With 2021 written off as “2020, the sequel” in theatre, hope were pinned on a better 2022. The last thing anyone wanted was “2020 part 3: the nightmare continues”. Now, we’re barely into the new year, and we’ve got a dose of the latter. With only three weeks before its launch, Vault 2022 has been cancelled in its entirety. Worse, this was supposed to be the big relaunch. Whilst Brighton Fringe 2020 and Edinburgh Fringe 2021 were happy to downplay expectations and carry on with the few acts who still wanted to take part, Vault chose to cancel its 2021 festival back in July 2020 with the intention of a full-scale relaunch for its 10th anniversary year.
The worst news of all, however, is the timing of this. It’s one thing to cancel a big annual event before you’ve even started, but quite another to pull the plug at the last moment. For one thing, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of acts seeing the Vault Festival as the big break only to have it taken away from them at the last moment. That must be gutting. The bigger issue, however, is what happens to the Vault Festival itself. As Stephen Walker observed with relation to Buxton Fringe, most decisions to go ahead or cancel come when a decision has to be made on the money. It’s hard to imagine the Vault Festival could have got this close to a start date without a significant financial investment. Unless they have some very good insurance, that’s not coming back. And, unfortunately, the precedents we have to go on is not good.
But first of all, a look of how we got here.
How things went wrong
Was it the right decision to cancel? Probably. It’s hard to see how they could have struggled on. The Vault Festival was caught in the perfect storm here. London (thanks to its unusually high population of anti-vaxer twunts) has by far the highest Omicron infection rates. There might just be some signs of the wave hitting a peak, but there’s no knowing how long it will take to go back to something sane. There is also the possibility of the government going into a panic and over-reacting, and experience shows this means closing theatres first and Wetherspoons last. According to their statement, they looked at numerous ways of making the festival work, all of which, in their words “were found to put our staff and artists at risk of being subjected to months of stress, uncertainty, and insurmountable financial vulnerability.” There are no details of what options were being considered, but it seems pretty obvious that even if the organisers held their nerve and pressed on with a new way forwards, it’s unimaginable that you could hold together hundreds of artists with their own health/finance worries. Under the circumstances, it seems they took the only choice they could.
A harsh conclusion you might draw from this is that this is what you get when you ignore the risk from Covid. That’s not entirely fair – this risk had been taken into consideration, and there were contingency plans in place. When applications opened, spaces were advertised with two different capacities: one with full capacity, and another with a capacity reduced should social distancing be necessary. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way these contingencies weren’t enough. Neither did it help that the Vault under Waterloo Station are about the most Covid-unfriendly space you can imagine: cramped underground spaces, little natural ventilation, and even if you space out people in the rooms there’s still only one crowded corridor to walk along. The festival fringes were at an advantage here: Edinburgh and Brighton made heavy use of spacious custom-built pop-up venues, whilst smaller fringes didn’t really have any crowding to worry about.
However, I really must question the wisdom over their decision of the one thing they had in their control: the date. Apologies for sounding like Captain Hindsight over this, but I had raised this concern before. Even before Omicron came along, it was pretty much a given that infection rates were going to be higher in winter with more time spent indoors. We’ll have to wait and see how much of a difference this actually makes, but I’d still rate the chances of a festival running March-May or April-June much better. Brighton Fringe did something similar last year, making the (in hindsight very very correct) decision to push back the festival three weeks, but they did that four months in advance. It’s hard to see how you could reschedule a festival of the Vault’s complexity at such short notice.
If there is one lesson we’ve learned from the last twelve months, it’s that it pays to be flexible. It’s not just timing – Buxton Fringe is stuck with July because they’re dependent on volunteers who clear the diary for that month alone, and whilst Edinburgh could in theory have postponed to September, there was no way of knowing at the time whether September would have been any better or worse than August. However, Edinburgh Fringe’s venues were designed to be very versatile against ever-changing conditions, whilst Buxton led the way in flexibility between in-person and online depending on who came forward with what. One price of flexibility was leaving a lot of programming to the last moment, and consequently the fringes were all smaller. But a half-size festival (or even a twentieth-size festival in the case of Edinburgh) that goes ahead is better than a full-size festival that gets cancelled.
But what’s done is done. We must now think about where the Vault Festival goes from here. And this is where I get worried.
Bad times around the corner?
The prospect that terrified Edinburgh Fringe six months ago was being cancelled two years in a row. By then, a lot of the established regulars had abandoned their fringe plans and instead made alternative plans for the summer south of the border. Nor did it help that the Big Four had set up pop-up venues in London and Coventry just in case Edinburgh fell through. The big worry was that after two years, the community they’d built up would fall apart. People who used to come back year after year would get used to not coming and stay away permanently. They’re not necessarily out of the woods yet, with the 2021 fringe only being tiny, but the big success with audience for the few acts that stuck around must be an encouragement to come back. Regardless, Vault has fallen foul of what Edinburgh escaped, and has an outright cancellation two years running.
The good news here is that I don’t think a double cancellation with be as damaging to the Vault as it would have been to any of the festival fringes. It is true that many of the acts who would have gone to the Vault will instead perform at one of the many other London venues that takes fringe theatre, and if they decide they like that they may never come back. However, the Vault Festival is massively oversubscribed – I believe there’s six times as many applicants as there are spaces. Even if we imagine something as disastrous as interest dropping by two thirds for the next Vault Festival, that’s still plenty of acts to choose from and more than enough to make up a full programme. For that reason, I’m confident that enough of the community built around the Vault Festival will stick around to keep it going.
The thing I’m worried about is money. I have no inside knowledge on what’s on the books on the Vault Festival or any other festival or venue. Nevertheless, the precedent is not encouraging. When everything stopped with Brighton Fringe with six weeks ago, they needed a pretty major bailout covering not only Brighton Fringe but also some of the bigger venues. The consensus is that were it not for this bailout, neither the October 2020 mini-fringe nor the June 2021 relaunch fringe would have happened. Unless Vault Creative Arts has deeper pockets than we think, or has a decent cancellation insurance, it’s going to throw into question whether Vault 2023 can happen.
And that leads on to the other issue – will they get a bailout like Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Fringe got? Edinburgh Fringe is a national institution and it would have been unthinkable for Westminster or Holyrood to allow it to collapse on its watch (although there was a point last year where I briefly began to wonder). Brighton Fringe was very lucky to have a backer who was prepared to come to the rescue. The first one sadly doesn’t apply here as much as we might want it to. Who knows, maybe the Vault has someone prepared to do for them what the Pebble Trust did for Brighton, but as of yet I don’t know of such a benefactor. There will doubtless be other people willing to chip in if the going gets tough. But will that be enough?
I’m not trying to talk down the Vault’s prospects. I hope my pessimism in unfounded and there’s actually nothing to worry about. But until then, be prepared for whatever may come.
And now, the good news …
The only consolation of yesterday’s news and what it entails is that it could be worse. Had this happened last year, it would have been ten times as disastrous, with many of the organisations who might have helped out battling to save themselves. Or, even worse, you could have had several major organisations going into the red at the same time, jostling with each other for donations from the same pool of people. If the Vault Festival must rely of the generosity of others to survive, they can surely count on the whole of the London Fringe scene rallying together for them.
We also should remember that there doesn’t seem to be any threat to the venue itself. If an art organisation goes bust, another organisation might be able to move into the building it left behind, but if the building gets sold off to be made into yet another chain pub, it’s really not coming back. It seems unlikely that anyone is going to find another use for the arches underneath Waterloo station. If the worst came to the worst for Vault Creative Arts, I’m hopeful that the community to built up around the festival would be able to rally together and put together a festival of its own. I really hope we don’t have to contemplate this scenario, but all is not lost should this happen.
And if we look instead at the optimistic scenario, where Vault picks itself up in no time and is financially secure enough to carry on, there’s always the prospect of another Fringe Futures festival. That’s what they did last year in partnership with the Pleasance in lieu of their normal festival, and that was a big success. It even formed the basis of much of the Pleasance’s hastily-contructed programme for Edinburgh. Whether they can arrange a repeat of this as a Plan B at short notice is another question, but the Pleasance had a crash course in organising a last-minute festival last year, so they should be in a good position to help out.
The Vault Festival is down but not out. The biggest thing it has counting in its favour is the good will it’s built up over the years, and like Alphabetti Theatre five years ago, this might be what saves it. But the worst thing that could could happen now is complacency. It would be awful for this to spell the end of the Vault Festival, but it would be be even more awful if everybody assumed it would all be fine.