See change

9 April 2020

The virtual festival is a game changer for accessibility, says Sam Osborne 


Two years ago, I attended NSDF as the lighting designer of a production of Alistair McDowall’s Pomona. I had the best time and got to meet some brilliant people, making new friendships and solidifying existing ones. I was afforded the opportunity to transfer a show and learnt so much about how that works. The festival taught me more than that though: it taught me to be brave.

There is so much at NSDF that is about being brave. You turn up to the workshop that you and your friends have been talking about since workshops were announced. Later, you turn up to a different workshop and don’t know anyone there. You do the show. You put your work out there with the intent of getting feedback from your peers and industry professionals alike. You go to stay in a city that you’ve maybe never been to, in some potentially rough-around-the-edges accommodation with people you’ve maybe not spoken to since you did the show 6 months ago. It’s in at the deep end and if it sounds overwhelming that’s because it is.

NSDF in some ways can be more overwhelming than Edinburgh: if you miss a thing – a workshop or a show or an event – chances are you’ve missed it. It’s probably not on again tomorrow to try again. There’s often not the time to do everything and not burn out. You’re running from workshop to show and back again and just about have time to find an expensive sandwich in between. I still haven’t read all the Noises Off articles from two years ago (sorry). And it’s not just how busy it is that makes it overwhelming. As much as we try to be inclusive and ‘for everyone’, NSDF isn’t an accessible festival. It costs lots of money. I was going to be on the management team and the accommodation deal was almost £500. Plus the ticket price. Plus the show selection fee. Plus getting to Leicester in the first place. Plus food. To volunteer. Edinburgh can sometimes be cheaper than this.

There are ways of working around it. We managed to source accommodation for £135. You can travel as a group in one car. You can go to Tesco’s rather than the pub for food. You can get bursaries for the ticket (I wouldn’t have been able to go in 2018 without it). But it’s not (just) about the brave investment of money.

I pulled out of the management team early on this year due to other paid work commitments. I wouldn’t have been able to experience any of the wonderful NSDF opportunities without a digital festival. The digital festival – putting almost everything online and for free – has brought me back into a festival I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to take part in. And I’m sure countless others, who may have been busy, who may not qualify (being over 25 or not in education), who may be unable to afford it, who may have chronic illnesses and disabilities, are in a similar position. The list goes on of countless theatre-makers who could benefit from the festival who can now, for maybe the first time in the festival’s existence, take part.

We can’t just do NSDF 21 and close the door on them. The digital festival has still given everyone taking part opportunities to be brave, to take part in workshops, to share their art. But I think it’s still important to have an in-person element. It’s not the same without it. We’re missing the shows, after all. I miss the buzz when you watch something magnificent and just know, you can feel that the entire crowd is going to be on their feet at the end. But the in-person-ness is just that: an element. We’ve proven this year that workshops can be successfully streamed online. I can watch them from my sofa, or my garden, or maybe next year from my hotel room in Leicester because I need some space but still want to take part with the festival happening down the road. I could watch them from Scotland, where I’d be if the work I got had not also been cancelled. I could take part in the festival even if I can’t afford to be there in person. That counts for something. Participants and fest-goers who can’t – for any reason – be with us in person should still be able to join in.

Two years ago, my bravery took the form of taking part in an interactive producing workshop and being in charge of a fit up in a brand new venue. This year, that bravery is finally turning on my webcam on the sixth workshop and writing almost 800 words about it. It’s different, but just as fulfilling. So too can future festivals be. And for more people than ever.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Photograph: Beatrice Debney