Feature: VAULT Festival 2017: anything is possible

The old saying goes that all you need for theatre to happen is an ‘empty space’; but what if instead you find a big warehouse cluttered with curious cabinets and old train records? Mat Burt, artistic founder and director of The Heritage Arts Company and VAULT Festival, has your answer.

Back in 2012, Burt and his creative collaborators, Tim Wilson and Andy George, came across a large space underneath Waterloo Station, belonging to network rail. “We said something very silly like ‘if we helped you get rid of this stuff, would you mind if we did a show or something down here?’” The rest is history.

Flash forward five years along the line, and VAULT Festival is looking to be the biggest and the best it’s ever been, with over 200 eclectic shows spanning theatre, comedy and circus, an ongoing international food festival, and a Nintendo 64 to boot in the bar. Burt justifies this ‘whole buffalo approach’: “We’ve got the building, we’ve got it for six weeks, let’s put as much stuff in as possible” he says. A self-confessed ‘huge nerd’, Burt recommends The Admiral’s Backbar, a ‘whole week of really nerdy shows’, celebrating all things geek.

There really is something for everyone, and Burt wants it to stay that way. “We started it because it’s obviously really difficult and expensive to put on work in London, especially for emerging artists – people without much support,” he says. VAULT surpasses a mere means of showcasing work from all over the country, but it’s also inbuilt with a network of support to help and advise artists eager but new to the industry. “We do workshops here with all the staff and the companies about what they can do to succeed more – marketing workshops and that kind of thing”. Burt speaks with the same nurturing approach that is effortlessly integrated within the ethos of the festival, and describes the atmosphere of the festival as a ‘lovely selection of artists who all look after each other’.

Since its genesis in 2012, VAULT has modestly grown from having 7,000 people attend over the course of the entire six-week event, to welcoming 10,000 people through its doors just in the first week this year. “It’s a bit bonkers – we didn’t expect it”, Burt bashfully remarks. “Now we get hundreds and hundreds of applications which we can’t possibly programme.” Yet there’s still an urgent efficiency oiling VAULT’s underground mechanics. “We have a great team now, most of whom have done it several times before,” Burt remarks, emphasising that ‘everyone believes in the festival and knows what they’re doing’.

The highlight hype of this year’s VAULT whisks you back to the ‘20s in the form of an immersive rendition of The Great Gatsby, performed by The Guild Of Misrule, in association with The Immersive Ensemble and Perrier Jouët. The production will be performed across multiple venues for the duration of the festival, ‘ensuring every audience a unique experience, and rewarding those who dive deepest into Jay Gatsby’s world’.

But with every treasure trove of twinkling delights, there comes a hidden gem. Make sure not to miss James Rowland’s A Hundred Different Words For Love. Following a successful run of Team Viking at Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, yielding bucket-loads of laughter and tears, as well as 5 shining stars from The Stage, Rowland is back to break some more hearts with an eccentric mix of melody and storytelling.

On reflecting over the ever-growing history of VAULT, Burt speaks for his whole team when he says that “as long as we know that we are working as hard as we possibly can to make it work, I think we can all be proud”, to which he immediately scoffs and adds “I sound like a Steven Spielberg movie.”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. The work, dedication and care sewn into this project is quite remarkable; so it really does seem that, ‘with a stupid idea and a room’, pretty much anything is possible.

VAULT Festival runs until March 5.

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