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Deep Inside the Vaults with Mat Burt
Image Credit: Mat Burt (c) Anna Cook

Deep Inside the Vaults with Mat Burt

10 January 2018 Natasha Sutton-Williams

With over three hundred shows including theatre, musicals, stand up and live performance VAULT Festival is the largest platform in London for artists to present innovative, daring new work. London Calling got down and dirty with festival director Mat Burt to find out what really goes on in those subterranean tunnels under Waterloo station.

Image credit: The Folk Contraption (c) Simon Annand

You are known for programming unusual, risk taking shows. Why does this type of live performance appeal to you?  
Challenging, artistically adventurous shows are a joy to make and to watch. It's exciting to see artists innovate in front of you, and try things they daren't anywhere else. Live performance suffers as much from the constraints of a money-based society as anything else. In so many cases the ‘safest’, easiest, broadest appeal shows get the most backing. One of the main driving forces behind VAULT is that we carve out a space that takes away financial barriers for artists so they can try out artistically risky, non-traditional shows.
VAULT Festival hosts an eclectic array of theatre, comedy and live music. What are some of your personal highlights this year? 
Anyone who knows me recognises I'm a sucker for a musical and I'm delighted to have so many in the programme this year. Great Again by Old Sole Theatre Company is an interesting take on modern American society. More More More by Working Birthday takes Michael Barrymore of all people as it's musical subject matter. The People's Rock presents a world in which Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson becomes President. There’s so much variety and creativity in one place. It's very humbling. 
What made you and your collaborators Andy George and Tim Wilson want to establish the festival in the first place? 
We spent a few years making theatre both in and out of London. During that time we became keenly aware of the financial burdens in place when you want to make something new. Finding this space, which was then a near-abandoned storage office for Network Rail, gave us the idea of being able to present work in an environment we could control. Thanks to Network Rail taking a risk with us it was without a game-changing financial cost. It was a wild ride to get the first one together. We had a tiny team, extremely limited experience and no resources to speak of. But the idea resonated with people in a way we didn't expect. So here we are six years later, with a festival fifteen times larger than the first one.
What are some of the challenges when running a festival with 330+ shows? 
There are loads. We build everything from the ground up: the programme, website, box office, the build itself, marketing materials, you name it. The most interesting challenge we encounter as the festival grows is how to keep it personal. In 2012 we had fourteen different shows. Now it's impossible for me to spend half a day with each company; there simply isn't time. Thankfully we have an incredible team of people who are every bit as passionate and dedicated as we strive to be. Putting trust in them to represent the festival when working alongside our visiting companies goes a long way to solving it. 

Image credit: Red Bastard (c) 
You are becoming known as the 'Affordable Edinburgh Fringe'. Why is it important to you to give emerging artists a platform to present their work?
All of us who work here love live performance and believe it is a vital part of our culture and society. I think humans are special because we create meaning out of nothing. What better example than a person writing, rehearsing and telling a story that makes us cry, laugh or change our minds? The brave souls who choose to put on work at the VAULT are making the world a more colourful and empathetic place. Being even a small part of that is a tremendous honour. Doing this kind of artistic work is fucking hard for a thousand reasons. If we've managed to create a platform that makes it even slightly easier, I'll be happy to keep it going till they drag me out of the building. We have a small army of people who feel the same, for whom we are very grateful. 
What is one of the strangest things that has happened at the festival?
The birthday war. Last year artists Dean Rodgers and Paul Flannery were doing shows at VAULTS. Their birthdays fell on the same week when they were performing. They each recruited teams of fellow artists and staff, equipped them with Nerf guns, and began a venue-wide birthday war to discover who was the true birthday king. This involved everything from secret missions to custom cocktails to a full on rock band sing off with about eighty people involved. Paul won.
With over 300 shows to choose from, VAULT Festival commences 24 January to 18 March.

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