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Digital Culture Award Winner case study: NSDF

James Phillips is the Former Director/Chief Executive of National Student Drama Festival (NSDF). As leader of the organisation, he talks us through what led NSDF to become winners of the Digital Trailblazer category.

NSDF is a charity that exists to create new art, new artists, and new communities. NSDF is a national organisation working across the UK and is open to all 16-26-year-olds. Since 1956 NSDF has helped tens of thousands of young people find their home in the arts. However, the last two years have been one of radical digital transformation for us – our new work has focused on increasing engagement, innovative use of technology, and widening the diversity of our participants.

“NSDF went online and welcomed in the world” tagline was used as NSDF was the first UK organisation to produce a fully online festival.

We did it in just two weeks, after the first lockdown in 2020 and this led to two years of considerable digital transformation.

Our new work has focused on increasing engagement and widening the diversity of our participants.  We’re now an organisation transformed. The crisis has bred innovation, new skills, and necessary change.

All of our digital projects continue into the post-pandemic era.

Everything NSDF has done since the beginning of the pandemic has been free and open to all.

Image of man performing on stage with two other people in the background

Image: Seen by Beatrice Debney from film shot by Yiu Munn Cheung

What did you want to achieve?

We wanted to use digital means to further our mission to create new art, new artists, and new communities.

We wanted to help young people find their home in the arts and most vitally welcome more young artists from underrepresented communities into our industry.

Alongside this, and with the pandemic disproportionately affecting the young, we wanted to use technology not just to make new art, but to overcome loneliness and dislocation.

We wanted our offering to be available to everyone, so we made every part of NSDF free, removing the financial barrier to participation.

What happened?

Our digital work was transformative and enhanced every part of our mission. Some examples from our many digital projects:

  • We learned an online room can be a bigger room, so we began the Bigger Room Project with online masterclasses from world leaders in the arts, free to all.
  • We wanted to create new communities so we began NSDF LAB - a new program for creating work and communities, offering year-round mentored digital work culminating in five new shows. Participants came from every part of the UK. Many never met, but they made shows together.

Participation skyrocketed: a 335% increase in 2020/21.

What have you learned?

If you want it to be accessible make sure it can be accessed.

Complex tech can be seductive but if you want everyone to take part make sure they can. We banned any software that wouldn’t work on a mobile.

Be responsive to actual need.

An example: in lockdown young people had nowhere to showcase work. So we created NSDF HUB, and before that partnered with Spotlight to create NSDF x Spotlight – ten zoom events showcasing 10 new companies.

The digital world is a great leveler: the best idea wins.

Suddenly we could compete with organisations with a hundred times our funding. We had the right ideas, we moved fast and got there first. Small is good, small is nimble.

What was the impact?

Everything’s changed.

The crisis has bred innovation, new skills, and new methods.

Our reach is wider, our participants more diverse, and we are more useful.

The revolution has made it possible for us to offer year-round opportunities and to target those we most want to help.

We are now a production company – reactive not passive, forward-looking, and continually seeking to innovate and alter our offering in response to need as we find it. Our reach has gone from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.

It felt like we were leading and others following. It’s been risky, thrilling, and liberating.

Find out more about NSDF

Watch this short video about our digital transformation

Watch these two films we commissioned and produced, made by young people during the pandemic, showing their pandemic lives and their hopes for the future:

NSDF HUB, our National, year-round, curated online space for young people to get their work seen. If you scroll to the bottom of the NSDF Hub page you can see Masterclasses and Debates from the Bigger Room Project, our year-round free series of industry-leading events.

NSDF CREATES, the production arm of our organisation, which we founded at the beginning of the pandemic and used to create new work throughout the pandemic.

Watch the announcement video for our first online Festival, where we laid out what we wanted to achieve with the UK’s first fully online festival of the pandemic, two weeks into the first lockdown.

Sunday Times articles from James Phillips about NSDF’s first and second online festivals.

Visit our website:

Twitter: @NSDFest

Facebook: @NSDFest

Instagram: @nsdfest

Further support

The Digital Culture Network is here to support you and your organisation. Our Tech Champions can provide free 1-2-1 support to all arts and cultural organisations who are in receipt of, or eligible for, Arts Council England funding. If you need help or would like to chat with us about any of the advice we have covered above, please get in touch. Sign up for our newsletter below and follow us on Twitter @ace_dcn for the latest updates.

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