When NSDF went online

The efforts of arts organisations to embrace digital performances and online sharing has been awe-inspiring. Particularly awe-inspiring for us at the NCA was how the National Student Drama Festival innovated all of its plans for their 2020 festival into a festival that could be entirely accessible online. NSDF's Director, James Phillips, tells us of the challenges and successes of this unique year for NSDF.

“But does anyone know where Mark Ravenhill actually is?”

“Not fully.”

“But we presume he’s in his house, right?”

“Well even playwrights are on lockdown: so he must be in his house- “

It’s the first afternoon of NSDF20 and we’re temporarily unaware of the location of a headline act. At this moment, all at once, I’m on Zoom, Facebook Live and a WhatsApp conference call. Via an iPhone, MacBook and iPad (NB. Other device manufacturers are available.) 

Despite this proliferation of technology, a stubborn fact remains: not a Ravenhill in sight. And the Mark Ravenhill workshop goes live in 7 minutes. It’s like running a live national TV network. Except that two weeks ago you’d never even been in a television studio. 

Two weeks before this sticky moment I’d cancelled NSDF, the iconic theatre festival which had run uninterrupted since 1956. The day after that my great collaborator Alan Lane, of Slung Low, had offered a pot of money that would have been a Festival prize. And that generosity had set us on the path to reversing the original decision and producing NSDF fully, but with everything online. Same dates as the original Festival. And everything offered for free. If that was the Act One ‘spur-to-action’ then now we’ve reached Act Three of the drama and we’re smack in the midst of the consequent crisis: hunting for Ravenhill on a variety of devices, the clock tick-tocking away. 

We start to wonder what Act Five might bring. 

NSDF is a unique and precious thing, a charity that has helped generations of talented young people from all backgrounds find their home within the arts. In essence the idea of NSDF has always been simple, and little changed over the decades. For one week, in one chosen city the best student drama of the year is presented to an audience of students, professionals and punters and alongside this the festival runs around 100 workshops lead by some of the most talented professionals in the British Theatre. There are discussions, debates and masterclasses. Talent is spotted and coached and lives get changed. You get to be part of something. This year it was all slightly different, in delivery if not in scope or ambition. 

Eventually we do find Mark Ravenhill, who’s cucumber cool, sporting an Errol Flynn moustache and like the pro he is consequently smashes his workshop. Two weeks have passed from decision to delivery. At that initial point no one on my team had ever even heard of Zoom. Once the decision is made we’ve got two choices: present something smaller and somewhat apologetic, or gamble and program a festival of genuine scale and work out how we will deliver it as we go along, hoping we have time to solve the inevitable and unforeseeable problems as we move towards opening. We decide to gamble. Tick tock.

We programme bespoke mentoring sessions with industry experts and technical workshops for our trainee technical team. The young editors of our Festival magazine- Naomi Obeng and Florence Bell- throw out everything they had planned and work up entirely new material which they will publish online throughout the week. There’ll be evening events too. We’ll open with a new piece commissioned with partners Paines Plough and performed by its writer Naomi Obeng, a short play about her home town. This will be followed up by a subsequent night where young people perform pieces about where they are from and which they’ve written during the week: we’re a national organisation trying to illustrate the whole nation. There’ll be a scratch night of new work hosted by actor and poet Nima Taleghani, and a virtual pub (“The Webchester”) organised by our student management team. Alan Lane and Slung Low come up with an event of characteristic, joyous madness: an entirely new, non-derivative Game Show (one not at all related to 90’s TV) called “You CAN Bet” which will feature live phone ins. And prizes. And general mayhem. 

And alongside this there’s the all day, every day, central part of the week: 32 workshops from industry leading figures covering every aspect of the theatre. We will deliver everything simultaneously on Facebook Live and Zoom. And everything will be free, and anyone can watch. Dreadful as it is, the crisis offers possibilities. Almost everybody in our industry is suddenly available, and keen to be part of something that’s actually happening and that is useful. So Emma Rice, Laura Wade and Mark Ravenhill are quickly added to our line-up of workshop leaders. 

Can’t lie: two weeks to turn a real world Festival into a virtual one presents challenges. But there were also opportunities unique to NSDF. First thing is that we’re small, and so we can be nimble. NSDF is a tiny organisation which delivers an outsize punch: but because we’re small we could make immediate decisions and repurpose things rapidly. When the asteroid hits it’s easier to survive if you’re a little creature. Second thing is that we were first (and these two facts are not unrelated). Because no one had really done anything like this we got to set some of the ground rules, and people were kind to us as we made up the form. Most importantly is that although NSDF is small it has a staggering resource of talent to call on: the organisation is old, and has collected kind friends continuously down the years since 1956. Our core team- Lizzie Melbourne, Zosh Skowronska and Kim Grant- are magnificent, continually inventive and relentless in focus. They taught themselves, hour by hour, the new and necessary skills to make an online festival a reality.  

Even online, there was a spirit of necessary anarchy: that quality that really makes a Festival a Festival. Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson created a Quiz Night, which involved (for Lucy) a bewildering array of costume changes and for Chris a psychedelic round where he was superimposed on various backgrounds from around the globe: poster-man for our new nowhere-and-yet-everywhere Festival. Slung Low’s ‘You CAN Bet’ sparks its own narratives. Actual real life Matthew Kelly has gotten wind of our game show, and sends a video message in, gleefully claiming that Alan Lane of Leeds has lifted the concept from his own 1990’s Game Show. We cut his video with footage from our version and put it straight out onto our social media channels in the form of a spoof joint public statement: “NSDF will make no further comment at this time”. 

In the end Act Five of our Drama is a Panel Discussion on the Future of the Industry after Covid-19. We programme panellists from the breadth of the industry, with differing backgrounds and differing hopes for the future. The first trap of the internet must be swerved: don’t seal yourself in a room with people who all agree with you, or with each other. The session is knotty, inspiring and offers no easy answers. That seems a fair reflection of where we are.

It turns out an Online Room can be a bigger room, a more inclusive room, a room full of varied inspiration. NSDF 20 proved our organisation is a properly national one, with participants and workshop leaders drawn from every part of the UK. But people joined us not just from this country but from across the world. We had participants from Ireland, Italy, Spain, India, Sri Lanka and the USA. At this moment, when Coronavirus has forced us all to sit separate, there is a hunger for connection. 7800 people were part of the Festival during the week. And now, a few days later and with more viewers watching our recorded content, that number has already risen to over 10,000. 

When I took over NSDF- during a period of some turbulence- I tried to think of a simple phrase that summed up what a festival like this could do. We chose: “Be Part of Something”. 

That’s what a piece of art is, an invitation to step into a conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. An invitation that says: you too have something to contribute. And when a festival works, it works because it is that invitation, exponentially. 

That’s what our industry can do, what we must do and what we will do again with deeper knowledge and with a fresh capacity to innovate when we finally step free of our current confines. 

So next year (and perhaps before) NSDF will return, not diminished by crisis but enhanced by it. We hope you’ll join us.

James Phillips – NSDF Director. Photo Credit: Chris Davis/Specular

You can follow NSDF’s progress on their website, Twitter and Facebook.

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