'I didn’t know theatre for young people could be so radical and innovative': Meet VCA graduate Sophia Derkenne

Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) Graduate Sophia Derkenne
Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) Graduate Sophia Derkenne

Meet Sophie Derkenne: an artist, and graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Theatre) program at the VCA. Hear from Sophia as they share insights on how their VCA training shaped their artistic practice, valuable lessons learned at the VCA, and how the experience bestowed a real sense of community and collaboration.

What drew you to the Bachelor of Fine Arts Theatre at VCA?

I wanted to train in the conservatoire style and rigorously work with a small cohort in collaboration and devising. The course offers a comprehensive training environment that was the opportunity for me to establish my community in theatre. The deciding factor for me between courses and schools was the feeling respect in the audition room, Steph Kehoe, the course coordinator at the time, made it clear that auditions were as much us getting a sense of the school and course as it was the audition panel getting a sense of us. The VCA’s location in Melbourne gave it the edge over other major institutions for me – sorry Perth and Sydney.

How did the course prepare you for a successful career in theatre?

For me the two key things the course has given me are collaboration and community. Despite spending half the degree studying online, I have key connections and important friendships made during my study at VCA that are now essential to my work (and the rest of my life!). From the course I have a deepened understanding of collaborative practice and a clear tool kit of skills which is essential, as all my work now is collaborative in some way, whether that’s working with other artists, young people or community members.

I also have much more confidence in using my being to imagine and play which expands my capacity to make exciting things. The old conservatoire style things like animal work or clown, which at the time can be immensely challenging or feel irrelevant have come back in my work post graduation and I’m glad I was introduced to those practices.

Can you share a highlight from your time at VCA?

A major highlight of the course was the third-year immersion with Polyglot Theatre. I didn’t know theatre for young people could be so radical and innovative before we studied them in second year and from then I was obsessed. When we were told we’d be working with the company for three weeks in third year I couldn’t hide my fan girl-like excitement. The immersion introduced us to Polyglot’s play based approach and was not only immense fun for the entire cohort but caused me to consider work with young people as a very exciting pathway. Connecting with all the wonderful artists who work with Polyglot Theatre I realised how much I resonated with child led work and the practice of making interactive play spaces.

Sophia Derkenne in 'Sometimes' from 2022 grad season

What aspects of VCA's culture and teaching approach resonated with you most?

I can’t speak to the whole of VCA, but key staff in the BFA theatre course imparted important skills and values that marked a key shift in the school’s culture during my time there and shaped my artistry. Before coming to VCA I had never been given the opportunity to learn about and implement concepts of access or cultures of space. Sarah Austin (head of the program) and Isabella Vadiveloo (Tutor in Theatre) are creating a cultural shift in the school, that teaches ethics and values as a necessary responsibility of being a well rounded artist.  Sarah taught us about her brave space practice, which is something I use in my collaborations now, and Bella introduced us to intimacy coordination and discussed with us the power dynamics in rehearsal rooms. These reflect big conversations happening in the wider sector and were so necessary for me to get through the inherent bureaucracy of being in an institution.

I also really like working rigorously and really physically. There is nothing more satisfying to me than coming home from a massive day in a rehearsal room space and being exhausted but feeling really accomplished and extended by new understanding. What I would give to do four hours of movement with Colin Sneesby again.

How did your time at the VCA shape your artistic practice? 

My work at the moment is almost entirely in the theatre for young people sector and I am constantly trying to deepen the accessible practices that I learnt at uni.  I’m now an artist with Polyglot Theatre and I am currently working as an inclusion artist with St Martin’s Youth Arts Centre. I also volunteer as a play worker at the community organisation The Venny which has been driven by my priority of financially/locality accessible arts. All these spaces resonate and provide the opportunity for me to refine my love of immersive, interactive work that’s play based and has multiple ways for audiences to enjoy it. Being introduced to theatrical possibilities outside of black box or proscenium arch theatre was so essential for me, as I feel like theatre has much to offer and the more people who can experience it in ways that are meaningful to them the better.

What are your plans for the future? 

I’ll continue volunteering with The Venny and working with St. Martin's and Polyglot. Training wise at some point I’d like to revisit my inner clown under a female clown master and also pursue training as a Playworker which is a pedagogy centred around child led, risk inclusive play. I’m also creating my own devised work with a fellow graduate that’s an immersive and interactive show about breadmaking. Keep an eye out for “Breadwinning” at Testing Grounds later this year. Generally, the theme is keep working with excellent humans, of whom there are many in the theatre industry, but also in being honest about the life of an indie artist, who really knows?

What advice would you give to someone considering the Bachelor of Fine Arts Theatre? 

For those considering the BFA Theatre, I’d say this: if you’re looking for a full-time training experience that values creativity, collaboration, and community, then give it a whirl. If you're seeking a community, especially if you're relocating to Melbourne, it can be a wonderful space – some of the most important people in my life are met through this course. Remember the course is not the industry (someone giving you your schedule???? Wild!!) and it is still an institution, make of it what you can, find the why that will carry you through when it inevitably gets challenging.

And remember, you will learn from some tremendous artists in the industry, your lecturers and tutors included – you're all going to be in there together someday; make it count.

Discover the Bachelor of Fine Arts Theatre at the University of Melbourne