Programming the Largest Curated Arts Festival in the Universe (probably)!
by Gillian Greer Head of Theatre
VAULT Festival is a curious beast.
The largest curated arts festival certainly in the city, definitely the country, most likely the world (and so it stands to reason, the universe), we constantly strive to balance accessibility with quality, fresh new voices with boisterous crowd pleasers, good nights out with gut-punching theatre. In our experience, the best of our shows are often all of the above.
The strand I am responsible for, Theatre and Performance, makes up more than half of VAULT Festival’s output this year. That’s over 200 exciting new shows from an incredibly diverse selection of creative teams, selected from over 900 applications. While our programme may seem big, for every show programmed at the Festival, 3 more received the dreaded email beginning with ‘Unfortunately…’. As an artist, I know that that email never gets less painful. So, it was incredibly important to me upon joining the VAULT Festival team that the system we used to build our programme was responsible, thorough, fair and transparent, with diverse programming and bold decision-making at its heart. It also had to be FAST.
From the moment the deadline passed on 29th August right through to mid-October, our team has been working tirelessly to read, consider, process and programme each and every one of our applications. Eight readers with a wide range of perspectives and experiences were selected – some members of the VAULT Steering Team, some artists who had made work at the festival before, some dramaturgs with little experience at VAULT but with an incredible eye for spotting talent. They were each assigned a reading partner, someone with a totally different approach to themselves, and each pair was assigned 200 applications.
These applications, along with script samples, video material, audio recordings, sketches and all manner of other supporting material were read and scored twice out of ten, with partners frequently jousting over applications on which they disagreed. An external panel of Third Readers were brought in to break deadlocks, and the whole process ended with a Round Table discussion, where the programme finally began to take shape. Then, with the wisdom and mentorship of Head of Production Andy George, the process of matching the right show with the right dates and venue began.
Early on in the process, we talked at length about what readers should be looking for in applications. Our process was primarily idea-driven – applications with bold and coherent new ideas were celebrated above all else. The strength of your creative team and how ‘polished’ the idea was were important considerations, but ultimately secondary ones. It became increasingly clear that we all agreed that above all else, VAULT Festival 2019 would be a place for beginnings, for experimentation, for fierce artists with bold new ideas and dynamic and fresh perspectives. We wanted shows that dealt with the zeitgeist yes, but more importantly we wanted work that told us something we didn’t know before, that made us think or made us feel, that forced us to examine our convictions, made us laugh until we cried or cry until we laughed. We genuinely believe that this programme represents the most talented and fearless artists who applied to us this year and we are so incredibly excited to welcome them underground.
We are really proud of the diversity of our Festival this year, but realise that we as an industry have a long way to go. Year on year, well over 50% of VAULT Festival’s output defines itself as Female-led, but often many of these incredible female creatives struggle to make the jump from places like VAULT Festival to mid and large-scale venues. We are incredibly excited to support every last one of these amazing women, but we would be even happier to see them graduate to the next level of the theatre ecology with the same ease as their male counterparts.
We also strive to programme as many voices from underrepresented communities as we possibly can, and we have a higher percentage of artists of colour, artists who identify as disabled and LGBTQIA+ artists at the Festival this year than ever before. But, we recognise we still have a lot of work to do. There isn’t enough colour in our industry, both on our stages and off, in the work we create and in the people who decide what work is made. Financial barriers often mean that working class artists are locked out of the festival scene. With the most accessible financial deal possible and a rigorous and transparent selection process that has diversity as a core aim, Team VAULT Festival are dedicated supporting little-heard and little-supported voices above and beyond all else.
Artistic Directors and programmers take note – the future of your industry is right under your noses. We hope to see you underground very, very soon.