Well, this is it. The deadline is approaching. You’ve only got until 31st August to get your VAULT Applications in. We know that’s pretty stressful – so to cheer you up, I thought I’d write a little bit about how we actually go about the programming bit of VAULT. I reckon most of it should be fairly logical, but I know that it’s a world some people find to be mysterious and occasionally secretive – so here’s something to dispel those dark magics and show it for what it is – a great galleon of over-excitement being tossed around by endless waves of admin.
We programme VAULT in a few different ways. No doubt you’ll have heard about the open call for applications, as we never stop going on about it – but it’s not the only way we find productions.
Throughout the year – sometimes over several years – we’ll have ongoing conversations with individual artists, or theatre companies, about what work they’re making and whether something might be a good fit for a festival. These are usually great people we’d love to work with, or people we’ve worked with before who we’d like to welcome back. Sometimes the conversations go nowhere, of course – our ‘main thing’ is trying to make sure that anything which does come to VAULT is a good fit for the space it’s in, and not shoehorned in. There’s nothing worse than putting on a show that’s had to over-compromise in order to fit into a specific schedule or venue, so occasionally we’ll have to let exciting projects go simply because they wouldn’t be at their best at VAULT.
Happily, the flip side of that is that lots of people approach us with VAULT-specific ideas designed to take in all the quirks and oddities of the space – which means we’re never really short of fun suggestions and just-crazy-enough-to-work concepts.
We also just occasionally see something out of the blue – or get an invitation – and will find ourselves looking at a perfect VAULT Festival show. We try and see as much as we can throughout the year because you never know where the next brilliant thing is going to pop up – if you happened to see any of us in Edinburgh this year you’ll most likely have noticed us sprinting endlessly between venues (or, ever so occasionally, to the Negroni bar at Summerhall).
So we come across potential shows via a variety of routes. The vast majority come in through the application process, and once that’s closed (31st August, I tell ya! Don’t dawdle!) we convert each one into a simple, two page document and put them in a stack with everything else we’ve been looking at.
Then we close the door.
And don’t come out.
Until it’s done.
Well, okay, that’s not quite true – obviously we need to sleep – but it’s a hell of a thing to look at a stack of hundreds upon hundreds of applications and realise you’ve got to go through each one with the same patience, energy and enthusiasm. I’m not complaining – it’s a brilliant part of the job, and that moment tends to make my heart beat faster and my smile grow wider, because it’s an enormous privilege to be on the receiving end of such an outpouring of creativity and ambition. That’s why it’s so daunting: we know we’re looking at words that brilliant people have honed and sweated over, so we take it very seriously.
We eat a lot of fruit and drink a lot of coffee (exception: Andy drinks tea, not coffee), and go through them one by one, making notes and discussing as we go. It takes a couple of weeks. As you’ll know if you’ve read the Application Guidelines or my application blog last month, we have a very broad range of artistic criteria. We’re looking to create a thoroughly varied programme, so we’re weighing up the strength of ideas, our perception of an applicant’s ability to deliver their concept, and how, from a step back, the programme would look as a whole. We might get a hundred brilliant pitches for circus shows, for example, but we couldn’t programme them all because VAULT isn’t a circus festival. So there’s lots to juggle to make sure VAULT remains an interesting and exciting place to be, for audiences and participants alike – and that we’re giving the best opportunity we can to people who do present work there.
It’s not just the Festival Directors who look at everything though – we want a range of eyes, minds and perspectives to help us put the programme together. Everybody brings something different to the party so it’s great having writers, directors, previous VAULT award winners, academics, producers, theatre programmers, organisers from different backgrounds and disciplines and so on explore the stack with us. This year we’ll be bringing together quite a big range of people to look through a certain number each, and give us their thoughts. We take those, weigh them up with our own, and get it all down on a big piece of paper.
Then we fight! Sometimes there is blood.
In truth we rarely come to blows, but we do all have different tastes and different ideas about what’s going to make the programme sing. I think that’s a real strength – we’re forced to consider far beyond our own particular proclivities and look at ideas from a host of angles. Some pitches speak to us all in a way that’s more or less an instant lock – others require us to bat it around a bit, sleep on it, figure out how it might work. Sometimes one of us will passionately defend or sell a pitch to the others if they’re not quite on board yet – other times one of us will take the perspective that though this piece of work isn’t exactly to their taste, it looks worthy and high quality and deserves a place in the programme because other people will love it. There’s a lot of give and take, many furrowed brows, and an absolute truckload of twiglets.
We do this for long enough, and eventually we’ve got a full programme of about 180 – 200 things we want to have as part of the Festival.*
Then comes the bit we affectionately refer to as THE JIGSAW. We’ve got the shows we like, sure – now where and when the hell do we put them? If you like spreadsheets, I like to think you’d admire ours. It’s an enormous, multi-page beast of a thing which resembles something halfway between a school timetable and the entire mid-section of House Of Leaves.
Together we spend hours colour-coding, shuffling, switching and deleting as we try to find a spot for each show which meets all its requirements and still fits into the timetable. Usually this means a fair amount of shows end up in a different venue than the one they initially preferred, or at a different timeslot or dates, but that’s the way it goes – we do our level best to put everyone in the place the show will be able to excel the most.
The final step of the programming, then, is sending out the offers. We try and do this within a month of the end of the application process: earlier if we can. We offer dates, venue and times and send out as much info as we’ve got so producers/companies can make an informed decision.
Hopefully, it’s a quick YES and then they’re in – the next bit of the process begins straight away (more on that in a future post). Sometimes it’s a YES BUT which means we have to find them a different week to perform in or there’s something specific which means a certain venue won’t work, so we try and shuffle as best we can – but sometimes we have to say goodbye to things at this stage because there’s only so much wiggle room while we’re confirming other shows simultaneously. And very occasionally it’s a SORRY NO, usually because a show has secured a tour or something since sending in their application and can no longer make the festival. Actually, while we’re on that topic: if you’ve sent an application but can no longer do the dates of VAULT, please let us know! Obviously the process is much easier if we only look at shows that can actually do it. Ta.
So – that’s it, really. Eventually we get enough confirmations to fill up the schedule. Then the work really starts: we’ve usually got under 2 months to get every show on the website, in the box office, and in the print programme, while doing everything else we need to do to make sure the Festival works. I’ll talk a bit more about that in a future post.
There you go – that’s how we programme. And we start in… 10 days. Right. Better get some sleep in advance, then.
Thanks for reading! I’ll make sure to post an address to which you can send Twiglets.
*Actually, we normally end up with far, far more than that – we just simply don’t have room for the majority of applications to succeed, so these days we’re in the genuinely sad position of having to turn down a lot of brilliant work.
I say it every time: the most heartbreaking part of the whole process is sending that email out which says “not this year” to people. It took me two whole days to push the button in 2016 – it’s just a sad feeling that we can’t accommodate more, and having written my own applications to other things numerous times, I know what having your hopes dashed feels like. It sucks. At the moment there’s no way around it – but watch this space.