As the Prime Minister announced unprecedented measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, VAULT Festival Directors Mat Burtcher and Andy George had to take the difficult decision to close the festival a week early.  The festival had been due to run until 22nd March, but when Boris Johnson first urged the general public not to visit pubs, clubs, or theatres, the decision was taken not to open for the final week.

The Festival’s final week programme included 98 artists and the team have been working hard to mitigate whatever they can for the artists who have been affected by this cancellation, All ticket holders are entitled to a refund for the performances that have been cancelled but VAULT Festival is encouraging audiences to consider converting their ticket to a donation.

The Festival receives no public funding and relies on the revenue generated to exist each year. The unusual nature of the financial deal VAULT Festival has with its artists means that VAULT Festival takes on a large amount of costs on the artists’ behalf, meaning they don’t pay anything upfront.  Mat Burtcher and Andy George joined us to talk about what this means for the future of this valuable and important arts festival.

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, how are you guys feeling?

Tough is right. It’s honestly felt like the longest weeks of our lives. We’re tired and we’re sad. Since we made the decision to close, we’ve been very busy. We had to pack down the physical space, our digital and online space, and we’re trying to keep communicating with our audiences, our artists and our team as best we can. We’re also trying to remain positive. There may be a huge financial hole we need to fill to survive but we’re determined to find a route out and keep VAULT Festival alive.

You announced that VAULT Festival wouldn’t open for its final week, how tough a decision was that to make?

The hardest decision we’ve ever had to make in one sense, but in another, it was the only thing we could do. It was a safety issue and that always has to come first.

We had spent the previous 10 days on alert, trying to balance our responsibilities and commitment to our artists, staff, and audience, without much clear guidance or support from the government.

Ultimately our decision to close, for the safety of all those who come to, perform at, and work with the Festival, brought a degree of finality and decisiveness that cleared the ambiguity for us. We knew what the platform was from which to work. Even if that platform was an emotional, artistic, and financial skyscraper away from where we should have been.

What are some of the things you had to consider that audiences may not be aware of?

Every decision at VAULT Festival is a balancing act and each choice has an impact on all of our artists, audiences, our team and our partners. We like to consider as many angles as we can with as many people as we can which makes decisions like this even harder.

The Festival runs on a financial knife-edge. We’re not publicly funded, we rely on ticket and drink sales, which make up 96% of our income, to survive. It’s factored into the running of the Festival. Keeping these internal and running economically is how we can give artists the best financial deal possible.

In deciding to close we not only lost the ticket sales but also the food and drink sales. Closing a whole week, along with the decline in attendance the previous week, effectively lost the Festival £189,000 in revenue which we absolutely do not have.

What impact will this have had on the artists and staff of VAULT Festival?

It’ll be different for everyone, but it’s not good. Each show has its own budget, timeline, plans, resources, and the Festival is also usually invaluable in building momentum and creating new opportunities. Losing their run with us jeopardises all of that.

For our team, it’s similar. We work with excellent freelancers and their summers are looking extremely bare. We are trying to help them through this difficult time with support, and kindness – we may not have money, but we have those in abundance.

One thing to be thankful for is that we only lost one week. Most of our team were due to be finishing with us at the end of the festival. It would’ve been far worse if we’d lost more time.

How are you supporting the artists and staff at this time?

As best we can. As soon as the decision to close was made, we knew we had to do everything we could to support and protect those who were part of the Festival.

We’ve made some big decisions, often doing so without looking at the “bottom line” so as not to cloud our judgement. We believe the principles we created VAULT Festival from are more relevant than ever in these moments and we’ll protect our artists and our team however we can.

We’re reducing and waiving costs for artists wherever possible, and we’re keeping as many staff on as we can. We’ve been putting together resource packs and guidance to try and help them stay on their feet during all this immense uncertainty – whether that’s unpicking the Universal Credit system, helping to apply for jobs, or translating new government policies as they’re released.

We’re beyond grateful for everything that our artists and our staff have put into the festival. They have shown huge amounts of support and understanding over the past days, and we’re indebted to them for that. Our industry is facing a huge uphill climb to recover from this, and working together is the only way we’ll be able to do it.

What about the impact on the future of VAULT Festival?

We don’t know yet. The Festival runs at very high risk in order to give the best and most affordable opportunities to people. We have eight weeks to generate enough income to run the operation, and just breaking-even is always a challenge. Losing over an eighth of our income isn’t something we can budget for.

Whether we can continue will be dependent on what happens over the next weeks. We’re not an NPO, or a permanent venue, and we don’t have any PAYE staff so, like many artists and event organisers, nothing the government have announced so far helps us. However, we’re hopeful and we’re determined that we are not going to slip through the cracks.

How can audiences support VAULT Festival and the artists affected now?

We’ve put our best ideas on the website. We are accepting donations and selling what’s left of our merchandise stocks. Artists will need all kinds of support and we’re going to do our best to keep audiences informed of their next moves and future shows.

Lots of our artists are taking their work online, so watch their streams, download (rate & review) their podcasts, and keep engaging with them. They’ve got so much to give, and they want to keep filling your lives with culture and colour.

Once we’re out of lockdown, get out there and show up! We’ve seen a massive switch to last-minute ticket booking over the past couple of years, and the best way to support artists (in our opinion) is to BUY YOUR TICKETS IN ADVANCE. That way you save them the stress, anxiety, and fear that they haven’t sold enough tickets and means they can hopefully sleep better at night.

What message would you like to give to everyone affected by current events in our industry?

We know everyone is facing a difficult road ahead. What we hope most is that everyone remembers to be kind. Be kind to yourself, to others, and to your past and future self. Kindness is one of VAULT Festival’s core values and in the last couple of weeks it’s definitely been the most important of all. We’ll come out of this better if we can remember to be kind.

Find out how you can support VAULT Festival here.

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly

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