VAULT Festival is leaving home - and it needs your help find a new one.
Co-founder and director Andy George on the event's eviction from its venue, its history, its future, and what makes it so vital to the theatre industry.
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
This is a special issue of The Crush Bar. As regular readers will know, I have been focusing almost entirely on artists and companies performing at VAULT Festival over the last few weeks. Last week, it was announced that the event was in trouble: it is being kicked out by its venue landlord, and left in need of a new home and £150,000 to survive.
So, I decided to dedicate this issue to the VAULT Festival itself, via a chat with co-founder and director Andy George. Read on to find out more about the issues the event is facing, its importance to the performing arts industry, and how you can help it secure a stable, sustainable future.
Before that, as always, a reminder that you can support this newsletter by becoming a paid subscriber for just the price of a cup-and-a-half of coffee a month, via the button below. If you want to find out more about The Crush Bar - including promo opportunities - then click here.
That’s all for now. A bit more from me at the bottom, but first: Andy George!
Last week, VAULT Festival announced that this year’s event would be the last to take place in the leaky, labyrinthine railway arches underneath Waterloo. The festival is being kicked out of The Vaults, its home for the last eleven years, by the venue landlord to make way for a commercial, immersive – and, as rumour has it, superhero-themed – operation.
“There’s only so much I can say without legal repercussions,” says VAULT Festival co-founder and director Andy George. “The venue wanted to pursue a long-term commercial option that effectively left no room in their calendar for us, so we have been told to find a new home after this year’s festival. The challenge now is to reimagine what VAULT Festival looks like outside this space.”
George speaks about the situation with diplomatic caution, but the decision is clearly a kick in the teeth for his organisation. VAULT Festival is the reason The Vaults even exists as a venue. The two have grown side-by-side since the very first event in 2012. For the venue to turf the festival out feels wrong. The truth, though, says George, is that the relationship had become unsustainable anyway.
“We have always had to operate on a festival-by-festival basis, not knowing if we can plan ahead for the following year until the venue said so,” he explains. “For a number of years, even at the height of Covid, we tried to secure a longer-term deal with The Vaults. We were ready to sit down and sign a two-year, three-year, five-year deal. But they just did not want to do it.”
“Recently, it has felt like the axe has just been hanging over our necks all the time,” George continues. “When someone else has the ultimate choice over whether you live or die, it limits what you can do. You are backed into a corner. You can’t negotiate or plan long term. You can’t think about investment, strategy and approach as much. For a festival this size, that just doesn’t work.”
“Our goal is to be a small footnote on every artist’s CV…”
George was there right at the beginning of VAULT Festival, together with co-founders Mat Burtcher and Tim Wilson. The trio ran a company – The Heritage Arts Company – and decided to run a three-week, 24-show event in the spaces they had discovered in the railway arches off Leake Street.
“It was Tim’s idea,” says George. “He knew a lot of artists that made immersive or unusual shows and wanted to put them on somewhere. And that coincided with the discovery of these tunnels. At the time, they were owned by Network Rail, and they were full of boxes and boxes of paperwork.”
The festival was only supposed to be a one-off – that’s why there was no event in 2013 – but artists kept asking them when they were going to do it again. And kept asking. And kept asking. Eventually, George, Burtcher and Wilson relented. The 2014 festival was twice as long and featured 64 shows. From then on, it became an annual event, growing bigger each year. 117 shows and 32,000 visitors in 2015. 180 shows and 46,000 visitors in 2017. 425 shows and 80,000 visitors in 2019.
Wilson stepped back from day-to-day involvement with the festival, then Burtcher did, too, and the pandemic cruelly cut short the 2020 edition and cancelled the 2021 and 2022 editions, but VAULT Festival is back with a bang this year with eight weeks of exciting, experimental shows, as readers of this newsletter need no reminding. As Lyn Gardner observed in The Stage earlier this week, the festival is now indisputably an essential part of the performing arts ecology.
“I think there are a couple of things,” says George, when asked what makes VAULT Festival so vital. “One is access. There are two types of spaces in London, one you need to take out a mortgage to rent, and one where you have to have an existing relationship with the artistic director to get programmed. VAULT sits in the gap between the two. You don’t have to fork out thousands of pounds to perform here, and we make our programming as open as possible.”
“The other thing, and something we are really keen to keep hold of in the future, is the feeling of community at VAULT Festival. It can get very lonely making theatre, but you can build networks and relationships at VAULT. People meet and chat in the bar areas in the gaps between shows. We see those connections happening every year. People from separate shows meet at VAULT Festival, and the next year we will receive an application and spot that they are now collaborating together.”
What makes VAULT Festival’s accessibility and community particularly special, though, is how rare those two factors are in the rest of the performing arts industry. Opportunities to inexpensively present work to an industry audience are few and far between. The only alternative on the same scale is the Edinburgh Fringe, but the cost of staging a show in Scotland has skyrocketed recently.
The proof of VAULT Festival’s importance is in the pudding, in the long, long list of artists and companies that have performed at the festival, using it as a springboard to success elsewhere: the writers Vinay Patel, Isley Lynn, Joseph Charlton, Margaret Perry, Martha Watson Allpress and Tatty Hennessy; the storytellers James Rowland, Joe Sellman-Leava and Katie Arnstein; the companies Superbolt Theatre, The PappyShow, Exit Productions, and Pigfoot Theatre. And loads, loads more. Look back at this newsletter’s archive, and most interviewees have performed at VAULT Festival.
George is determined that this eviction is not the end of VAULT Festival, though, only the end of its first chapter. The festival has launched the #SaveVAULT campaign to secure the start of its second chapter – more on that below – so that it can continue to play its critical part in this country’s theatre landscape.
“Our goal is to be a small footnote on every artist’s CV,” George says. “Somewhere on their CV, it will say: ‘Thank-you VAULT Festival. You helped me get to where I am today.’ That is what we want.”
What do you want to do?
We want to find a new home. Somewhere we can take the essence of VAULT Festival and reimagine it, reshape it, reform it. Somewhere we can secure long-term and put down roots. Somewhere we can start from a blank piece of paper and build something that is sustainable for artists and for us.
Ideally, we want to stay in central London, as that is one of the other things that makes VAULT Festival so special, but we are keeping an open mind. The main criteria for us is that it needs to have a gritty, gutsy feel. It needs to be somewhere full of challenge and character and creativity.
What support do you need to get there?
Our #SaveVAULT campaign has three main calls to action. Firstly, we need money. We know that the future is uncertain, and we probably will not have the opportunity in 2024 to make the income we need to survive without shrinking. We know that moving home is expensive, too, so we are trying to raise £150,000. People can help with that by donating directly, or via providing access to networks or individuals that might be able to support us.
Secondly, we need a new space. If you know somewhere that might be suitable, or you know someone who knows someone, who knows someone that knows somewhere, then get in touch.
Thirdly, and most easily, we want people to come down and enjoy the last four weeks of this year’s festival. Over 300 artists will be sharing work before it ends, and you can support both them and the festival by buying tickets, buying drinks, buying merchandise, and bringing mates along with you. This is the last time. It will never be the same. These are the moments to cherish and celebrate.
How can people find out more about you?
That’s it for now. I’ll be back in your inboxes on Monday with a pick of five shows to see during the sixth week of VAULT Festival. Next Friday’s issue will feature a chat with Henry Maynard, artistic director of Flabbergast Theatre, whose production of Macbeth arrives at Southwark Playhouse in March.
One final reminder about the various ways you can support this newsletter: you can share it with anyone you think might be interested, you can become a paid subscriber using the button at the top, or you can get in touch with me about using it for promotional purposes.
That’s all. Thanks for reading. If you want to get in touch for any reason, just reply to this email or contact me via Twitter - I’m @FergusMorgan. See you in a week!