This summer I’ve played under about two hundred different orchestra conductors. Some were pretty good, others didn’t even know how to hold the baton, and all of them went straight to a funeral after they finished.
The conductors were unsuspecting audience members of You Me Bum Bum Train – a theatre preformance where the scenes take place in different rooms of a converted office building, and the audience “passengers” move from one scene to the next, never knowing what to expect, or what would be expected of them.
After helping in a kitchen in the first scene, passengers were asked to serve tables, and grab wine from a stock room. The “stock room” was a small cabinet around a moving platform that pushed the passenger upward. Suddenly, they were standing behind a conductor’s stand, facing a full orchestra waiting for the downbeat.
In the orchestra we had no idea whether the person coming up through the floor could read music, was familiar with the popular classic work on their stand, or even had any sense of rhythm whatsoever. We started playing when they started conducting, and if they did a reasonable job of beating a rhythm we followed them. If they didn’t conduct appreciable beats, we followed the concert master.
After two minutes, the conductor disappeared again through the trap door. They went on to a funeral scene, where they had to give a eulogy, while we had a few seconds to eat candy, drink water, or switch to the next piece before our newest conductor would be pushed up through the floor.
We played familiar fragments from famous works, like the Can Can, William Tell Overture, Eroica, and others, so most people were able to conduct a basic beat. Some even pointed at the correct sections are the right time. Others flailed and held the baton at the wrong end. It was always a surprise what would happen.
The performance was in London, so I could only volunteer in the orchestra on weekends. I was in three shows, each with 60-70 passengers. I missed the nights that Stephen Fry, Danny Boyle, Dominic West, Sir Ian McKellen, and other well-known people came through, but I heard they liked it.
The entire time that she show ran, from July to early October, everyone was sworn to secrecy. Thousands of volunteers and passengers all signed a confidentiality agreement. I played twice in July and once in August, so I’ve been sitting on this for a long time before I could finally write about it…
This year, You Me Bum Bum Train was part of London 2012 – the arts festival surrounding the Olympics – but they’ve been doing performances for several years, always with different scenes. There probably won’t be an orchestra scene next time, but if there’s another scene I can volunteer in I’ll probably do it again, because it was one of the most fun things I did all summer!