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VAULT Festival 2023

VAULT Festival 2023

VAULT Festival 2023 cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner chats to the people bringing the festival back, after a three year hiatus, and asks them for a few tips on what to see.

For Andy George, director and co-founder of the Vault Festival, the worst three weeks of his life were in the run up to Boris Johnson’s announcement in March 2020, which abruptly closed down theatres because of the pandemic. For the previous few weeks London had increasingly become a ghost town and the tunnels under Waterloo station where the festival was in full swing were emptying out. I know, I was there almost every evening and while the shows were still taking place the normally packed Vault Festival began to resemble the Marie Celeste. You could get a prime seat in the bar which would normally be full of artists talking excitedly.

The decision about whether to continue with the 2020 festival was taken out of George’s hands by the government, and 2021 was also a write off. But the 2022 festival was programmed and scheduled to go ahead when Omicron came along. This time, George had to make one of the trickiest decisions of his life: plough on or cancel? He spent the whole of Boxing Day weighing up the evidence and decided to pull the festival. Many artists were heart broken, some were angry, and by late January and early February when the festival would have been taking place the threatened Omicron lockdown had not materialised. In the circumstances, does George regret that decision?

“I don’t,” he says firmly. “It was the right thing to do. We went into the 2022 festival with the confidence of vaccines behind us, but Omicron decimated that. The evidence was pointing towards more lockdowns. But even if we had gone ahead, we reckoned that maybe up to 25 per cent of the shows would have to have been cancelled because of artists getting Covid and that would have just been a hot mess. We couldn’t risk it. We were also aware that going ahead would have made us a very ableist festival—excluding those who couldn’t risk catching Covid.

People gathering at one of the Vault Festival bars.

It means that when the Vault Festival returns in January next year it will be one of the last players back in the theatre game following the 2020 lockdown. That has both disadvantages and advantages. On one hand George is already aware of the struggle that many theatres have had to reclaim the levels of audience that they enjoyed pre-2020; on the other there is a potential pent-up demand from both artists and audiences.

“Pre-sales are good,” says George, “and we offer something which is unique for audiences. It’s a different experience: a fun night out which also includes a show or two.”

Artists will certainly be relieved by the return of the Vault Festival which provides many near the beginning of their careers with the only realistic opportunity they will have to get their work seen in London. It has always been an essential part of talent development and the theatre ecology, providing a platform for those who can’t afford to go to Edinburgh (and increasingly those who have but didn’t get the attention they had hoped for) and a showcase for many not yet ready for other bigger fringe venues such as The Yard.

Promotional image of some of the artists involved in the Vault Festival.

The pandemic but also the absence of two years of the Vault Festival has “disrupted the talent pipeline,” says Vault programmer Bec Martin pointing out that makes Vault an all the more important bridge for early career theatre-makers. “Our job is to help them develop, support them to find their feet and then send them on their way. They shouldn’t be coming back year after year.” The pipeline has also been disrupted because Vault is also a place where artists connect with each other and future collaborations are born. Hence why the bar is always such an exciting place to be.

Unlike Edinburgh, Vault Festival is a curated festival with more applications than there are slots available. This year’s programme is slightly smaller than in 2020 but Martin reckons that’s a good thing because “fewer shows means we can support people better and with more care.” With artists as worried about the cost of living crisis as the rest of us, quite a lot of runs will be shorter too so that theatre-makers are carrying less risk. There is, as George says, a vast difference between having to sell 700 or 350 tickets. But it does mean that the hot tickets at this year’s festival will be sizzling.

What you will find at the Vault Festival is a glimpse of theatre’s future and a chance to see the concerns and interests of artists made manifest in theatrical form. What you won’t find this year is work about the pandemic. “At least not directly,” says Martin. She points to a programme which is stuffed full of joy. “People don’t want to be miserable in the theatre at the moment, artists don’t want to be miserable, and when we were programming we were looking for passion and trying to put together a festival that doesn’t ignore what’s going on but which reclaims joy in a scary world. So, the concerns of the artists, whether it’s the environment or something else, are definitely there in the programme but also the desire to protect joy. People have found very creative ways to make metaphor. It is what artists do so well.”

The crowd at one of the Vault Festival's events.

Andy George’s hot tips for the festival:

Caceroleo Runner Up for the ATG Playwrights Prize: Caceroleo examines “safe spaces” in the arts from the point of view of a young person who grew up witnessing domestic violence.

You Are Going To Die Performed entirely naked, You are going to Die is a nail-biting descent into the loneliness, pain and existential anxiety of our time. A surreal meditation to remind you of your impending annihilation.

The Long Run The latest from Katie Arnstein is about not being good in a crisis and dealing with cancer which will affect one in two of us.

My Period the Cockblock Following on from its sold-out run at the Golden Goose Theatre, My Period, The Cockblock is a new comedy-drama play written and performed by Ruth Oyediran, a member of the Royal Court Writers Group.

Good Grief Multi award-winning physical comedy company Ugly Bucket process the death of a friend in the only way they know how – through a kinetic maelstrom of outrageous clowning, personal testimony and a thumping techno soundtrack.

Bec Martin’s hot tips for the festival:

Borders ألسياج הגדר Inspired by a real encounter between the Israeli writer and a Lebanese man on Grindr, Borders is a story about two people, never meant to meet, who try to form an intimate relationship against all odds.

It’s a MotherFxxking Pleasure Disability-led ensemble, FlawBored, with tragi-comedy about one man’s attempt to rebrand blindness. Directed by JMK winner Josh Roche.

The Ballerina Democracy is fragile the world over, and does one size fit all? Artist led ensemble consider in a piece described as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness meets Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

GUSH Abby Vicky-Russell’s astonishing new character comedy introuduces us to Neil, a working-class plumber from Sheffield. He’s been called in on short notice to fix a leak in The Vaults studio, so a contemporary dance troupe can continue performing their very important piece exploring the relationship between pomegranates and vulvas. There will be consequences.

Walking Cats Zhaolin Zhou’s autobiographical performance exploring homesickness and migrant identity using live feed, object theatre, paper collages and soundscape, taking audiences on an intimate, magical journey with stories from the heart about family and hometown.

Cover image of the exterior of the Vaults. The 2023 Vault Festival runs from 24th January through 19th March. Please visit here for the full programme. All photographs courtesy of the Vault Festival team.

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Lyn Gardner

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