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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 18/02/2021

Tell us about the Scottish International Storytelling Festival?

The first SISF took place in 1989 after a pilot weekend of events in 1988. The aim was to profile and encourage the almost forgotten, or at least hidden art of live oral storytelling, which has been and is one of the great mediums of Scottish life and culture. As SISF developed, we realised that people in other parts of the world were starting to rediscover their storytelling traditions in contemporary ways.

In over 30 years, the SISF programme has considerably expanded in terms of number, type of events and locations, also thanks to the long-term collaboration with Edinburgh-based and regional partners.

What were your main reasons for deciding to create a digital festival in 2020?  

To keep SISF going, to sustain and if possible grow our audience, to keep our creatives in work and in flow, to mark VisitScotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters as we had planned, to use the adaptability and resourcefulness of our artform, to demonstrate some Scots grit in the face of multiple challenges.

What challenges did you face? 

Travel restrictions, safety regulations, frequent changes in regulations variously in different regions of Scotland, producing work differently for digital, securing new/different financial support, staff team coherence given home-working, including childcare, challenges of mental wellbeing amongst creatives and staff, the threat of bankruptcy to our home venue and studio base, huge and sudden loss of earned income, reduced number of Edinburgh-based and regional SISF partners.

Tell us about the digital events

We split the core programme into three digital strands: participatory Global Lab workshops, open-floor Guid Crack sessions, live Open Hearth storytelling sessions and pre-recorded Voyage commissions with live Q&As. This gave us a mix of online content, which allowed for a varied audience experience.

The eight Global Lab workshops explored themes such as environmentalism, Gaelic culture and Scottish myths. The two Guid Cracks and nine Open Hearths were delivered in the traditional Scottish ceilidh format and the welcoming spirit of these shone through, even online. The 14 Voyage commissions were filmed in the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Netherbow Theatre, or on location in Scotland where the stories were set, which again provided a varied output and backdrop. These commissions explored Scotland as a nation shaped by the sea, so it was particularly enjoyable to see performances delivered alongside rivers and on the seas!

Storytelling is an artform where the connection between performer and audiences is so important – did you have concerns about how this would translate in a virtual setting?  

Yes, but we had already experimented throughout 2020 and found that some event formats actually worked well. The biggest problem was how the commissioned performances would convey a ‘live buzz', but we addressed that to the best of our ability through our online platform selection (see below).

SISF is known for its international programming – how did the 2020 festival work in terms of international performers and audiences?  

International performers and partnerships are a vital part of SISF. This year allowed us to programme storytellers from anywhere in the world and showcase their work without travel (and environmental) costs, whilst strengthening the variety of our programme. We used the shift to a primarily online festival as an opportunity to engage with audiences worldwide. We ran geo-targeted ads on Facebook, focused on the countries and specific areas our international storytellers are from. We had visiting storytellers joining us from India, Sierra Leone, Canada and the United States to name a few, and we selected major and relevant cities in these locations to create specific, targeted advertisements. While our international programming is always a big part of the festival, we were able to engage audiences who may not have otherwise been able to attend due to it being online this year.

Did you present your programme using live streaming or pre-recorded and was content available for a limited time only or available to view after the event?  

We presented our programme as a combination of livestreamed and pre-recorded events. Our specially curated Voyage series was pre-recorded with a live Q&A with the performers afterwards. Our Open Hearths, which are hosted by a Scottish storyteller and bring together three storytellers from around the world, were hosted live on Crowdcast, which also offers a replay option. We initially planned to keep our Crowdcast events available for two weeks, but demand was such that we extended this to 6 weeks.

What platform did you use for streaming your event, and was it a success? 

One of our successful decisions was to give our audiences the semblance of a live experience for the pre-recorded events, by having an event start time, a way of engaging with other audience members via chat functions and a live Q&A post-event. Crowdcast’s immediate replay option also meant that audiences who could not attend at the start time were still able to enjoy the event at a later time. We have continued to use Crowdcast in early 2021 but are awaiting further development from them on their accessibility options. We also used Zoom for workshops and open-floor performances, as we needed on-screen audience engagement in those events. Both platforms delivered what we needed from them at that stage.

Monetising online events can be a challenge. You chose a variety of ticketing options – free, by donation and paid-for.

We were starting from no previous experience, and a desire to make everything accessible through the Covid crisis with all its associated inequalities. People did pay for the international workshops, and did donate, but event income as a whole was less than 40% of the previous year. However, we budgeted on that basis, and since SISF last October we have been more confident about forms of charging, offering customers a sliding scale of donation options, including £0 if they wish.

What were the main successes of the festival, including any KPI’s e.g. total views, average watch time, engagement stats? 

We reached new audiences (see below) not just internationally but nationally and locally because of the easier access. We also received more press coverage than for any previous festival. 

A big success of this year’s festival is the launch of new social channels. At the beginning of the year, we decided to launch dedicated SISF social media channels to increase our visibility and strengthen our brand. To support our new Instagram channel we ran an Instagram art challenge, #SISFWaterlines, to give audience members a new way of engaging with the festival. The feedback from the art challenge was fantastic, and we were able to tap into a new audience base, while also growing our new channel.

Key measurements:

  • 92k impressions on Instagram
  • Over 400 submissions to our Instagram art challenge
  • 1.1k views of digital programme (hosted through Issuu)
  • 59.1% of attendee had never attended the festival before
  • 83 pieces of press coverage across the festival period

Customer feedback examples:

  • “It was amazing how you connected with an audience through a screen. Friendly and professional!”
  • “Actually because it was online this year it enabled me to enjoy so many more events and get a taste of so much more!”
  • “Your amazing response to this situation – wonderful range of events, very high production values, fabulous design”

Would you keep a digital element to your festival in future? 

Definitely. But we still desperately need the live dimension.

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