I summoned a Demon

"Hold this thread, please," says Katy Schutte, our host for the ceremony, as we step into the Pit.

I held the thread up by my head and Katy unwinds the spool down to the ground so that we now have a length of cotton that matches my height.

This is my last trip to the Vaults. Well, that's not quite true. I have one more Vault Festival venue to go. But it's not in the Vaults tunnels, so perhaps it doesn't quite count.

Now, I can see that look on your face. It's a look that says - Max, you lied to us. You said that Talented Mr Ripley was your last Vaults show. And now you're saying that not only was it lot your last performance at the festival, it wasn't even the last one to be taking place in the Vaults.

To which I say... well done. You got me. But if you recall a little further back, I managed to turn up to the Pit for this sho a whole month early. So really, if you think about it... this post is just an extension of that one. A four-week-long immersive experience, if you will.

And, following on from that train of logic, perhaps that is how it was meant to be. I was called to the Pit by forces unknown and unseen, for reasons that have yet to be revealed to me. Perhaps they wanted to make a measure of me too. In preparation for my return.

"You can take a seat to the south," she added, standing back up, helpfully pointing to a bench just in case I didn't know where south was (I didn't).

The Pit is the smallest of the Vaults venues, with just enough room for a narrow stage and three concentric circles of bench seats. The same benches I had found in the Cavern for Carnival of Crows. I think these must be the Vault Festival 'alternative' chairs. Their vintage/witchy/spiritual option, for vintage/witchy/spiritual artists. They're bloody uncomfortable.

"I have a task for you," said Katy, once we're all almost sat down. "In the centre of the circle, you'll find paper and pens. I want you to write a message to a man who did you wrong."

The ladies to my left burst out of their seats and scramble to get started. They have words that need to be said.

It's then I realise that we're nearly all women. I look around. Only four men, in a room of women.

Read More

I Done Fucked Up

It's the seventh week of 2019. Which is also, coincidentally, the seventh week of the theatre marathon. And right now, I have more theatres than days checked off on the calendar. I should by rights be feeling pretty proud of myself. I'm doing well. Really well.

I'm about a fifth of the way through my list, and we haven't even got to the end of month two. I'm ahead of schedule.

But I don't.

If anything, I'm dogged by the constant thought that I need to up my game. Fit in more theatres.

Which is ridiculous, I know.

But here's the thing: the marathon keeps on getting longer.

Only last week @weez sent me a tweet with the name of a theatre I had never even heard of before. Which I am incredibly grateful for, don't get me wrong. I'd rather find out now than on 31st December.

But every time I get a new theatre to add to the list, I end up feeling like I am yet another step behind. Or another theatre behind, rather.

I didn't help that the show I had been planning to see on Friday night had gone and cancelled. A one-night performance at a venue that, shall we say, doesn't have the fullest of programmes.

It was a serious blow. 

It was all starting to feel like it was getting away from me.

I had to do something. Knock a whole pile of venues down in one go. Help regain some control of this damn mess.

So, on Saturday, I was going to go full festival mode and head back to the Vaults to hit up four shows in one day.

Because that is how sensible people react when they are only a sixth of the way through a year-long challenge. Especially when they are feeling rougher than an emery board. They panic, choke down enough cough syrup to treat a tuberculosis ward, and prepare to have their emotions pulverised by seven hours of theatre, finishing with a riot.

Yup, I was going to that Belarus Free Theatre immersive thing. Well, it's not actually Belarus Free Theatre. But it has people from Belarus Free Theatre connected to it. And I wouldn't be partaking in the immersive elements. But still. It was my last show of the day. At 9pm. And I'm old. And sick. I should definitely be in bed at 9pm on a Saturday night. Not watching other people mess around pretending to be revolutionaries.

Still, I figured I would worry about that once I got to it.

It was going to be a long day. No point working myself up about these things too early.

When I got to the Vaults, I headed through the main door. I was pretty excited by that. I hadn't as yet managed to see a show at any of the theaters that lay beyond. Unit 9 was all the way down the other end of the tunnel, the Studio was accessed through a small door just to the right of the main one, while Seance was housed in a van parked up on Lower Marsh Steet.

My hopes were soon dashed when an usher, no doubt sensing my pre-paid anxiety plan, asked what show I was going to see.

"Ah," he said, grabbing a small map from the box office counter. "You need to go back outside, all the way to the end of the tunnel, turn left and then left again. You'll be there in thirty seconds. And there's a Greggs right on the corner."

I'm not entirely sure whether he mentioned that last bit as a landmark, or if he thought I was in need of a good vegan sausage roll. Both, quite possibly.

I did what he said. Walked through the tunnel to the end of Leake Street, turned left, and turned left again, and ended up in Granby Place. No sign of a theatre, and more importantly, no sign of a Greggs either. That wasn't right. I turned around and headed back. Leake Street. Turn left. Ignore Granby Place. Walk on, keeping an eye on any openings on the left and... yup, there it was. Greggs on the corner of Launcelot Street. My knight in pasty armour.

And further down there was a metal gate, small queue, and the now familiar sight of the pink-jacketed usher.

I'd made it.

I joined the queue.

"Can you open your bag," the pink-jacket on queue duty asked the man at the head of it.  Hey duly unzipped it and pink-jacket rummaged around inside. "You can't take that in," she said, pulling out a bottle of water. "You can tip it out and fill it again inside."

Goddammit.

I watched in horror as the man poured out his water onto the pavement. Oh no. I definitely didn't want to empty out my own water bottle. Not with my nice cold water from the fridge at home. Who knew what the water at the Vaults was like. Or if it was even properly cold.

I unzipped my bag and checked to see that my own bottle was well hidden.

I had done good work that morning. My bottle was utterly invisible, under cover of my umbrella, book, makeup bag, purse, and all the rest of it.

As I reached the front of the line, I presented my own bag for inspection.

Pink-jacket, reached into my bag and pulled aside the book. I held my breath.

"That's fine," she said, waving me through.

I breathed again, and with the smug smugness of a smug person who has never yet had a bottle confiscated at the theatre, I headed in.

"Name?" asked the woman on box office.

I gave it.

She checked it against the list, and nodded to herself. "You've got a restricted view ticket, but I'm just going to upgrade you so that you're an Observer now."

I stared at her.

That wasn't right. What did she mean Observer ticket? There were only Observer tickets for the riot show. Not this one. Unless this was the riot show. Wait. No. That was this show? The one I was at now? I thought I'd be doing that in the middle in the night.

"I need to stamp your hand," she said slowly, holding the stamp out ready.

Shit. I wasn't prepared.

"Oh, right," I managed at last, presenting her with my hand.

Too late I realised that I should probably have thanked her for the upgrade.

Shit. It was too late. I'd already found myself into another queue. My third one of the afternoon.

An usher stepped out and raised his voice over the din of people chatting and drinking. "If you are an Observer with a green stamp, you can go straight in and take your drink, bag, and coats. If you are a Protester or a Front Line Protester with a blue or purple stamp you cannot take anything in."

I clutched my bag, with its secret water bottle.

I had made the right decision.

The Forge, like all the other Vault venues, is housed within a railway tunnel. For Counting Sheep two banks of seating had been set up at both end. And in the middle - a long table with bench seats either side. If you squinted, you could almost make pretend that it was the Grand Hall at Hogwarts.

I ignored the benches. They were for the Protesters (Front Line and... Rear Protesters, I guess). As an Observer, I had access to the real seating at the ends, protected from the action going on in the middle by a metal barrier.

The show began with a short speech, and a bowl of borsht.

Enamel crockery was piled up at one end of the table alongside a matching jug of spoons, with instructions to take one of each and pass them down.

Next came steaming pots of the red soup and tiny cups of a white topping.

"This is sour cream," explained one of the cast members as he started handing out the cups.

Wooden trays of bread followed, then bottles of vodka.

The smell of the borst made its way to the Observer's carrel.

My stomach gurgled in anticipation of a meal not meant for me.

Only Protesters get to eat.

But then, someone came over with a tray. And then another.

upload.jpg
upload.jpg

Bread with some sort of eggy topping. And pickles.

Perhaps because it was a matinee and not sold out, and they had leftover food, the trays kept on coming.

I greedily took everything on offer.

It was delicious.

But as the food supply died down, my cough decided to make an appearance.

All that bread had dried out my throat.

I needed a drink.

I reached under my seat and pulled out my bag, using the loud music as cover for unzipping it. I reached in, digging past the umbrella, the book, my makeup bag, purse and all the rest of it. Huh. I turned my bag around so that I could try from another direction. Still nothing.

Oh no.

I tried again, more frantic this time. But it was no good. I already knew the truth.

I had forgotten my water bottle. It was still at home. In the fridge.

Shit.

It was too late anyway, the cough had started. I swapped my bag for my scarf and did my best to smother it, but the pumping music did more to cover the noise than my scarf ever could.

One of the cast came over and started clapping his hands to the beat. Once, twice, then three times on the knees. He leaned in, encouraging us to follow him.

One, two, then three on the knees. One, two, then three on the knees.

There was no escape.

We had taken the bread, and now we had to clap for our supper.

I tried. I really did. But I'm never going to be a rhythmic clapper. As soon as the cast member disappeared back into the scrum of Protesters, I lost the beat.

After that, every time a cast member reappeared, I got out my phone and started taking photos. With photography of the show sanctioned, nay encouraged, it was the perfect cover.

upload.jpg

Eventually, the riot died. The noise quietened. The emotions intensified. And then the show ended.

As the Protesters went to pick up their coats, we were directed towards the exit, found in the opposite end of the tunnel to the one we had gone in by.

I wound my way around the seating, round the corner, through a door, and found myself in the Vaults' bar.

That was... odd. Why had they sent us out to roam the streets of Vauxhall if the space could be accessed through the bar? Yet more proof that us mere mortals are not meant to understand the workings of Vault Festival management.

But I had no time to ponder such matters as there were only ten minutes until my next show.

I fought my way out of the bar and into the main corridor of the Vaults. It was the first time I'd made it that far without being directed back outside. I could finally see what the Vaults actually looked like. And the answer is: really fucking dark. Black walls are topped by a black ceiling, and punctuated by black doors. Painted with white circles. Just so you can make them out in all the blackness.

The doors each led to a different theatre space: Brick Hall, Cavern, Pit, and so on. You can tell which is which from the glittering signs above their doors, and the lightboxes posted on the wall next to them. Lightboxes that I would later find out turned red when there was a show going on inside.

On the floor (black), were painted white lines - guiding our feet as to where to stand as we queued to get into our shows.

After fighting my way through the thoroughfare, I found my way to the door marked Pit and joined the line.

"Name?" asked the usher on the door.

I gave it.

She scrolled through the list of bookings on her tablet.

"Did you just book your ticket?" she asked.

"No?"

She continued scrolling, down to the bottom of the page and then back up again. It didn't take long. These venues are pretty small.

"Hang on," I said. "Let me bring up my e-ticket."

She glanced at it on my phone. "Can you open it?" she asked. I had only opened the email, with its preview of the attachments.

I tried. But there was no signal.

Okay, no need to panic, I told myself. But I wasn't listening. I was too busy panicking.

She radioed through to box office.

As she did that, I noticed something. The name of the show, written on the board. It was not the show I was expecting to see.

Had I got them in completely the wrong order? Was I living my day backwards? Starting with the last show and ending with the first?

I showed her the ticket again, pointing out the discrepancy.

"You came a month early," she said.

Oh.

"Oh."

She was right. The ticket was for March. Not February.

"Dammit. Thank you. Shit. Thanks."

A minute later I found myself disgorged back onto Leake Street.

If I had any sense I would have turned around and quickly bought a ticket for the show just about to start in the Pit. But I hadn't researched the show. I didn't know what it was about. I didn't know if it was... and I shudder to say the word... immersive. I was already at peak levels of anxiety. There was no way I could put myself through that. It was too big a risk.

Instead, I was going to do something utterly safe. Something I had done before. Something I knew to be good, and true, and pure. I was going to go to Caffe Nero and get myself a hot chocolate and toasted teacake. With marshmallows.

upload.jpg

A little more than an hour later, I was back. In the black of the tunnel. But standing outside a different theatre. This time was the turn of Brick Hall.

"Are you here for Birthright?" asked the usher on the door.

"Yes," I said hopefully. I had checked the e-ticket on my phone every ten minutes since last leaving the Vaults. I really hoped I was there to see Birthright.

She brought out the dreaded tablet and checked the list.

Thank the theatre gods. This time my name was on it.

Finally, I could relax. I was at the right venue. At the correct time. In the proper month, even. I was back on track. Almost. I mean, sure, I had messed up my four-show day. But a three-show day was still pretty impressive. And I could pick up that fourth show easily enough. I already had the ticket. Everything was fine.

I leant against the wall and lazily watched the people drift back and forth from the bar.

But then I noticed something. Something terrifying.

One word. Written in lights above the door of the venue opposite.

upload.jpg

Glasshouse.

Did I have that venue on my list? I couldn't remember.

I got out my phone and checked my spreadsheets.

Nope. No entry for Glasshouse.

Shit.

I looked at the board, where all the upcoming shows that day would be written down, hoping to only find a list of music or comedy shows. Shows that would discount it from the marathon.

The board was empty.

Was that good or bad? I couldn't tell.

Good if it never had another show for the rest of the year.

Bad if I had already missed the only shows it planned on holding within its walls.

Shit.

This would never have happened if the Vault Festival had set over a list of all their shows categorised by venue as I'd very politely asked them if they could. I mean... not to be all "the theatre festival ate my homework," but doing data entry for hundreds and hundreds of shows by hand is bound to lead to errors. Which is what I'd had to do when working out my marathon plan for the Vaults, as the festival webpage doesn't allow searching by venue. I had literally clicked on every theatre and performance show, one by one, in order to build my spreadsheets. And now I find I'd left out a whole goddamn theatre.

"Is this your first show?" asked a front of houser, interrupting my panic attack.

I didn't know how to answer that. "It's my second," I said. "Of the day." I couldn't admit that it should have been my third.

The door to the theatre opened. "The house is now open, if you'd like to step inside."

Thank the gods.

upload.jpg

Despite the name, the Pit is set out as a more conventional fringe-theatre space. With the trains rumbling overhead I could have been at the Union Theatre. Raised banks of seating overlooked the flat floor of the stage. It looked almost exactly like the Studio, except for the black curtain hiding what looked like an impressive section of tunnel behind it. And the two actors from Birthright. They emerged all youthful and full of energy, and I was able to giggle along with their antics for an hour before I was released back into the black once more.

What now? It was ten past seven. My final show of the day wasn't until nine.

And Caffe Nero shut at eight.

I considered the bar. I'd been asked by someone who is aware of my marathon, but didn't read the blog, whether I had drinks at the theatres I visited. "You're reviewing the experience, aren't you?"

Well, yes, I am. But firstly, I'm not much of a drinker. So, my theatre experience doesn't tend to include alcohol unless my theatre companion is after one (or rather, needs one, after spending the evening with me...). And secondly, can we take a moment to consider the cost? I mean... blimey. If you think programmes are expensive, have you seen the cost of a G&T in a theatre bar? Lastly, and most importantly - I'm going to the theatre seven or eight times a week at the moment. That's a lot of alcohol to be consuming. I'm already worried about my mental health in relation to this challenge. Let's not add concern for my liver to my list of woes.

So, not the bar then.

There was only one thing for it.

I was going to Pret.

By the looks of it, most people were going for the other option.

When I arrived back for my final show, ushers were blocking the corridor, trying to shut people up with the use of laminated signs are hard glares.

But it was no use.

The screen advertising "menus inspired by the EU," was causing much hilarity in the people walking past, clutching Vault Festival branded cups.

I found my final theatre of the evening and hugged the wall.

The corridor was packed. Drinkers and theatre-goers pushing past each other in both directions.

The Cavern turned out to be appropriately named. The largest Vaults venue I had seen thus far, I seemed to be walking through the long tunnel for an age before reaching the seats.

Even these were different. Spindly wooden benches, they looked like the corrupt offspring of a church pew and the stile in a fence.

"Two?" asked the usher.

"One," I said putting up a single finger.

He directed me towards the front row.

The benches were even more ungodly then they looked. The seat portion too narrow to rest on comfortably.  The show hadn't even started before I was wriggling around, trying to find a better position. But there was no better position. Leaning forward or back, sacrificing either your bottom or your thighs in order to save the other from torment.

upload.jpg

I tried to turn my attention on other things: the winklepickers being worn by the beautiful goth couple sitting next to me, the pretty birdcages hung on the wall, the black arch sunk into the back wall that looked like it was a portal to the underworld.

Then I tried to focus on Molly Beth Morossa's beautiful words, but it's hard to concentrate on a gothic tale of murder and intrigue when every vile deed she describes with macabre detail is matched by a equally macabre pain attacking your bum.

When my inevitable coughing fit arrived, I lost my balance, almost throwing myself off the poor excuse for a seat, as I fought to hold both them, and myself, back.

Shame. 

Loved the Carnival of Crows. The thematic carnival seating, however, can go burn in hell.

upload.jpg