While commuters jostle for position and rush to catch their trains, in the Victorian tunnels below Waterloo Station a party is going on.
For the next six weeks, the VAULT Festival returns to London, creating eight venues, three bars and even a restaurant underneath Waterloo Station, seeing over 100 different shows, from comedy and cabaret to hard-hitting political theatre and international dance take place.
Andy George, one of three directors of the festival spoke to Glen Pearce about life underground.
How would you describe VAULT Festival?
VAULT festival is six weeks of creative innovation and chaos set in the tunnels under Waterloo station. It’s a place to escape and let the hours pass by seeing new and creative work in a place where time no longer matters. It might be 3am or 6pm, it’s irrelevant. It’s a place where you choose your destiny, you can come for something specific and you may take a punt on something else. There’s a space to talk and discuss, to start careers and collaborations. It’s as much a networking hub as much as it’s a place for new work.
You mention it’s a place for people to take a risk – is that important?
Absolutely. The way we programme, the way we stagger the times of the shows, the way we price it – we try and make it affordable as possible for the artists and the audiences. The tickets range from free to £16 so every show is affordable and makes taking a risk easier as your wallet won’t get a hole in it if you decide to take a punt. Some of the most exciting things in the festival are those things you didn’t expect to see. A lot of the audience come down to see a specific show then realise how much is going on and grab another one. That’s where the magic happens
There’s an incredible breadth to the festival, do people find themselves seeing the unexpected?
Similar to a music festival, some of the most memorable times I’ve had at Edinburgh Fringe or a music festival are the things I saw by accident. That’s when your expectations are completely blown away as you didn’t have any to start with.
In these challenging economic times, venues are often resorting to ‘safe’ programming. Does that make events such as VAULT more important?
The ambition of VAULT is to take away the financial risk from the companies’ point of view. We don’t ask for any money up front from them because even finding the cash for a deposit can be prohibitive for a lot of people making work. We don’t ask for any money upfront and they take away 70% of the box office profits. So we take away that financial barrier to participation from the start, to allow people to focus on the creative risk of putting something on. Nobody comes out of VAULT rich, as not many people come out of the arts industry rich, but we have a mantra of if the company are doing badly then we’re doing badly. We need people through the doors just as much as they do. There’s a shared community spirit that the collective voice is stronger than the individual.
What do you look for when programming VAULT?
It’s really open, there’s no predetermined theme or criteria. For me, the approach that they take to the specific space and embrace that and want to design and create for the space appeal to me. It’s a different experience from sitting in a black box theatre to sitting in Victorian tunnels underneath Waterloo Station, so let’s embrace that. Fundamentally at the heart of each show or project is a single nugget of an idea that when you’re reading applications sticks out and it’s that that will make a great show. I think the shows that don’t do so well in the application process are the shows that aren’t clear what that nugget is.
So if those nuggets are missing is it because people are often creating work for the general festival touring circuit, instead of looking at each unique festival?
Oh absolutely, we’ve had applications in the past when we’ve gone back to say they were successful had to ask which festival we were as they’d applied to so many. A huge amount of the shows we programme are created for this festival and I think we’re lucky that apart from Edinburgh and a few of the other festival such as HighTide, who produce their own work, that we’re lucky in that a lot of people create work just for this environment. Though created for here they will hopefully go on to have future lives elsewhere. That’s really nice to see, nurturing these artists into fully-fledged artists that can stand on their own two feet. To be able to put something on in central London and not come out bankrupt is rare!
You talk about nurturing work so it has a future life. Does the uniqueness of the VAULTS make future transfers more challenging?
It does and it doesn’t, there’s always a bit of reinvention whena show tours. What we try and do when we design the spaces down here is to make a variety of different spaces. So we’ve a variety of spaces from a normal(ish) 160 seater end on space to a huge cavern that is essentially a blank canvas. When we are programming we try and fit them into the most appropriate space to what they need and what they want, which allows their shows to benefit from their environment. It’s not just a case of shoving them in a room and selling tickets, it’s about understanding what their ambitions are and pairing them into spaces that most suit that. There is a challenge in touring from here but not necessarily any different from any other venue.
So what is your life like during the festival?
Between fellow directors Mat [Burt], Tim [Wilson] and myself we try and see everything each week. It takes all three of us to do that as there is so much happening. During the festival, I’m here through most of every day each week ensuring it all ticks along smoothly and keeping everyone happy. We try to make our relationship between us and our companies, staff and audiences as personable as possible and make them feel like they are the most important people there. We don’t want anyone to feel neglected or a second thought.
So after spending six weeks in the tunnels you’ll be glad to see some sunlight?
Yes, absolutely, some much needed vitamin D
When does planning for VAULT Festival 2017 start?
We are talking about it at the moment, a lot of it depends on how 2016 goes. We haven’t yet received Arts Council funding, despite 12 applications over the years and there’s a huge financial risk on our shoulders and if the festival loses money this year then it will be difficult to see another incarnation of it. We want it to continue and we feel we are building a legacy for audiences and artists but at the end of the day without that support, it adds an extra layer of burden onto our shoulders alongside the scale of having to organise the festival.
If someone hasn’t been to VAULT how would you persuade them to head underground?
Every year people spend thousands of pounds heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, you don’t need to do that; come underground, have a flick through the website, pick a show, come down, have some dinner at the Suffolk Punch restaurant, see a show, have a drink at the bar, see another show and stay for a party. We are very much ‘Destination VAULT’, alongside our restaurant and bars we have free music, free comedy, over 200 different shows, a family platform, talks and debates – there is something for everything. Last year our range was between two months to 92 years old. It will be the things that surprise you that you’ll find the most rewarding.