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A Brief Intro to…VAULT festival]

Last week saw the launch of VAULT festival on Leake Street. London’s biggest arts festival, running from 24th January to 18th March, sees hundreds of new shows, events and performances explode across The Vaults Theatre and out into the nearby streets and venues of Waterloo.

We spoke to Tim Wilson, Creative Producer of Heritage Arts Company and founder of VAULT and asked him to tell us how it all started and how it’s developed over the years…

“We want VAULT Festival to be the people’s festival. For eight weeks, join this carnival of experience, filled with entertainment and unexpected adventure. From hard-hitting drama to outrageous comedy, from circus to late-night parties, VAULT takes in the bravest and best of the next generation of creators.

We’re trying to effect change in the creative sector and make it sustainable for both the artist and the festival. What we give is space: to innovate, take risks and cooperate with each other. We don’t charge rent. We do take 30% of box office, towards covering our costs. The artists get the other 70%. Simple.

VAULT Festival was created in 2012 around a triangle of the audience, the artists, and the staff. With contributions from Silent Opera, future Fringe First-winners Katie Bonna & Richard Marsh and several others, an exciting artist-led programme began to emerge, playing to 7,500 people.

VAULT 2014 featured adaptations of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden. We almost doubled our lineup: including acts like Superbolt Theatre, Nabokov, and Dawn State, and comedians like Luisa Omielan, Sara Pascoe & Yve Blake. Audiences grew to 22,500.

VAULT 2015 was a huge step up in the quality of the festival.Forza Win created an Italian restaurant at the heart of a programme of over 100 artists. Our growing team of festival staff welcomed over 30,000 people to the Festival. Emma Thompson told us we were “the future of theatre”.

VAULT 2016 saw 40,000 guests come down to see a line-up that included a new Film Festival, a wildly entertaining family programme, and a bigger-than-ever roster of artists, who could blame them? The Suffolk Punch restaurant served up fine produce from the coast made by the Suffolk Young Producers.

VAULT 2017 welcomed 50,000 people as we welcomed The Network Theatre into the festival programme and featured brand new vehicle-venues orbiting the festival.

In 2018, we’re lucky to be joined by over 320 artistic groups presenting work. We’re also very excited to announce the inclusion in the programme of the excellent Waterloo East Theatre, as well as other eclectic spaces in an around Waterloo, thanks to our new friends at We Are Waterloo. We’re intensely proud of the artists who are joining us for 2018 – it’s their festival, and it’s yours too.

Planning VAULT is a bit of a year-round thing. We generally start having conversations about “next year” halfway through a current Festival, as that’s the most pertinent time: we have all the best resources at our disposal (a live site, audience members, visiting companies and knowledgeable staff being chief amongst them). We can only get so far with those chats because we’ve got the more immediate pressures of running the Festival, but it’s a good time to ask the big questions: what’s working well? What isn’t? What can we make better next year? We assemble one big document as we go, called Big Learns. Subtle.

Once the Festival is all wrapped up (usually between end of April and end of May), we sit down and go through our long, long debrief list and try to work out how to solve each problem or cement each success.

Some things are relatively simple: we had trouble in 2017, for example, with the volume of people looking for customer service during our ‘off hours’ (most staff tend to work from early afternoon until the early hours of the morning). So we know that this year, we’re going to have to stagger box office/customer service hours more so we can have someone on the phone more frequently. More positively, we found that the new TV screens around the venue with “What’s On” slideshows were popular and helpful for our audiences, so we’ll be increasing the number of those and making sure they’re easy to spot.

Other things are a bit trickier. We want every show at the Festival to be able to display posters and flyers, and we don’t want to place too many restrictions on them – but though the number of shows has increased lots over the last few years, the wallspace we have to play with hasn’t. So now we’re in the process of figuring out how to give companies the maximum amount of exposure to our walk-up audiences without it becoming a kind of bun-fight, or letting more confident companies take up more wallspace than some of their peers.

The biggest questions are always about the structure. How many shows can we comfortably run in the venue in a given night? How do we balance short runs with longer runs? How can we maximise the seating capacity of each space through design? How many people do we need through the doors each day to make the festival financially sustainable? Is bringing in more external venues to increase capacity a good idea? How can we accommodate shows which we like but don’t quite fit the ‘schedule mould’ VAULT is built on?

These are the kind of things we wrestle with and try to nail down well in advance each year because we need to have a pretty good idea of the big picture before we open up the application process. Our answers can (and do) change as we get closer to the festival, but generally the big structural stuff is in place pretty early.

I’m sure that all sounds pretty boring – but for us it’s always a good & productive exercise. If we don’t know every aspect of the festival inside and out, we can’t make improvements. We need to listen to the staff, the companies and the audiences equally to make it a good environment for all of them to get what they want out of it, which sometimes requires delicate balances.

Hopefully, we get more right than we get wrong – but our attitude is that there’s always room for improvement.”

For more information about VAULT or to buy tickets, click here.


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