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How the Vault Festival is thriving beneath London’s streets

Vault Festival sold 40,000 more tickets in 2017 than its debut year in 2012
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The walls of London’s Leake Street are covered in graffiti. A face stares down from the intricately decorated brick ceiling and there’s not an inch of wall free of spray paint. The passageway also contains the enticingly illuminated, come-hither entrance to the series of tunnels and chambers beneath Waterloo Station that, for the next six weeks, will play host to the Vault Festival, an increasingly significant fixture in the theatre year.

The festival began in 2012. The subterranean space is now home to a vast and eclectic programme of new writing, circus, comedy, cinema and music. This year’s line-up ranges from a large-scale, immersive take on F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby presented by the Guild of Misrule and the Immersive Ensemble to an early opportunity to see new work by James Rowland – whose last show was the exquisite, heart-squishing Team Viking – to new plays from emerging writers such as Tim Foley and Camilla Whitehill. There will also be film screenings and series of late-night parties.

“One of the reasons we started the festival in these months is that London theatre sort of goes to sleep at this time of year. We wanted to create something to be cheerful about in the dark days,” says Mat Burt, one of the event’s three co-directors, along with Tim Wilson and Andy George, as we sit on battered leather sofas in what will be the venue’s main bar area. The space is already taking shape – there’s a strikingly decorated stage at one end of the room and a carriage that appears to have escaped from a Tim Burton short story. There are star-shaped lights dotted around the floor, and the ceiling is veined with exposed ducts and pipes.

With more than 200 companies and artists presenting work over the course of the festival, it’s the biggest Vault Festival to date. “We wanted to make it as big as possible and to have as many people presenting work here as possible, because that’s the idea behind it. This year, we had more than 500 people apply, which is far more than we have room for in the programme.”

To address this demand, this year the festival will expand into new spaces – some above ground. One of these is the Network Theatre, in the adjoining tunnels, and the Morley College, an adult education college nearby in Lambeth North. “We’ve spidered out a bit,” explains Burt. “It’s a significant physical change. The preponderance of the programme will still be here in this building, but this gives us leeway to try different things.”

Vault Festival directors Tim Wilson, Mat Burt and Andy George

These new spaces, chips in George, will “allow us to have more slots for scratches and things that are still works in progress”. Previously the festival model focused on week-long runs and that’s still the case, but this year there will be more opportunity for shorter runs. “It’s about creating the least pressurised environment to make work in,” says George. “If you’re not quite ready to do five or 10 days, then one or two nights here can still give you some really useful feedback while not having to worry about spiralling costs.”

Minimising upfront costs is at the core of the Vault Festival model. While there are some insurance and legal costs that need to be addressed, as Burt explains, “you don’t have to pay us anything up front”. Artists also take a 70% split of the box office. “We don’t want finance on our side to be a barrier,” Burt says. “You don’t have to pay anything to be here.”

Currently, Vault Festival is unfunded. “We’re not at the level we’d like to be,” says Burt. “It would be wonderful if we could give every company that approached us £3,000 and a room to perform in. We can’t do that, but we can try to level the playing field, so you don’t need to be sitting on stacks of money to approach us. Of course it’s still risky. But it puts the control into people’s hands to choose whether to take that risk.”

“We tend to find there’s a very malleable attitude to what the festival is supposed to be,” says Burt. “For some it’s about early feedback and a relaxed atmosphere” – he cites Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna as examples – “and for others it’s a destination. It’s where they want to present their work. Our job is to make it work for both of those parties.”

While Vault was not set up to be a competitor to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s hard not to draw comparisons. The perception of what the festival is, from both an audience and artist perspective, is shifting. Increasingly, people come to see what might be on, rather than to see a particular show. This accounted for between 10-15% of their audience last year, says George. Ticket prices are low, with £9 and £12 common price points, which means you can see a couple of shows and have a couple of pints and still not spend more than £30, he adds.

Audience members at the Vault Festival

This is down in part to the environment they’ve created in what is essentially a rather damp and grungy warren of tunnels. “It’s a nice place to hang out,” says Burt. The design of the venue, different every year, contributes to that. This year space has proved a source of inspiration. “Our narrative is about where we head next, after Trump and Brexit,” says George – they have also programmed a strand of sci-fi and space shows under the banner Proxima V.

To enhance the sense of the space as a destination, somewhere artists and audience can interact, there has been an increasing focus on food and drink. Last year they experimented with a sit-down, pop-up restaurant; this year they’ll be offering snacks and small plates inspired by the chef’s travels around the Balkans – souvlaki, goulash, labneh and various things wrapped in flatbreads – along with what is apparently the cheapest pint of Meantime available in London.

Lydia Larson and Jassa Ahluwalia in Skin a Cat at Vault, London
Lydia Larson and Jassa Ahluwalia in Skin a Cat at Vault, London. Photo: Richard Lakos

Isley Lynn’s play Skin a Cat was one the standout pieces of new writing at the 2016 festival, and was subsequently picked as the opening production for new venue the Bunker. “It’s one of the few platforms left where artists who are low on resources but have buckets of drive can get good work noticed,” explains Lynn. “Skin a Cat had been turned down by everyone I’d sent it to. We couldn’t afford to hire a space, we couldn’t afford Edinburgh either, and if we’d taken it there it might have been lost in all the noise, anyway. But Vault is a home for genuine risk-taking, which attracts people with grit and entrepreneurial spirit, and they give a generous box-office split. And it was on our doorstep. Every city should have a Vault Festival.”

Producer Tom Crowley’s company Crowley and Co was responsible for programming a series of shows at last year’s festival, taking over one of the sprawling venue’s many rooms. This year he’s producing Greywing House by Mary Beth Morossa. He extols the festival’s “general principle of fairness”.

“The Edinburgh Fringe used to be the place you went to try things out, but as it became oversaturated, this changed. There’s a pressure to turn up with as honed and polished work as possible.

“With the Vault Festival, you have the freedom to mess about,” he says. “Oddness is celebrated. I did my first play, Ghost City, here and they made it amazingly easy. There were marketing workshops and they made you feel as if there were no stupid questions. You always feel you have their fullest support and attention.”

Profile: Vault Festival

Address: Vault Festival, Leake Street, London
Contact: 07598 676202
Website: vaultfestival.com
Festival directors: Mat Burt, Andy George and Tim Wilson
Number of employees: 85 in 2016; 110 in 2017
Number of companies/artists presenting work: 175 in 2016; 225 in 2017
Audience numbers: 40,000 in 2016
Income: The festival receives no funding; 2016 box office was £324,000, of which £200,000 was paid to artists

The Vault Festival runs from January 25-March 5 at Waterloo, London

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