“The joy of Vault is seeing people come for one type of show and then staying and watching something else they would have never seen otherwise”: An interview with the programmers of Vault Festival 2019
In its seventh year, London’s most innovative and exhilarating arts and entertainment event, Vault Festival 2019 presents over 400 shows and 2,000+ artists. The lineup – including theatre, comedy, cabaret, live performance and late night parties – could not be achieved without its talented programmers.
Head of Theatre and Performance Gillian Greer is a playwright, script reader and dramaturg. Originally from Dublin, her debut work Petals – now internationally published and produced – was nominated for the Irish Times Theatre Award for Best New Play. She is also Senior Reader at the National Theatre.
Theatre and Comedy Producer Brid Kirby leads the Comedy team. Her production company Fight in the Dog specialises in new and groundbreaking material. A producer for Century Entertainment in Australia, Brid has worked with top comedians and venues locally and internationally.
In charge of the Vaults’s intriguing late-night parties, Laura Drake-Chambers is Head of Lates. A London-based artist, art director, performer and producer, she is Creative Director of her production company Shotgun Carousel, which she founded in 2013. An events producer for nearly a decade, her credits include commissions from the Royal Academy of Art, Zedel, MAMA group, Festival Republic, A Curious Invitation and The Last Tuesday Society.
Hello Gillian, Brid, Laura, thanks for speaking with us. I’d like to ask you about your work with Vault Festival 2019. What attracted you to this event?
Gillian Greer (Head of Theatre and Performance): Since first moving to the UK it was incredibly clear to me that Vault Festival was a hub for exciting new voices – some of my favourite pieces of work have had their start at Vault and so it was a dream to get to work with the team behind such a fearless, high-quality festival.
Brid Kirby (Head of Comedy): I have been coming to Vault Festival for years, I have seen every festival since 2013 and have always been inspired by the level of support and collaboration between the festival and the artists. There were always a few comedy shows at the festival but the festival directors and I were really keen to expand on that to create a dedicated Comedy Festival and therefore be able to offer the same level of support and encouragement for comics.
Vault sits at the perfect time of the year for the Comedy calendar. Either we have returning shows from the Edinburgh Fringe, or totally new work in development for people who are beginning to write their next show. This means we can have very established comics working on new material on the same stages as newcomers doing their first ever hour of comedy.
Laura Drake-Chambers (Head of Lates): I’ve worked with Vault Festival since 2014, producing events as an independent artist as well as bringing wild and wonderful carnival parades to the festival with my company Shotgun Carousel.
I loved the ethos and attitude of Vault Festival so much. I was hooked and have been back with new work every year ever since – and now I’m on the team! They can’t get rid of me.
What goals you are ideally hoping to achieve with the current year’s programme?
GG: My hope is that this year’s programme will be the most brave, innovative and diverse yet. With the UK’s exit from the EU on the horizon, we’ve taken particular care to champion international work, as well as stories from an increasing number of female-led, disability-led, LGBTQ-led and BAME-led companies.
BK: The goals are always to be able to support as many people as possible to have a successful run at the festival. I am a producer myself and so I am particularly interested in helping people sell tickets and develop their own audiences. It’s also a big goal to be able to expose as many people as possible to as many different kinds of shows as possible. We are very keen to encourage audiences to see something, or someone, they have never heard of before. When you purchase a ticket on the website you will be shown similar shows we think you might like. If you come and see a higher-profile comic do a Work in Progress show, why not take a punt on someone new and exciting while you’re here!
LDC: I wanted to bring a greater number of DIY event producers and LGBTQ+ friendly nights to 2019’s Vault Lates. London’s nightlife has changed and adapted so much over the past few years, the world of theatre/nightlife and cabaret are blending more and more, particular in queer spaces – with so many amazing queer-led shows producing exceptional parties and events too, it felt like a great time to reach out and invite them into the Vault programme.
Are there a few shows this season you would particularly recommend?
GG: It’s always difficult to select one or two shows out of such an incredible tapestry of work but I am particularly excited to see our flagship show, Counting Sheep, and to welcome the New Diorama Theatre as they take over our Crescent space with some seriously unmissable theatre.
BK: It’s impossible to choose only a few! If you are totally new to Vault, I would recommend you plan an evening. See a WIP, followed by a headline show, followed by a late night mixed-bill cabaret comedy! We are also running a Vault Comedy Showcase where six comics will be giving audiences a taste of what is coming up at the festival. Come to that and then see their full shows! If I have to only plug a few, I would plug Josh Glanc and Rob Oldham in week one, both bringing their critically acclaimed Edinburgh shows to Vault for a final outing. For something more experimental, see George Egg and his one-of-a-kind brand of cooking and comedy. London’s best improv troupe, The Free Association, is bringing Jacuzzi for three nights, starring Charlotte Ritchie.
LDC: From my Lates programme I’m especially excited for the incredible drag king line-up that PECs – King for a Night has in store, and I’ve heard some of the surprises that Brazilian Wax XXL has planned on and off stage at their takeover – not going to lie every Saturday feels unmissable… but naturally I’m biased!
Not in the Lates programme, but elsewhere in the festival I’m excited for Bar Wotever Bonanza, a queer-led mixed-bill cabaret that’s promising some truly exceptional entertainers from London’s cabaret scene.
Hypnagogue from Twice Shy theatre company is an intriguing and unique exploration into multi-sensory performance, with sound design, hypnotherapy and story-telling. And I can’t wait for the Vault festival debut from new drag king collective The Family Jewels – their show MANdemic is a must-see!
What is different about Vault Festival this time around?
GG: The clearest difference this year is the team behind the festival – myself, Bríd Kirby and Laura Drake-Chambers have been brought on to take a creative lead on the festival’s three main strands of work, and there are quite a few other new faces working behind the scenes to make this the best Vault Festival ever. I hope that our combined passion, experience and abilities have come together to create a really cracking programme!
BK: It’s always growing and developing, so no two years will be the same. The biggest change this year has been the designation of three programmers, one for each strand. Gill has done an astounding job as Head of Theatre and Laura’s Lates programme means I will be at Vault well into the night every Saturday. We three have worked very closely together to curate a programme that we feel represents the various industries we are working in.
LDC: It’s been a dream working closely with these amazing women on bringing new work, new names and new companies to the festival for the first time.
Your features include theatre, comedy, performance art, film and after hour parties. Is there any emphasis on one art form over others in terms of audience draw?
GG: Theatre and Performance is the largest strand of work at the festival, partly because it includes something for everybody! We’ve got everything from fierce new writing to wild cabaret and storytelling, devised physical pieces to musicals and poetry.
BK: The theatre programme is the largest programme of the festival but no, we are not putting any emphasis on one programme over another. We are marketing them to various audiences, but the joy of Vault is seeing people come for one type of show and then staying and watching something else they would have never seen otherwise.
LDC: Not at all, we hope that audiences come for a chosen show from one art form and stay in the building to enjoy the many others that the festival has on offer! There’s so much richness and creativity from all aspects of the festival – we hope people get lost in it all and end up seeing as many different things as possible!
What advice, if any, would you give artists in terms of submissions?
GG: This year, we received 1,100 submissions to the festival, with around 200 of these ultimately being programmed in the Theatre and Performance strand. It’s a hotly competitive process, and the best way to make an impression is to convince us what is unique about your show. We are always on the lookout for exciting new voices and never-before-told stories, formal innovation and bold new ideas. Ask yourself what makes your piece stand out from the crowd and tell us about it!
BK: I would advise artists to ask for advice. Speak to people who have done the festival before, reach out to us, watch as much as you can, soak it in! You’ll be surprised by how open people are to offering assistance and advice. Every festival works differently and so you can’t know that until you ask people who have done it or work there.
LDC: Listen to your creative communities even when they aren’t talking to you, look for the gaps in your own social and creative worlds and respond to those observations. Create two-way conversations with your performers/artists – allow them to feedback to you about the projects you’re building so you know what it’s like to be on all sides of the experience. Engage with your audiences directly most of all, communicate with them and support them and the people they are connected to. In a world full of social media posting, word of mouth is still queen.
Vault is unique in that it showcases art that would not normally be seen. It’s important to get cutting-edge work out there – is there a limit to how bold it can be?
GG: From my perspective – no, not really. So long as a show can provide evidence of quality, sensitivity and an exciting vision, I think the sky is the limit to the stories we can tell.
BK: I think the word cutting-edge can be used incorrectly a lot, when actually what is meant by cutting-edge is innovation. We want to be supporting up-and-coming talent and so that means people who are coming through and developing their own work in their own way. Other than logistical restraints of the venue, there is no idea that we would consider too “bold”. It’s only important that the innovation is supporting the quality of the storytelling of the show.
LDC: We’ll always be here to encourage boldness and confidence in the work that artists reach out to us with – and we’ll give all voices a chance to be considered for the festival – but our programming process will always be sensitive to potential audience members and the practical limitations of working in the venue we’re based in.
Have you hesitated over or had to reject subject matter that was too controversial – for example, that crossed the line into content that might be considered abusive or offensive?
GG: I think there’s a common misconception that abusive or offensive stories are also “bold” or “cutting-edge”, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. As a culture, we have no problem dramatising and even romanticising abuse, trauma and offensive subject matter – this isn’t new, as a matter of fact, it’s boring! If I’ve ever rejected or hesitated over a piece that considered itself abusive or potentially offensive, it’s often not because it’s shocking, it’s because it’s dull.
BK: I think it’s problematic to consider stories about abuse, or offensive content, “too out there”. We live in a difficult world, in difficult times, and so I don’t think there is any content that would be too “out there”. Stand-up Comedy as an art form honours truth and verbatim storytelling, therefore it is not our position to reject content that is truthful to that person’s experience. All we are aiming for is quality within the art. Content that is considered to be offensive or shocking doesn’t automatically make it more or less worthwhile than content that isn’t.
LDC: I haven’t yet met that challenge with my Lates programme, but I’m sure a day will come when I’ll have to tackle it. There are definitely late-night events out there that I would feel strongly about not programming, but more likely because of their ubiquity in the industry, rather than their offensiveness.
Is Vault primarily about the shows or is it more a destination in itself?
GG: As far as I’m concerned, Vault is all about the shows. The team pour an enormous amount of heart and soul into the spaces themselves, and it’s marvellous to see the Vaults become such a hub for the creative community during the cold winter months, but that is only possible with amazing work enticing people underground!
BK: Oh, it’s a destination for sure! There are plenty of food and drink options on site, to carry you through well into the night!
LDC: Whilst Vault is completely dominated by the number of shows and creative enterprises it houses over the eight weeks, I think the fact that you can walk in any night of the week, Wednesday to Sunday, and choose from any number of amazing cultural experiences on offer, absolutely makes it a destination. And the food is AMAZING too!!
Gillian, how do you choose a play? What kind of content, theme or message are you looking for?
GG: Everything! I’m always keen to support the voices of women and underrepresented communities, but I don’t have a particular message I’m looking to push. If anything, I’m excited by shows that are thought-provoking and challenge me to see things from a different perspective.
Do you think theatre has an impact on society? Can it change the world?
Does being a writer affect your choices in terms of the plays you include? Have you ever thought of submitting your own work?
GG: Lots of members of the team are involved in making work and some of it will be showcased at the festival – Laura Drake-Chambers’s company Shotgun Carousel will be bringing us the incredible Eat Your Heart Out in mid-February. I haven’t got a story that I think is quite suited to Vault Festival yet but if I ever do, I’m sure I will apply!
Brid, what kind of comedy do you seek for the line-up – any particular style or subject matter?
BK: Absolutely anything!! We want Vault to showcase a wide range of styles and subjects so the more diverse the better! As long as your aim is to make people laugh, we want to hear from you.
Dostoevsky said “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul…just watch him laugh”. Is laughter cathartic or a way of breaking through to people? Should humour contain a social message?
BK: Of course, laughter can be cathartic! Laughter and tears are so closely linked and some of the best art transports us seamlessly from one to the other. I don’t think that laughter needs to be cathartic though. Silliness for the sake of silliness is just as worthwhile. The shared experience of being in a room, all laughing together is purely joyous, and if you can get a message across in the process and make people think, that’s a bonus. Some of the best comedians in the world give us shows that make us question what we’ve just laughed at, and in the process reassess our opinions. Laughter’s ability to break down boundaries is why I love comedy, but some of my favourite comedians also paint themselves yellow and film themselves as an alien singing a silly song and the joy that comes from watching that is just as valid.
If you could book any comedy team in the world, who would it be?
BK: We’ve been very lucky at Vault Festival to welcome some of the best Comedians in the world so I don’t have a hit-list of A-listers I would like to see in the tunnels under Waterloo, they’re already coming! A huge swathe of Edinburgh Comedy Award Nominees (Luzy Susan, Tom Parry, Thom Tuck, Sara Barron, Dane Baptiste) and Winners (Adam Riches, Will Adamsdale, Ciarán Dowd) are among the programme for this year, as well as some panel-show favourites (James Acaster, Phil Wang, Ivo Graham). I couldn’t possibly catch all of them over the eight weeks!
Laura, how does planning party events at Vault Festival differ from other venues?
LDC: On the whole it’s not that different, practically speaking, though a unique and exciting element is looking at ways to engage audience members who are visiting the building to see other work and creating dialogues with fellow companies to work together to give festival-goers even more of an amazing experience.
I’ve met so many people who have ended up having the night of their lives, and so many new experiences, because they chose last minute to stay longer at the festival and check out one of the Lates parties.
What kinds of themes inspire you most in terms of events?
LDC: I like to focus on the kind of nights that are really pushing the creative boundaries, either through world building, tech or sound design. There are enough late night events in the world that haven’t pushed the imaginative possibilities – I like them EXTRA.
How do you want visitors to remember your parties? What is the impact you seek to create?
LDC: Probably just… WOW.
And finally Gillian, Brid, Laura: What is it about the Vault Festival that should make it a number one choice for audiences this year?
GG: The incredible range of work available across the programme. There is something for absolutely everyone regardless of your proclivities.
BK: There is something for everyone and I know how cliché that sounds but it’s true! As a destination, we have great, cheap food and drink options across three bars in the main site. Then we have shows to cover everything! The family programme is running in the afternoons on the weekends for the full eight weeks, then theatre shows kick off at 6pm, with Comedy starting slightly later at 6:45pm. Our Twilight programme will see you into the weekend nights and the Lates on a Saturday will have you dancing until 3am!
LDC: There is too much to consider for this, so I’ll focus it on the thing that I’m most excited about this year – Vault Festival’s Twilight programme, a whole new aspect of the festival that will allow audiences to catch some truly extraordinary cabaret, story-telling and late night shows.
These shows will be bolder, more risqué and very, VERY fun. If festival-goers are catching a show that ends around 10pm, I implore them to check out what Twilights are happening afterwards, grab themselves a drink and head to the next show they can catch – chances are you’ll end up seeing some of the highest quality performances from the best of London’s late night performance scene. What more could you want?
Vault Festival 2019 is at the Vaults, Waterloo from 23rd January until 17th March 2019. For further information about the festival or to book an event visit the festival website here.
Read more reviews and interviews from our Vault Festival 2019 coverage here.