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VAULT Festival 2016

VAULT Festival 2016 is home to more than 100 different and delightful shows, running from 27th January until 6th March. Emma Blackman met up with Mat Burt to learn more about the magic and organised chaos happening in those underground tunnels.
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In February of last year I was having an ‘in between’ period: in between jobs, in between relationships and in between flats. But instead of spending all my time on London’s trains, hauling my life around in two suitcases and an accordion as I made my way to another lovely friend who had kindly offered me their spare room in zone 4 or beyond, I spent much of my February, and a tiny bit of March, at the Vault Festival. My spirits were lifted (along with the pint glasses) by a month of brilliant comedy, theatre, music and tummy-aching laughter with the other Vault punters, and even hemming a stage curtain or two.

And lo and behold, it’s February again, which means that right under the noses of rush-hour Waterloo commuters, there is more magic, music and heart-warming theatre to be seen (and more pints to be consumed, of course). My copy of this year’s festival programme is full of circles, huge exclamation marks and the words ‘MUST SEE', and it seems that, although this year I now have all my missing ‘in-betweens’, I will, once again, spend most of my February at the Vault.

To understand more about how this festival began and what keeps it strong in the ever-expanding fringe and London pop-up culture, I met up with Mat Burt on a cold, crisp day in January. Mat, who founded the festival (together with Tim Wilson and Andy George), was very happy to see some daylight, given the Vault offices are situated underground at London Bridge. We therefore decided to have our chat and coffees on a bench in St James’ Park, at least until one of us started showing early signs of hypothermia.

"When we found the Vault space, it was a derelict planning and record storage space for Network Rail," Mat tells me, "and apart from one corporate Punchdrunk performance, it was generally a disused place.” Network Rail granted them permission to use the space and, together with their PR manager at the time, Chloe Nelkin, they began working on a small festival full of exciting new things, which included inviting their friends to make theatre and film screenings in collaboration with HAMMER Horror.

"The biggest surprise was on the first day of the Vault Festival, back in 2012, when punters actually turned up! I spent the Christmas beforehand trying to build a make-shift Box Office with my limited web development skills, and everything felt a bit as though it was held together with duct tape. We knew that we had some great shows and films to offer, but we didn’t know if people would give a s**t. But on the first day, when we opened the festival doors, we saw the queue of people outside coming to see what we’d done. I don’t think I’ve ever had that kind of feeling in my life. It was unbelievable that the night before we'd panicked and begun wondering what would happen when no one came and who was not going to be paid first, and by the end of that first festival night we were having conversations regarding hiring more security and front of house people, since more people had come than we ever conceived possible."

And since that first night, the Vault has been going from strength to strength. However, by keeping true to their initial vision and not becoming a big corporate event, for Mat, Tim and George the festival is a total risk with no guaranteed income. Nevertheless, the visiting companies are offered a very fair deal which is free of space hire fees and a 70/30 percent cut of the box office, for the benefit of shows’ creatives.

"We have always aimed to help young companies find their audiences in an over-saturated market. And in this ‘no risk, no gain’ kind of festival, if their product doesn’t work, neither do we," Mat explains. "When people choose to do a show at the festival, they’re joining us in taking a huge leap of faith, and we have a responsibility towards them. And what we can’t offer in money towards marketing or extensions of successful shows, we give in help and advice and 24/7 availability. Everyone involved in the festival has my direct telephone number and email address – it’s the least I can do."

So how do you choose which shows will be in the festival?

"Back in 2012, most people who wanted to perform at the festival got a big yes. This year, 500 applicants were competing for 70 spots." It is easy to see the frustration in Mat’s eyes that he can’t carry on offering everyone a positive answer and supporting their work. "We’ve never narrowed down our choices to a specific genre or theme. The broader the selection, the higher the chances that everyone will find something that tickles their fancy."

And with eight main performance venues, hosting approximately 150 shows, a larger-than-life Mardi-Gras party, Mini-Vault shows aimed at children aged 0 upwards, two bars, one restaurant and numerous professional talks, the appeal is wider than ever before. This is also part of the Vault’s 'cunning plan' – mixing up audiences that come to see a specific show and those that casually rock up for a drink and a boogie. If you come to see a play, be surprised by the free music gig that has just started behind you; and if you come for only a tipple, check out the cheeky 2-for-1 offer for a comedy show.

And what makes the risk worth it?

Mat defines the success of the Vault Festival in a very non-commercial way. He doesn’t talk to me about figures, but about shows that have flourished after their debut at the festival, to even seeing their marketing posters on tubes. There’s a flicker of the proud parent in his voice when he speaks about all this.

"For instance, Superbolt Theatre Company got in touch with us, after performing two different shows at the 2014 Vault Festival, asking to create something for new for 2015. We were more than happy to invite them back. Their new show, Dinosaur Park, started at the Vault, continued to the Edinburgh Fringe and has just recently finished a run at St James' Theatre."

"I’m happy to work 18-hour days and miss Christmas for something that other people might remember in five years, when they are off being successful somewhere, and will think, ‘I’m so glad we did that show at the Vault Festival. It was good.’ If I can be a footnote in those 250 theatre companies’ histories, then I’ll be a very satisfied man when I die."

The true ethos of the Vault Festival was apparent from its very inception- and still is today. From what began in 2012 as two mates helping their other mates do a couple of shows and bring in some audience, the Vaults has very quickly become a full-blown bona fide arts festival, offering different audiences hugely diverse experiences, and has been named London’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe.

It’s winter outside and the skies are a horrid grey, so I am very happy to return to the hustle and bustle of the Vault Festival. And in Mat’s words: 'It’s only on for six weeks, so come down as much as you can – especially if you want to be the sort of person who says they support new exciting work. Come buy a ticket, have a drink and say hello!." I know I will.






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