Placing performers’ mental health at the heart of its operation, London’s Vault Festival has thrived since its first shows in 2012. With Bec Martin-Williams at the helm – the festival’s new head of theatre and performance – the 2020 programme is set to be bigger than ever before. Fergus Morgan speaks to Martin-Williams about Vault’s growing appeal
Vault Festival is getting bigger. It started in 2012 with a handful of shows over a few weekends in the arches underneath Waterloo Station. Last year’s edition featured 428 productions over eight weeks and overflowed the festival’s Leake Street home to colonise the surrounding area. It attracted almost 80,000 visitors.
According to the festival’s new head of theatre and performance Bec Martin-Williams, that year-on-year growth – the 2020 edition is set to be even bigger – poses a challenge. How can Vault, which prides itself on the assistance and attention it offers visiting theatremakers, sustain that level of support across an increasingly busy, increasingly expensive-to-run festival?
It’s a dilemma that cuts to the core of Vault’s identity. It has to make over £1 million every year just to break even, but it also needs to stay true to the values that make it special – values that are written in bold on the festival’s website: “Opportunity, equality, honesty, respect and kindness”. Those principles, says Martin-Williams, remain the festival’s top priority.
“I’ve never been part of a team that is so transparent and supportive,” she says. “It can be really easy for an organisation like this, which has grown exponentially over the last eight years, to be seen as an opaque monolith, full of people you never really get to meet, but what the team is incredibly good at is being available and communicative and providing support.”
The Vault team offers technical, marketing, comms and pastoral support, explains Martin-Williams. “We run clinics, almost on a weekly basis: on how to market your show, how to protect your mental health, on tech, programming and producing. We also foster and encourage relationships between the companies themselves to really create a community. Hopefully that means Vault is still a lot less lonely as an experience than other places.”
We run clinics, almost on a weekly basis: on how to market your show, how to protect your mental health, on tech, programming and producing
Comparisons to the Edinburgh Fringe are inevitable and frequently favourable. There’s more support and structure at Vault than there is at Edinburgh. The festival is more accessible to London-based producers and programmers. It’s less financially risky, too – there are no upfront fees for visiting companies, and a range of options revolving around straightforward box-office splits and short, sharp, one-week runs.
Martin-Williams says the festival is also serious about becoming more environmentally friendly. This year, it has partnered with green charities Restless Development and Staging Change to run workshops and question-and-answer sessions on sustainable theatremaking. Extinction Rebellion has been invited to take over the festival’s late-night entertainment for a week in February.
“There was a big push to digitise as much of the marketing as possible this year to eliminate paper waste,” she adds. “We are working with our food and drink providers to eliminate waste and reduce our carbon footprint during the festival, too. There’s also a lot of information for the shows themselves on how they can be more eco-friendly.”
Martin-Williams is originally from Australia, where she founded award-winning theatre company Pantsguys Productions after graduating from drama school. She moved to the UK in 2014 to complete a master’s degree and stayed, excited by the opportunities to work in community and participatory arts in this country – opportunities she says “simply don’t exist” in Australia. She spent three years as the Arcola Theatre’s participation manager, a post she is now leaving to become education and participation manager at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre.
She took up her role with Vault in the summer of 2019, alongside her other commitments, intent on shifting the spotlight of the festival’s theatrical programme away from established theatremakers and transfers of successful Edinburgh Fringe shows, and onto work produced by underrepresented communities.
“There were 1,500 applications for around 380 theatre slots,” she says. “We looked at a number of ways of assessing them. We looked at the concept of the show and the team that was bringing it. Representation was a big category for me, and that can be representation on a number of different levels. It means artists of colour, disabled artists and working-class artists, but it also means ensuring diversity of form and diversity in the way shows are made.”
Martin-Williams says she is “really proud” of the resultant programme – there are 500 shows across the entire festival, from 2,700 different artists. Of those, 64% of the work is female-led, with a third of it coming from LGBTQ+ artists, and 25% from BAME artists. It’s a line-up that, despite its size, manages to uphold Vault’s central principles of opportunity and equality.
“It’s been incredibly liberating because I’ve been given a lot of artistic freedom, and a lot of freedom to take chances” says Martin-Williams. “Programming can often be weighed down by commercial responsibility and the need to find shows that will ‘sell’, but I was alleviated of that. I could just programme what I thought were the most exciting shows and innovative artists, whoever they were.
“I have really shifted things this year. I wanted Vault to be used not just as a platform for polished work, but as a platform for people who want to take risks and experiment, and as a platform for people that needed one,” she says. “Hopefully we’ve done that.”
Vault Festival 2020 runs until March 22. Further details: vaultfestival.com