“I’d happily push the festival off the cliff if we felt we couldn’t treat people properly.” Chatting to Mat Burt, one of Vault Festival’s three co-directors, I was struck by both his energy and emotionalism (admittedly we spoke the morning after the fest’s boozy opening party). Over the past ten years, Vault Fest has shifted the theatre calendar’s centre of gravity, a little. It used to be that Summer was the time of festivals and fringes, and of young companies airing new work to keen (and sweaty) audiences. But Vault Festival has started to fill a niche that no one really thought existed: a place for young companies to start the year by airing work at low prices, to lively cocktail-swilling crowds, in vast underground tunnels in Waterloo.
Is it a good thing? Matt Trueman’s recent WhatsOnStage piece asks: Vault Festival may be fun, but what is its real value for emerging theatre companies? He points out that short runs mean individual shows can’t accumulate word of mouth followings, or, often, reviews from mainstream publications. He also notes that it doesn’t do much to solve the age old problem of when an emerging artist can finally stop emerging, and get the solid runs at big venues they need to make a living. These points are entirely fair. But the vigour with which people have defended Vault Festival (I can’t imagine people standing up for the Edinburgh Fringe with the same enthusiasm) also suggests that there’s something a bit special about it.
What feels different, to this journalist, is that Vault Fest is more than an umbrella for a host of ramshackle venues with wildly different ethoses and policies. It’s still small enough that you can read the whole programme in a sitting – and more than that, you get a sense that it’s a festival that’s designed with oversight and care for the people who participate in it. Mat Burt tells me that “we want to make sure that Vault actually is a good opportunity for people. It’s very easy to throw around the word ‘opportunity’, but we want to make sure that means something.”
I ask him to compare the opportunity that emerging theatre companies get at Vault Festival as compared to the Edinburgh Fringe, and at first he’s understandably cagey. “I wouldn’t ever put us in competition, but it’s an interesting discussion that comes up quite a lot.” As he warms to the theme, he explains that “What the Edinburgh Festival does is to make you take a huge risk. There’s a rite-of-passage mentality. People think they have to go. Then they fork out thousands of pounds in advance for a venue, and when they’re up there they’re working off that debt, often on a 60:40 split, and expecting to make a loss.”
Huge numbers of graduates hoping to work in theatre arrive each year, and the limited amount of jobs/funding available rely on proven experience and talent. Their inevitable need for a platform for their work often puts them in a vulnerable position. Mat Burt says that “I think Edinburgh is a bit of a trick, actually, it’s a false promise. People have this idea that if you go there and you do a great job, some magical producer with white gloves is going to come and take you away and say ‘Alright kids, I’m going to make you a star’, but it’s the exception rather than the rule, and it’s dangerous, it puts people in difficult situations financially.” He explains that a lot of his role involves talking about financial literacy with young companies, with “understanding that the Arts Council aren’t always going to give you that £20,000 grant”.
He adds that “Theatre of any kind is risky, we understand that, but what we do is try to remove some of the barriers to entry. There’s no upfront cost to companies, and we offer a 70:30 box office split which is one of the best. The idea is that if you can sell at least 10 percent of your tickets, you’ll come out not owing us any money. It means that at no point have they gone to their friends and family and said ‘we need cash so we can give it to some dickheads to make work underground’.”
I guess the obvious addendum to this is: that’s before emerging companies think about production costs, or paying themselves, at which point the economics might look a little different. But considered within the typical capitalism-gone-wild ethos of fringe festivals, this focus on what artists need (and can afford) still feels refreshing.
To Mat Burt, “It’s annoying that that’s unusual. The whole industry exists because people have the courage to get up on stage to do something exciting. In Edinburgh there’s a stranglehold of people who own the buildings calling the shots. They’ve already made their money before the festival begins, and I think that’s so wrong. If people don’t sell tickets, we’re completely fucked. We’ve created a system that means we all have to sit on the same side of the table – we need the artists to succeed.”
In 2017, Vault Festival sold 59% of its tickets. Yes, in a short run, a lot of those sales might be to mates, but it’s still a number that’s leagues ahead of the handful of audience members you’ll find at other festivals. Vault’s complete reliance on ticket income means that it needs to create a buzz, and it’s done so incredibly well. Its genius has been to package shows by emerging artists as the start of a night out for mainstream, young audiences. It’s got an unstuffy atmosphere, partly because it’s in a vast drafty tunnel, and partly because of savvy decisions, like offering cheap cocktails and craft beer and vegan food – consolidating on the fact that in common with The Yard, Vault Theatre is one of the only venues that feel like somewhere young people might go just to hang out.
Another lure is the degree of oversight and curation to Vault Fest’s programming. Its directors sift for work that’s got an originality to it, something that’s no guarantee of quality, but also means that a dip into the programme doesn’t mean sifting through the endless Shakespeare-on-a-shoestring or Dark Fairytales or one man Edgar Allan Poe shows that haunt the pages of other fringe festivals.
I asked Mat Burt about the WhatsOnStage blog, and he said that “we didn’t start the festival with a plan, and it’s important that people like Matt [Trueman] are thinking about what it means that we’re doing what we are. It’s a bit unfair that people took it as an attack on us.”
As a theatre critic, I feel some of Matt’s frustrations with Vault. Festivals like Edinburgh feel incredibly exciting, a place where shows can soar on the back of a few good reviews and a snowball of hype. Short runs mean that it’s harder to get that word-of-mouth quality of excitement at Vault. But is it something that all emerging artists actually need?
Mat Burt explains that “a really important part of Vault is the transient nature of it. If it’s not perfect, that’s why we’re here, it’s all part of the development process. Sometimes it’s a top flight, five star show, more often it’s something that needs further work, which can only happen once it’s seen in front of an audience. Everything is constantly evolving and changing, in rooms around you in every given night.”
It’s a reminder, again, that 99% of fringe shows won’t be that hyped, shining, carted-to-London-in-kid-gloves gem, and that their needs might be different. Perhaps Vault Festival’s role is to air work at an earlier stage of development, in a supportive, lower risk setting. And if mainstream critics aren’t covering the festival in detail, bloggers and volunteer-run online publications are championing its artists – and established venues are taking notice, too. “The National are in seeing 25 things, Paines Plough are in every day, Soho Theatre are in every day. If people in the industry are seeing things, maybe they can help people in a way we can’t.”
There are plenty of other initiatives which make Vault Fest unusual, and exciting. There’s a partnership with Nick Hern books, where the publishers pick five plays each year to publish in a collection, ready to reach an audience that goes far beyond The Vaults’ damp walls. This year, producer Rosalyn Newbery and playwright Camilla Whitehill are also partnering with Nick Hern books to run the refreshingly accessible New Writers Award programme, which offers participants a free, structured introduction to writing for the stage – “absolute beginners are encouraged”.
More tentatively, there’s a new focus on inclusivity, especially on gender. Mat Burt tells me that “one thing that’s caused concern is that we three directors of the festival [Mat Burt, Tim Wilson and Andy George] are all white, male and middle class. I don’t like the picture of us together, yet more white men who are important in theatre. So we’re thinking about how we can change the festival so it’s not just people like us calling the shots.”
It’ll be tough, as Mat Burt admits: “I built this thing with my own two hands, and none of us want to leave it, but we have to be careful now because it’s bigger than us”. This year, Vault Festival are focusing on feminism, and on sitting at the heart of discussions around gender. They’re launching a Writers Gap scheme, which will introduce female playwrights to established venues, including those mentioned in Victoria Sadler’s widely-read blog on gender disparity in programming. They’re also fundraising and producing special events with the Bossy Collective, and HeForShe, as well as touting the statistic that 53% of this year’s shows are led by women.
Women certainly feel very visible on the festival’s line-up, even if I don’t know exactly how that 53% figure breaks down (it would be more helpful to know what percentage of female directors/writers/producers are involved respectively). It would also be interesting to know the percentages of people of colour, working class people, and/or disabled people involved. Diversity isn’t something that can be ‘fixed’ with a year of energy and initiatives and schemes: it goes deep, and actual, lasting change will always rely on the demographics of the people in charge. But the fact that diversity is on the agenda at this stage is undoubtably a positive result of the festival’s youth and dynamism – it’s centralised, and still just about small enough to act as a cauldron of energy and ideas.
Yes, it’s a cauldron with the odd leak. Arguably, it reinforces the theatre world’s London-centrity – a run at Vault Festival isn’t such a great deal if you live outside the city. Like other festivals, it still follows a modified version of the neoliberal model of the artist-entrepreneur, and it still focuses on giving younger artists space to emerge, rather than giving them the much-needed funding and support they need to develop. But it still subtly shifts the balance of power towards young companies, and that fills me with cautious optimism. Let’s hope that in future years, Vault keeps its spirit and builds on it. That it becomes less, not more, like its Summer rivals on the festival circuit.
Vault Festival is on until 18th March. Find out more at http://vaultfestival.com/