Interview with Zoe Philpott (Creator of Ada.Ada.Ada.)

Zoe Philpott is the director and creator of Ada.Ada.Ada. Ada a new theatrical lecture designed to tell the story of Ada Lovelace, one of the most overlooked and yet fascinating women in scientific history, and to encourage women to engage more with STEM subject.  Ada.Ada.Ada is currently touring theatres around the UK and you can find out more details about the show’s tour dates and how to see the show here.

Why do you think Ada is such an important figure in British history?

For two reasons.

Firstly, Ada is the person who first really understood the potential of computers and the role they had to play in helping human beings. She saw beyond their capability to churn numbers and had the foresight to anticipate their potential also for art and music – something none of her peers could do. Much more than an equal to men, Ada preceded most men in Tech – she was so far ahead of her time in her vision and understanding that computers would transform our lives.

Secondly, Ada’s importance stems from the simple fact that she was forgotten – written out of history. Ada Lovelace is a very good example of patriarchal society at work and more specifically of the limitations attributed to women.

There is both an unconscious mind and active bias which prevents our Patriarchal society from seeing that the best of all human endeavours will not come solely from white males.  Ada is exemplary of who we overlook and she has a huge role to play in encouraging the other half of the population to get involved in STEM.

Your show is very impressive and sure to wow whatever that audience sees it – where did the idea to do a show about Ada come from?

I was in Piccadilly and noticed tourists posing in front of some bloke in bronze who’d been dead for 200 years – and wondered – why on earth did they want a picture with him – what was he to them? He had probably just killed a lot of people.

Then I wondered, what was he to me? What were any of the statues… to me?  Where were all the women? Nowhere! Women make up half of our society, but they rarely appear in history. Something had to change.

Yet, I can’t live off making statues, but I can tell stories, so I am updating history, with herstory, one story at a time… starting with Ada Lovelace.

Why do you think that there haven’t been more shows, whether on TV or the stage, that have focused on Ada?

I think we’re about to see many more portrayals of the story of Ada – in the form of TV, books, film and theatre.  She’s having an awakening. Rightly so. We’re also about to hear more from the many others who have been overlooked – such as Rosalind Franklin, Dorothy Vaughn, Lise Meitner – all names to watch out for. There are hundreds, thousands of overlooked innovators from history. They all have a right to be role models for now and for the next generation.

What do you hope audiences will take away from your show?

Our ultimate goal is to stamp out the idea that STEM is for men, to break through that unconscious bias, to expose it as societal construct and bring us all back to reality.

80 years ago, most programmers were women – most of those engaged in human computing were women. 20 years ago, there were still more women in Tech than there are today. Women make up 51% of the human population. When we look at the deficit in skills, it doesn’t make sense the greater part of the human race is overlooked.

We hope the show will inspire people who would otherwise hesitate to consider Tech as an option for them. We want to inspire business to reconsider a woman’s role in the team – and how their careers pan out. Research shows diverse and inclusive teams have a competitive advantage over their peers – Ada.Ada.Ada is already working with Tech giants Intel and Ascom to grow their reputation, retain and develop talent and build a diverse workforce for tomorrow.

How do you achieve the technical aspects of the show?

The performance is centred around a unique and hand-made interactive period costume – a dress of light – which is basically a bespoke computer housed inside bespoke computer housing made from fabric. We’re very lucky to have an extraordinarily talented and creative production team: production manager, technologist, lighting and sound designers. Amongst other things we have 4,400 LEDs from Adafruit embedded into the skirt, as well as an Arduino and WiFi hotspot in the bustle. The 1st prototype had 400 lights hand-sewn into Ada’s dress with 650m of conductive thread! We now use a fraction of the amount of conductive thread as it is pretty unstable in such quantities. The performer controls the dress using her glove, live from the stage.

Why do you think we don’t see more shows like this?

We’re going to see more! Ada. Ada. Ada is unique in the sense that it’s a theatrical lecture. I’ve worked in theatre for almost 20 years and know the importance of engaging with people through storytelling. Theatre is the only art form named after the building in which it happens. We’re breaking these boundaries and taking theatre into schools, businesses, conferences and public buildings; taking theatre to places and to people who wouldn’t usually see or have access to it.

What has the reception of the show been like and has it changed how the show is performed?

Reception has consistently been brilliant and we’re very proud to have received so many standing ovations. The show is fundamentally interactive and developed with the help of each and every audience –  so changes are consistent and each subsequent show benefits from feedback to those that came before it.

How do you think the show will encourage young women to go into STEM subjects?

It will ask them to examine the reason they perhaps may not have considered a career in STEM for themselves – providing them proof that this arena is not just for boys and men. The LED dress will peak the imagination as it introduces them, in a way that is visually inspiring, to the reality of the role that women have played; Ada herself, the amazing Grace Hopper and many other women both living and in history.

We proactively measure user engagement and impact by following up with our participants to qualify how likely they are to now consider a career in Tech compared to before the show.

The show is just the catalyst for a wider set of ‘Ada experiences’. These can be workshops, talks, games or other performances designed to match individual needs and budget.

What goes down a storm usually is a ‘show and tell’ talk where the audience watches the performer get dressed into the LED dress on stage, and as she is dressed by the production manager, she explains how the dress is actually a bespoke computer housed in a handmade Victorian style dress. She also explains the inventive team work it took to make it. How we learned from our failures! As well as explaining why we created a dress of light to tell Ada’s story and how Ada Lovelace might react to what has been created.

There is also Ada’s ArmyTM – an online community and network for sharing more missing people from history, and recruiting the innovators for the next generation.

Finally, what future projects have you go coming up?

The Ada. Ada. Ada Library tour – Funded by the Arts Council of England Ada, Ada, Ada in partnership with the Society for Chief Librarians. We will tour 34 libraries across the West Midlands and North of England this October through December 2017 to help the national drive to bring digital skills to more people in the UK.

The show has achieved critical acclaim in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and the UK, but doesn’t plan to stop there. The Ada. Ada.Ada booking pipeline includes Norway, Tanzania, Nigeria, USA and Australia.

We’re already engaging with the financial business community and will soon be inspiring change management within this arena – Watch this space!

With thanks to Zoe Philpott for kindly agreeing to take part in this interview.

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