Are theatre festivals growing out of control? Can VAULT 2019 remain true to its roots as it goes from strength to strength? Daniel Perks catches new Head of Theatre & Performance Gillian Greer to talk about the biggest year yet:

It feels as though every fringe theatre festival is morphing out of all recognition. Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the biggest arts festival in the world, is now so saturated with big budget work that it can’t possibly claim to be a champion of the alternative – a shoestring, black box, make-it-happen-with-a-spotlight-and-gaffer-tape style of production. Has it lost that feeling of inclusiveness, the true camaraderie and spirit that comes from making something from literally nothing?

“I’m very very aware the act of taking a show to Edinburgh gets more expensive and more exclusive and more difficult every year.

“I’m proud that VAULT Festival offers something slightly lower risk. You could come to us; do your show with us for two nights, or a week; get people that you’re interested in getting to see and enjoy it, and then potentially build up from there.”

Gillian Greer is the Head of Theatre & Performance at VAULT Festival. Together with Bríd Kirby, Head of Comedy, and Laura Drake Chambers, Head of Lates, they form the new Programming Team employed last summer to help originators Mat Burt and Andy George steer this ship through its biggest undertaking yet.

Gillian Greer VAULT Festival 2019

Gillian Greer, Head of Theatre & Performance

So, here we have VAULT 2019.

Currently approaching week six of eight.

Offering a potential alternative to the trials and tribulations of four weeks in Edinburgh. That’s four weeks being swallowed into the belly of the biggest artistic beast of them all. Four weeks flyering until your legs give way, plastering on a smile through the tears and convincing the melee of tourists that your show is the one worth seeing amid a sea of thousands.

A Hundred Words for Snow was one of our shows last year and is going to be at Trafalgar Studios very soon. That didn’t have to go to Edinburgh to do it. I’m really proud that we offer an option for those who Edinburgh isn’t feasible for any reason.”

Gillian mentions Tatty Hennessy’s one-woman show, playing March 2019 on a West End stage, as a prime example of theatre that has made its mark without the Edinburgh stamp of approval. But VAULT Festival doesn’t eschew Edinburgh entirely. Every year it provides a platform for shows to come down from the mothership and perform for an adoring public. Unlike Edinburgh, the VAULT Festival atmosphere is far more supportive.

Counting Sheep was at Edinburgh in 2016, we’ve got a whole host of shows from Edinburgh 2018 to VAULT 2019. I’d like to think that we offer something of a victory lap for those shows, a low risk way to transfer to London without completely breaking the bank.”

Counting Sheep at VAULT Festival 2019

Gillian speaks of VAULT Festival with tenderness and passion. Her warmth naturally lends itself to the support that she and the team provide for the acts welcomed into this underground family.

“The opportunity to hire three individuals, whose sole purpose is to dedicate themselves to taking care of the shows in their strands, means that we have a little bit more capacity to think about the emotional and mental wellbeing of our shows than Edinburgh does”.

And she’s right. Not only does VAULT Festival present a lower risk financially, but it feels like a safer space. In a country where poor mental health is piling pressure onto our healthcare system, we can no longer afford to ignore the problems of emotional wellbeing and self-care.

Edinburgh is not a safe space. It has grown far too big, become far too valued a prize for mental safety to ever be a priority.

“Almost every artist in our industry has at one point had an experience in making a piece of work that has been really traumatising.

“I’m not necessarily going to be able to promise that your show is going to be an enormous success and it’s going to kick off your career and open all these doors. But I can certainly put all of the necessary work in place so that you have a nice, safe, beneficial time with us when you bring a show to the Vaults.”

And at its current size, with Gillian, Bríd and Laura as the Programming Team, each playing a vital role in monitoring the welfare of their acts, VAULT 2019 can hold its head high.

But here we have VAULT Festival 2019.

In its seventh year. Growing organically, now with over 400 shows and 2,000 artists. Celebrating sponsorship deals with the likes of StageDoor, Southern Comfort, Meantime Brewing and Nick Hern Books.

VAULT Festival claims to be the people’s festival. And to date it can substantiate this claim by the atmosphere in those tunnels, the experience of every punter that goes underground.

But is it in danger of growing too big to continue putting its people first?

Perhaps not. Because unlike Edinburgh, and despite its growing sponsorship portfolio, VAULT Festival still feels distinctly anti-corporate, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist. Last year it raised £15,000 for charities The Passage and HeForShe. One of its values is Kindness. Slim chance you’ll find a corporate company with a value that emotionally open.

Edinburgh is run by a charity, of course. It raises money and promotes wonderful outreach programmes that support the arts in Scotland. But it also employs 24 full-time staff as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society to oversee governance of the festival all year round.

Full time is not a resourcing model that the economically starved fringe theatre scene can sustainably accommodate.

“Roles that might previously have been full time are becoming more part-time or freelance, but also with more responsibility attached to them. On the one hand, of course that makes things financially more challenging. But at the same time, it’s meant that what traditionally may have been silos in our industry are breaking down.

“The idea that somebody working at the National Theatre and the biggest arts festival in the city and at Clean Break all at the same time… All of these venues are talking to each other in a way they may not have been previously. I think that’s incredibly exciting.”

Gillian is a prime example of someone who juggles multiple roles as she carves out her path in this industry. Someone who is proud to have held many other, less creative, jobs in order to make ends meet while pursuing her passion.

Because that’s what almost all fringe artists do nowadays – they make work in the spare time between multiple temp jobs. They write on the commute, practice monologues in a coffee break, doodle concepts and designs during a monotonous corporate meeting.

They work to live, so they can create and dream.

“I have worked so many weird and wonderful jobs to pay the bills while I’ve been writing about and thinking about and making theatre. McDonalds, cinemas, call centres, a PA, anything I could to make sure I was in a safe place to run about in the evenings and go see lots of plays and write and read scripts.”

And after years feeling ashamed by not making money through their art alone, today’s fringe theatremakers are owning it.

“Please don’t feel that having a day job that isn’t in theatre is not useful or a waste of your time. Actually, it’s your secret weapon. It’s the thing that makes you most employable when the time comes to get your job in the industry.

“People can be quite self-deprecating about the fact that they have a full-time job. But that’s incredible, it will get you where you need to go. Be proud of it.

“The most important thing is to take care of and support yourself physically, financially and mentally, first and foremost.”

So perhaps, despite its continued growth, the essence of VAULT Festival will be what keeps it grounded. Or even, under-grounded.

Who can say whether it will follow in Edinburgh’s footsteps after another couple of years? Let’s hope not.

For now, Gillian and the team have three more weeks of new writing to showcase. And the public have three weeks to catch the next potential West End smash without having to make the trip north in August.

“It [VAULT] will change your life forever.

“There will be something in those tunnels that will speak to your heart and soul in a way that you never anticipated and will make you come out looking at the world differently.”

VAULT Festival 2019 runs until 17 March 2019. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the venue website.