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Taking The Opera House Online With Digital Programming Associate, Sophie Penkethman-Young

Dream Job

You might not notice all the work that goes into creating an events program. But if you don’t, it just means the people behind-the-scenes are really good at their jobs. In reality, it takes A LOT to pull off a seamless experience. Throw a global health pandemic into the mix, and you’ve really got yourself a challenge!

Sophie Penkethman-Young, Digital Programming Associate at the Sydney Opera House, was part of a team that earlier this year had to pull off an online program of Opera House calibre from scratch, in a fraction of the time generally required in non-2020 circumstances.

We chatted with the online arts expert about creating in the digital space, the importance of making things, and her favourite project to date!

11th September, 2020

The Sydney Opera House looking truly majestic! Photo – Sean Fennessy for The Design Files.

Architectural details inside the Sydney Opera House. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sophie Penkethman-Young, Digital Programming Associate at The Sydney Opera House. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sophie was part of the digital programming team that helped bring the impressive From Our House To Yours program to life in record time! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sophie behind-the-scenes at the Opera House. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

‘I feel like a typical day actually mainly involves me carrying around a lot of hard drives and wishing that I was better at labelling them’, says Sophie! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Behind-the-scenes at the Opera House. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Tools of the trade! Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

An empty Opera House theatre, where digital events have been live-streamed since May. Photo – Alisha Gore for The Design Files.

Sally Tabart
Friday 11th September 2020

‘Do something because you want to, make things because you think that they should be made, and when you find something special, put your whole self behind it.’ – Sophie Penkethman-Young.

When Sophie Penkethman-Young landed her dream job as Digital Programming Associate at the Sydney Opera House in February of 2020, she had no idea how busy her new job was about to get. To be fair, none of us knew how much our lives were about to change back then. But for someone working in digital programming at one of Australia’s most prestigious cultural institutions, the almost immediate halt of physical events in March of 2020 meant that things were about to get really intense.

‘At first it was a bit chaotic’, Sophie says of the quick pivot to creating a weekly digital program from scratch (!) when COVID hit. But alongside a talented team, Sophie helped put together an impressive digital offering which includes never-before-seen footage from the Opera House archives, podcasts, long-form articles and behind-the-scenes content. In May, the team added weekly live recordings and live-stream performances to the program. ‘We transformed Joan Sutherland Theatre into a “digital stage” with a focus on new work that responds to the current moment’, Sophie says. Since its launch, the From Our House to Yours program has been enthusiastically received locally and around the world with more than 4.5 million views and downloads, including 15 million minutes viewed of video and 103,000 podcast downloads.

Sophie went to ANU School for Art, majoring in Photography Media Arts. She then went on to complete honours in Screen Arts at the University of Sydney’s School of Art, and has nearly finished her Masters in Art Curating, focusing on internet-based practice and digital museum theory at the University of Sydney. Last year, she wrote her thesis on internet art, and the importance of programming online, and she’s previously worked at Carriageworks and experimental/emerging art gallery Firstdraft in Woolloomooloo.

If anyone was prepared to tackle the unique challenges of hustling a rich online arts program in 2020, it’s Sophie!

The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job-lexicon is…

Make. I think that you should just make as much as possible, the only way to get better at a craft is by making! Also make lots of different things, make videos with your friends, make podcasts, collage, build your own website. The more you do this the more empowered you will feel to learn new skills and keep growing.

I landed this job by…

Being enthusiastic! I remember in my interview talking about how difficult it would be to find a sound that represented the Sydney Opera House, with all its different forms of programming. From memory (and this is kind of embarrassing) I sort of made a whooshing sound to try and indicate the architecture of the building aurally.

Work in 2020 for me has been…

Wild, I mean 2020 has been wild in general for everyone! It’s been strange because I wrote my thesis last year on internet art and what it means to program online and why it’s important. When I wrote it, it felt really niche and academic, whereas now it feels very real and salient. I am so grateful to be working for an organisation that was already so invested in the digital space before COVID, so that we had the tools to be able to serve our artists and our audiences quickly.

A typical day for me involves…

Lots of things! Editing podcasts or videos, working with artists to help them realise digital outcomes for their works, emails, meetings with production for upcoming shows.

I’m working most days from home right now, but I go to the Opera House frequently on Saturdays for the live streams, where I help produce panels and performances. I feel like a typical day actually mainly involves me carrying around a lot of hard drives and wishing that I was better at labelling them.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

The best thing about my job is that it is super varied, and allows me to use every skill I have. I built up my skill set through my own art practice, previous jobs and helping friends with projects, so I’m not really a master of anything, and I’ve mainly learnt things from YouTube. To be able to work in a job where I can completely throw myself in and use everything I know while also learning new things every day is really exciting.

I am also super lucky to be a part of a great team, there are so many conversations that I’ve had with colleagues that have been so inspiring, I don’t know if you can get that many places.

On the other hand, the most challenging part is…

Switching between different projects all the time. Sometimes I feel like my brain is stretched between so many different timelines and projects and mediums that it can be a bit hard to focus. I’ve started closing all the tabs on my computer every couple of hours just to keep the chaos at bay.

Something I’m proud of achieving at work is…

Ziggy Ramo‘s Black Thoughts live stream. Ziggy is an amazing artist and this project was the most special and important thing I’ve worked on in my career. It was also completely different from anything I’ve worked on. We storyboarded the whole show based on the album and then commissioned illustrator Kambarni to create this tapestry-like illustration that talked to the album’s themes of love, compassion, dispossession and systemic racism. The whole work had to be re-envisioned multiple times due to COVID restrictions and through that we built a lot of trust with the artists. I love this project so much, please go watch it.

A piece of advice/a lesson I’ve found useful is…

Do something because you want to, make things because you think that they should be made, and when you find something special, put your whole self behind it.

Check out the Sydney Opera House’s impressive digital offering here

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net