A writer’s guide to making the most out of VAULT Festival

In this guest post, playwright Naomi Westerman spills the beans on her top tips for writers who want to make the most out of their VAULT Festival experience…

Last year was my VAULT Festival debut, with two shows (the one-woman kidnap drama CLAUSTROPHILIA, and the feminist queer sex comedy PUPPY). This year I’m returning to VAULT with, for some reason, another two shows (the one-woman crime noir pastiche DOUBLE INFEMNITY, and ZINA, a verbatim play about female sexuality and feminism within Islam).

Coming into my second VAULT Festival feels a lot less daunting, having a learnt a few tips and tricks from last year. So I’ve compiled a small guide to help any writers (newbies or VAULT veterans) make the most out of a brilliant festival!

  1. Don’t plan to do too much*

Doing VAULT Festival is like nothing else I’ve experienced. With Edinburgh an increasingly  commercial and expensive leviathan, VAULT continues to provide a fantastic platform for new and established talent, while still retaining a proper underground fringe vibe.

It is also one of the only festivals of its size that offer a box office split with no hire or registration fees, which is frankly astounding.

Though VAULT Festival is fantastic, it’s also huge, overwhelming and, at times, scary. Last year I went into it as a newbie playwright, knowing nothing and no one. It was a sharp learning curve. And having two shows meant the workload I had to deal with became excessive.

As the old saying goes, quality is better than quantity (and it’s also better for your sanity). Though I have two shows again this year, I bought in co-writers to help me with one to avoid the madness of last year!

*That’s unless you’re a masochist who enjoys having no life of course.

Naomi’s VAULT show, DOUBLE INFEMNITY

2. Don’t have preconceptions, especially about your own shows.

I ended up with two shows at VAULT 2017 by accident. A producer/director (the wonderful Rebecca Gwyther) who had previously directed CLAUSTROPHILIA asked if she could take it to VAULT.

I was also in the middle of extending a sketch I’d written about middle class dogging into a sprawling epic about porn, facesitting, protest, periods, women’s magazines and Nick Clegg (seriously) and thought VAULT sounded like a good place to try this new thing out as a work-in-progress.

I went in with such low expectations for PUPPY, and instead found it comforting that proper professional theatre makers were doing a proper professional production of CLAUSTROPHILIA, which I regarded as my serious play

But then the festival started, and PUPPY started to get buzz, and started to sell out, and started being namedropped in intimidating publications like the Guardian, and CLAUSTROPHILIA… didn’t. It didn’t do terribly, it just didn’t do much of anything. Unfortunately you can never know how people are going to react to a show, which leads us onto…

3. Nobody knows anything, so do the projects you want to do

I’ve never been able to predict what will work and what won’t. I don’t think anyone can. So don’t make decisions based on what you think other people will like (for theatre and in life).

I suggested bringing ZINA (a verbatim play I was commissioned to collate and edit) to VAULT for a trial run, and I was certain it would do well there. An extraordinary true story of a Muslim woman who went from devout Hijabi to dominatrix, it felt so vital and urgent.

As I write, we are six weeks away from opening and haven’t sold a single ticket. And incidentally I’m telling you this because everyone RTs their praise and airbrushes their achievements, but it’s important to share the downs as well as the ups.

If you’re a writer going into VAULT for the first time and you’re show isn’t selling well, don’t panic. VAULT is a learning curve, whether in relation to the script, staging or marketing.

And don’t worry that everyone else is selling amazingly well and it’s just you. It’s really not. Best thing to do? Reach out to us other writers on Twitter – we’d love to come and see (and promote!) your show.

4. Work with good people

I couldn’t have done Puppy last year without Rafaella Marcus, a fine director and dramaturg who I met via a bizarre theatre speed-dating event and have stuck with, leech-like, ever since.

I ended up co-writing DOUBLE INFEMNITY with two other generous and talented writers Catherine O’Shea and Jennifer Cerys (you may be familiar with her work, as she’s the LPB Editor!), and new all-female theatre company Paperclip offered to co-produce it.

There are so many good, talented people in theatre. You don’t need to work with those who are neither. Don’t say yes to anyone or anything if it doesn’t feel right, for fear of losing an “opportunity.”

Naomi and her co-writers, Catherine & Jennifer, getting into the crime-noir mood

5. Stick together

Despite so many companies performing, VAULT feels surprisingly uncompetitive. People tend to come to VAULT for the experience, to spend the entire evening hanging out seeing loads of stuff, rather than visiting for one particular show.

So lean into it and support each other. See each other’s shows. Tweet up. Talk. I set up the Facebook group Women of VAULT for this very purpose – VAULT shows just how brilliant being the theatre community can be.

6. Start early

Start thinking about marketing as early as possible. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but draw up marketing lists and start sending out press releases at least a month ahead of time.

Theatre bloggers, online magazines, and podcasts all offer opportunities to market your show. And don’t forget the power of social media.

Ditto technical requirements. You don’t want to be hunched over a laptop wrestling with sound effect mp3s at 1am the night before you open (which I swear I’ve never done…)

7. Want to get involved next year?

Have a realistic idea about what you want to get out of VAULT, and what you can practically achieve. It’s a good idea to attend some shows this year (there’s hundreds to pick from!) to give you idea of what they programme and the venue itself.

A full six-week run of a 10-cast play at VAULT is probably unrealistic. On the other hand, know your own worth. If your show needs a certain size venue or a certain number of performances to make it viable, that’s okay too. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

Naomi’s VAULT show, ZINA

Some parting advice…

Being part of VAULT Festival is an amazing opportunity, both to get your own work out there, but also to see the amazing other things that are happening quite literally underground. Good luck to everyone involved!

I thought I’d leave you with some parting practical advice about VAULT:

  • Make your shows as low-tech as possible.
  • With so many shows on in a relatively small number of spaces, space and time is at a premium.
  • Shit happens: PUPPY had to open without a tech due to venue keys being lost. Getting upset doesn’t help.
  • The get-ins and get-outs are tight.
  • Try not to use props or sets you can’t carry.
  • It’s underground. Wear long socks.
  • Try to get enough sleep. Drink plenty of water.
  • Being part of VAULT means you get to see any VAULT show that is not sold-out for free. Go to as much stuff as possible.
  • VAULT parties are the best parties.

Naomi Westerman’s show DOUBLE INFEMNITY is running at VAULT Festival from January 31st to February 4th. This show has been co-written by Catherine O’Shea and LPB Editor Jennifer Cerys. Naomi’s show ZINA is also running from February 21st – 25th.

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