Were you there in 2012? If you happened to venture underground in February during that spectacular year for Great Britain, down, deep down into the vaults of the Old Vic Tunnels, there is no doubt you would have witnessed something magical, something unique, something that had never been done before. A gamble with stakes so high, that it might have been the only chance to experience something of this kind, and so for three weeks curious visitors revelled in the joys of art, theatre, music and comedy with the glorious abandon of the unknown. VAULT 2012 became the most viewed event on Time Out for a month. It welcomed over 6000 visitors. 87% of available tickets were sold. And guess what. It’s back. Welcome to VAULT 2014.
VAULT 2014 promises to be bigger, better and even more fabulous than the first time around, with the festival running over six weeks, crammed to bursting point with diverse performances, parties and two major headline shows, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson’s old friend and colleague, Lou Stein, and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden. With over 200 applications from performers and artists, VAULT creators, Tim and Mat, had no shortage of talent to sift through, guaranteeing a stellar programme of events come February 28th.
When I met Tim and Mat of The Heritage Arts Company, they were looking a little tired. Were they not excited? ‘Very excited,’ Tim reassures me, ‘We had decided in early May last year to look into VAULT again and by August we had committed one hundred per cent. Then you have six months of the risk growing and growing and the amount of chips you are betting suddenly becomes all of them – and then everyone else’s. The amount of pressure is a terrifying thing. Six months of secretly moving and planning – and then in the last month, the blossoming of it into the public sphere increases the risk and the workload… so it’s terrifying. It’s terrifyingly exciting.’ I was going to ask why they didn’t do VAULT last year, but it immediately becomes clear that the decision to do VAULT wasn’t a light one – it is all-consuming, with a huge risk factor. ‘You have to go into these things being fully aware that there is a possibility at the end of them that it dries up, you’re bankrupt, it’s over,’ Mat explains, the two of them having ploughed all of their money into the project. ‘You can’t do this sort of thing knowing that you are holding something back,’ adds Tim, ‘because ultimately if it all does go wrong there’s no solace in going, ‘Oh well, we kept that five grand sitting in the bank so we could afford to live for a couple of months’ – there’s nothing in that. You have to know you gave it absolutely everything.’
VAULT hasn’t only been a gamble for Tim and Mat and on their website, they publicly thank all the supporters and contributors for taking the ‘leap of faith’, not forgetting the third member of The Heritage Arts Company, Andy George, the production manager. ‘Effectively he is the guy that delivers all the crazy ideas that come out of it and is responsible in helping all the companies visiting us get to that point,’ says Tim. It seems that VAULT is what it is because of all of the people it takes to make it happen – and Tim and Mat are right in the centre of it at all times. ‘We have the privilege of not being some big fat rich guy sitting in a swanky office throwing money at the little people because we think it’s charitable – we sit there and we get to be in a room with people and say that this is going to be really hard work. The only way that this works is if we are all on the same page and we work together – otherwise there is no point.’
Apart from hands-on organisers who double up as on-site project managers, what is it that makes VAULT unique? ‘There is nothing in between the White Bear in Kennington and The Young Vic,’ Tim explains, ‘This is what we wanted to provide at VAULT – the middle place, where it’s not like they are doing it on a profit-share basis – it’s serious, it’s real, they are aiming at being professionals. There is one step between what they are doing now and being full time professionals – and that’s where we come in.’ Both Tim and Mat are clear when they say that it is not about them providing something – it’s about VAULT providing a platform that everyone can share with the aim of avoiding ‘the big crane that comes and picks up some small artistic enterprise because its exploitable’. Unlike other festivals, VAULT isn’t a stop-off point – it is the destination. Worthwhile on its own terms, as Tim describes, ‘a destination is a good place to be.’
The story of VAULT is like a Field of Dreams story in itself: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Mat explains that the first VAULT festival was pretty much run by four individuals. ‘We did everything from cleaning the toilets every day to trying to run the damn thing – unlocking the doors, sweeping up the beers cans and getting ready for tomorrow.’ Did they ever think that nobody would turn up? ‘We were thinking that they day before the festival started,’ he confesses. ‘We didn’t actually know how many tickets we had sold.’ Mat manned a makeshift box office, ‘a bunch of notes, emails coming in, all biros and felt tip pens,’ but after the first storming couple of days, they realised they didn’t have a plan of what to do if more people came – and all of a sudden it was a rush to organise more front of house staff, more security and more beer. The point that summed it up for them was the moment Nigel and Louise from SHUNT, a collective of artists sponsored by the Arts Council, bounded up to them and said, ‘This is what we dreamed of.’ Tim describes the first VAULT experience as ‘the lungs of a venue breathing in total harmony, in a space, a public foyer, off which there eight performance venues, all of them throbbing with excitement. Unexpectedly we stumbled across the formula for it.’
It was clearly a formula that answered the needs and wants of a public that strived for something akin to the Edinburgh Fringe here in London. Heritage Arts wanted to bridge the gap. ‘Imagine all of the London arts festivals in one space at festival prices, not London prices, at Edinburgh prices, for this length of time where you can just go in – where there is a cheap bar and free music and comedy – it doesn’t happen, it’s never happened as far as we know,’ Mat says, and then adds, ‘It’s totally unique – it’s totally crazy. There might be a reason why it’s unique…’
It may well be crazy but 2012 created many success stories. To name but a few, there was The Silent Opera, which grew legs of its own in 2013 and was the reason Tim and Mat were too busy for a VAULT last year, The Folk Contraption, a Rogues Gallery show, which went on to win awards in Edinburgh, and a scratch performance written by Richard Marsh and Katie Bonna called Brand New Love Story when it was shown at VAULT and went on to become Dirty Great Love Story, winning a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh that year and then transferred to New York and Soho Theatre. After the hard work of VAULT is over, to see performances born at VAULT move on and flourish elsewhere is something fulfilling on a personal level for Tim and Mat, and they glow like proud parents.
When it comes to VAULT 2014, they didn’t feel the need to try and repeat the same model as last time, and in fact it worked out well, as 2014 will be on a much bigger scale. This time they know the beast – and they have a real box office, to Mat’s immense pleasure. What can those coming to VAULT 2014 expect? ‘This time the venue is better laid-out,’ says Tim, ‘maximising the excitement and experience. It is some kind of transgression anyway, and having made the transgression and going through that strange graffitied tunnel into the underground place that’s owned by Network Rail, somewhere you should never be as an ordinary denizen of London – and once you’re in there, the amount of excitement and exploration that is possible is almost unlimiting.’ With over 60 events, not to mention the late night parties and wondrous happenings that you can’t begin to plan for, Tim warns, ‘ You have to come every night of the festival, all thirty nights and see multiple shows per night to even have a chance of seeing everything we’ve got going on.’ Looks like I’ve got a busy six weeks ahead, then. VAULT 2014, Old Vic Tunnels Vaults January 28th – March 8th 2014.