is entirely volunteer-led.'

 This, my friends. is code for 'we won't be paying you a bean.' We know this. If you’re an actor, it’s highly likely that you’re fluent in the language of ‘You’re ok with not being able to pay rent, right?’ We’re highly adept at spotting the words ‘experience’, ‘credits’ and ‘mug’ and know in an instant that this means we’ll have to endure another month in a call centre or flogging theatre programmes or massaging pervy strangers in a club to keep us alive. 

Even those who’ve vaguely glanced at my blog will know that I like to complain about unpaid work. As an actor it’s a daily battle that’s getting worse as more and more companies get in on the act. Like skinny jeans, it’s a fashion trend that just won’t go away. But unpaid work isn’t just unflattering, it’s also demeaning, frustrating and utterly tiresome. But there’s one company who crop up time and time again. One ‘award-winning company’ who, for a few years now, have somehow got away with not giving their performers a penny. But now Equity have stepped in. Now You Me Bum Bum Train have more to answer for than just their ridiculous name.

If you’re even remotely interested in British theatre then you’ll probably remember the first time you stumbled over the name You Me Bum Bum Train. I first saw it, unsurprisingly, on a casting site. It’s a name that instantly tugged at my scowling muscles. It's a name that instantly sets my teeth on edge. And upon reading the description of the piece (which I’m fairly sure threw the word around ‘experience’ like cheap tinsel at Christmas) my scowl and itchy teeth set in for the longhaul.

YMBBT (if you think I’m typing out that name in full every time then get out of here, kiddo) was quite a revelation back in 2010. It was a simpler time when immersive theatre just meant the actors entered the stage via the audience. It was a time when actors were actors and audience members were allowed to sit back, maybe have a little snooze and choose just how much they wanted to take from a show. But now, we’re a lot more used to audience members being hoisted from their threadbare seats and being made to prance about like a very reluctant performing monkey. But back in 2010, YMBBT was new and it sounded a bit bloody exciting. A single audience member is treated to their own private show where they get asked to do all manner of things for a full 45 minutes. Unless the idea of audience participation makes you queasy in your bones, this sounds like a lot of fun so it's no wonder that tickets get snapped up extremely quickly.

But fun is pretty much where the positives end. Because the people behind YMBBT have set it up in such a way that it’s practically impossible to ensure performers are paid. If you’ve ever worked in fringe theatre then you’ll know the rule that if the cast outnumber the audience then you’re allowed to call the show off and dance down the street in your pants. Well, in YMBBT’s case, that means a show would never, ever take place and there would be a lot of street-pant dancing in Stratford. While most shows would draw the line once the cast gets into double figures, YMBBT hire up to 250 actors. Now that would be the best thing since people worked out you could put crisps between sliced bread if they were actually paying actors. But they’re not. Because they’re marketing this as a community piece that’s entirely run by volunteers, you earn the princely sum of nothing. And considering this is now a sell-out show that is backed by the Barbican and Theatre Royal Stratford East with support from the Arts Council, the Canary Wharf Group (click on the link and weep at the property they own) and the Stratford Renaissance Partnership, it’s concerning that there’s still not enough money to go around to at least keep the actors on a minimum wage.

The argument of YMBBT’s artistic directors is that it’s simply not feasible for them to pay actors and of course it’s not. When you set up a business plan that allows for only 16 paying audience members a day seeing the work of 250 actors and a whole load of crew members then you find there’s just not enough money to go around. So why put the show on? Why not scale it down until you get to the point when you can afford to pay people to be involved? Because they don’t have to. Because there are people that still want to be involved in this. Another one of their arguments is that despite casting their shows via actors’ casting sites, they’re not just looking for actors. They get all manner of people involved in their show you are just there for the ‘experience’ (that bloody word again.) According to this article in The Guardian, the organisers believe that paying people would ‘change the dynamic’ of the show. Apparently, if they start paying people then the whole show will be utterly ruined as their performers would be far too happy. You listening, Hollywood? Apparently it’s a lot more exciting when you don’t pay actors. Nothing creates a thrilling atmosphere quite like 250 performers worrying about where their next meal is going to come from. 

Because I could waffle on about this forever more until I write myself into an unpaid frenzy, I’m going to leave the final word with the excellently eloquent Samuel West:

“I can't support a working model where actors aren't paid at all. Otherwise the only people who can afford to be in those shows are those who have other jobs or savings or private incomes – and that alters the demographic of actors you can use, and eventually the demographic of the profession."


  1. I work with a (pretty well known) TV and film charity who are desperate to make the industry more diverse - they're focussing on encouraging young people from poorer backgrounds to get involved in the arts. What they don't seem to realise is that since about 1/10 jobs is actually paid, you're setting them up for a fall, reminding everyone that the only people who can get a break are those who can afford to do it for free.

    When I asked about this, they looked blank, mumbled something about "living with parents" and "if you want something, you have to work hard" and then carried on their original tack.


  2. I was contacted by these jokers via a wee-known casting website. My emailed reply was 3-fold 1. I'll mention you to my agent 2. I'll let Equity about your 'offer' 3. See you next Thursday you firkin drunkards

  3. On the surface it may appear Miss L has a point, but I write as someone who participates as a volunteer for YMBBT and who is also a freelancer/self-employed type. It's very clear to me that she hasn't actually taken part in the event.

    For a start, the audience/performer ratio is 250 to 80, not 16 as she says here, even though that is still completely bonkers.

    She keeps referring derisively to the "experience", yet has not in fact attempted this very experience herself.

    And all this neatly avoids the fact that something in the region of at least 2000 people volunteered in the last run (Kate has been quoted as saying as high as 4000). Does that not say something about what is making this project special?

    I'm not a professional actor, nor am I even an aspiring one, but I love events and I love innovative theatre. I would say at least half of those I have met while on set fit this particular category.

    The organisers are totally upfront about the volunteering bit, and people can literally leave WHENEVER they wish. Volunteering is precisely that: you come and go as you please, at your own will.

    The only thing that bothers me in fact, is that the organisers themselves do not get paid. For it's surely justified that those who are committed to the project for months day in and day out, and who need bread on the table too, can at least keep this amazing ship sailing.

    Needless to say I watch this space with interest.

    And in the meantime, I shall be there volunteering my heart out over the coming weeks while juggling all my other commitments, and absolutely loving it!

    I would suggest Miss L try the same.


  4. Hello Jon

    Thank you very much for your comment, it's great to hear from someone that has actually taken part and enjoyed being a part of it.

    I haven't myself been part of it as I have no intentions, as a professional actor, to give my work up for free like that. Acting is my living and I simply can't afford to give up my time like that. If you can afford to do that, then great but many actors can't.

    The problem as a professional actor, is that so many unpaid jobs will keep using the term 'experience' as if that somehow makes up for not paying. Now, as someone who doesn't act and is happy to give up their time as a volunteer then that's great but when you want to make a living from your profession, it simply isn't practical. When there are more and more 'acting' jobs out there that ask people to work for free, all it does is price out those who are unable to afford to take on such work. Meaming that you find yourself in ridiculous position where you have to be able to afford to act.

    I apologise for getting some of the figures wrong and I'm sorry if my views on the matter have offended you.

    I'm glad that there are people out there who enjoy this work and I hope that the next set of shows is just as fun for you all. But, as this is a blog written by an actor, please understand the viewpoint I'm taking and how projects like this can be damaging to our profession.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read my post and for commenting.

    Miss L x

  5. Hi Miss L, interesting to read your post - you do realise that there is no rehearsal time involved for performers in YMBBT? You can turn up one evening, be 'in' one of the scenes an hour later, and then three hours after that your involvement with the project can be entirely over. (Unless you want to come back and do the show another day.) It's not exactly the same as working unpaid for 2 months of rehearsals and performance. No one has to work in a call centre or flog ice creams in order to support their performing in YMBBT.

    So that experience issue - you might suck up working for free to play a lead at Southwark Playhouse, for example, in the hope that casting directors etc will see you - which is one of the problems with the indsutry - , but that isn't equivalent to what performers do in YMBBT. As Jon Slack says, a lot of the performers in the show are not actors, but just people participating for the fun of it. People's ire against this project is very misplaced, especially when most of them haven't seen it and obviously don't realise the scale of it or what the roles of the performers within it are.

    I haven't performed in the show, by the way, but I have been an audience member in it, and I hugely appreciated the enthusiasm of the performers. They give their time because they are interested in the project - there are lots of places actors are being exploited, but I honestly don't think this project is one of the culprits.

  6. No problem!

    It's definitely a conundrum, I do agree in general there is a bit of a worrying trend towards more and more unpaid work (with more professional expectations) for actors, and this is massively amplified in such a creative place like London and a bit more broadly in the UK, where so much amazing work is being staged but almost beyond the capacity that actually exists...

    I can only afford it myself because I work solidly for 9/10 hours in the daytime, and then switch over and put my BBT hat on. It's a bit draining but so far, so good!

    Will be interesting to see how things progress (on the whole) from here.


  7. Hi Jo

    Thanks for your comments. I do appreciate people taking the time to read my post and comment on it.

    It's very difficult to not repeat what I said to Jon about my issues with this show. However, it's very upsetting to see such a show, which is gaining a lot of media exposure and sells out so quickly, choosing to use volumteers rather than actors as this then sets a precedent for other theatre companies. Unpaid work is a massive problem within the acting industry as it is so seeing a company do it on such a large scale is worrying for actors.

    Also, the accounts for the show have now been leaked and the level of funding and the fact that 20 crew members (including the two Artistic Directors who have said to the press that they're not receiving any money) have taken a fee from themselves.

    I'm glad to hear that it's such a great show to watch and I'm glad you've enjoyed it. However, this is a company that I'm unable to support.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Miss L

  8. Sounds to me like Jon SLack is a plant.

    The leaked accounts can be found here

    Nice work Miss L

  9. I've followed the YMBBT/EQUITY arguments/discussions and, while I can see both sides of the argument and know people who have been involved and loved the experience, as an actress and theatre producer who's scrabbling for funding and going broke in order to pay a single actor who is getting a fair amount of exposure from doing my shows anyway I also find it very hard to ultimately support this set up. Much more so now that the leaked accounts show that there has apparently been dishonesty on the side of YMBBT. Perhaps, since it is a unique project and obviously entertaining people, we should be careful about quite how clearly we express our antipathy towards it due to the fact that we can't truly argue with all the volunteers and audience members who are adoring it. This is a pain in the ass but as a one-off we may just have to suck it up. That doesn't mean the company itself shouldn't have to be honest and be careful with future projects, and that we shouldn't be continuing to work on cutting down on unpaid professional acting work as much as possible.

    I wrote a blog today about a 'job' I was recently asked to take part in where I was simply amazed by the actors I met who were happy to not only work for free but pretty much pay for the privilege Your thoughts are welcomed:

    TheatreWatch: Unpaid Work: How did such an oxymoron become the norm?

  10. I'm an aspiring Actor (about to begin a short course at a Drama school and auditioning to possibly do a Degree Drama school course this year) and also someone who has been in YMBBT.

    I am very worried about all these no-pay or low-pay acting jobs but the sad fact is that it also isn't just the Acting industry that is suffering from this. I am leaving a career in IT to go into the acting profession. I was lucky enough to start in the IT industry just before all this malarky (for want of another word) became the norm. Even then, despite having a Computing degree, I was offered an unpaid, expenses only "experience" internship, contracted for 6 months. I turned this down as I was also offered a proper, paid, permanent job. It's appalling that trained professionals are being asked to work for nothing.

    I'm sure the acting industry is much worse because jobs are in demand. I should stress here that I am not excusing this, just looking at causes.

    Having said that, I did really enjoy participating in YMBBT and it *was* a great experience and very enjoyable. Also there is that question of if they can only make this happen by paying everyone and can't afford to pay everyone, will that mean that YMBBT will not be able to go ahead next year?

    Personally, I think what they *are* doing wrong is that they are approaching professional actors through industry sites (and through agents?) for this. I also think that the funding aspect is a little cheeky if they aren't paying. Not paying untrained amateurs (albeit one aspiring to be professional) like myself for something that is getting no industry sponsorship is one thing. Approaching trained professionals and asking them to work for free on an industry sponsored project is indeed another thing entirely.