We talk to Zoe Philpott, an award-winning storyteller, who created Ada.Ada.Ada, a one-woman live immersive performance about Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.
An interview with Zoe Philpott creator of the Ada.Ada.Ada show
What made you decide to create Ada.Ada.Ada.?
I was walking in Piccadilly and noticed tourists posing in front some bloke in bronze who had 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 in London… to me? In fact, where were all the women? Women make up half of our society, but they so rarely appear in history. Which was echoed in the absolute absence of real women portrayed as statues.
Something has to change. So, as I can’t make a living off making statues but I can live off telling stories, I have chosen to update history, with herstory, one story at a time… starting with Ada Lovelace.
For those that are not aware of who Ada Lovelace is – in 1843 she wrote the world’s first complex computer program and then got written out of history.
This is what lead to the creation of Ada.Ada.Ada.
Our society is ready to become more equal.
We have inherited this patriarchal society and while misogyny remains endemic, we have a new generation growing up in more balanced schools, they don’t see the differences between men and women like us older people, so we owe it to them to do everything we possibly can to update this patriarchal history to include all those missing ‘her stories’ fast.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
Ada Lovelace needs to be a household name, to be drawn upon in the same breath as her scientific contemporaries such as Darwin. This would be the direct accomplishment of the Ada.Ada.Ada. project in conjunction with the multitude of other initiatives. For instance there is Ada Lovelace Day, as well as the fact that Ada Lovelace is slated to appear on an English bank note.
I also hope that this project, by reaching people in business and in education will inspire people to look for ways to address the gender imbalance. Again, by being part of the wealth of positive action projects that are happening globally.
It is the zeitgeist: Ada.Ada.Ada. is part of the global rallying cry for gender equality.
How did you get the project off the ground? What or who helped you?
From an idea it turned into a single page and a few coffees with well connected people. Suw Charman-Anderson (founder of the Ada Lovelace Day) introduced me to Helen Arney (Women of STEM) who championed the project to a series of Science Festivals.
Then we built the LED dress. With a small but brilliant team including Charles Yarnold (technologist), Kady Howey Nunn (production manager), Adrian Philpott (concepts), Kat Behague (dressmaker) and Sam Howey Nunn (real world gaming producer).
Then there are all the incredible champions of the project that helped immensely in many many ways, including, but not limited to Gavin Starks of the Open Data Institute, Emma Thwaites of Thwaits Communication and Mary Keane Dawson – a leading light in Tech Startups.
How did your family and friends react?
Friends and family have been supporting the initiative all the way. Luckily my husband Adrian and I run our own business Philpott Design Ltd, and so we always work hand in hand.
I lost my parents to long and painful illnesses. In life they were passionate about life and about storytelling and showmanship. My father was a journalist obsessed with theatre and opera, my mother was an actress, producer and director. The seed funding has been largely from my inheritance. I think they would like that this is the case. I hope it will be a great legacy that they will be proud of.
How has your life changed having gone down this path?
A few years back I wouldn’t be willing to storytell to an audience. I would only appear on stage if I was allowed to wear a full mask and not speak. That’s changed. The bigger the audience the better! I guess It’s different when you are passionate about what you want to share with people.
What advice do you have for women considering a similar life change?
Listen to yourself, your heart, and if you should be doing something it will become clear. Then trust this intuition and do it. Another thing is: Do what you enjoy doing as that is what you should be doing.
What do you love most about being the age you are?
I am less afraid than I used to be.
I realised relatively recently that all the things I was fearful of happening never did, and when awful things did happened, I got through it, ok and a lot wiser. So there is no point in worrying.
Having the experience of over twenty five years of work is great. I have been around the block and learnt a fair bit in the process.
What do you hate most about being the age you are?
I can’t think of anything except missing the supernatural amounts of energy I had in my twenties and early thirties.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known in your twenties?
Don’t worry about what other people think. Get over yourself. No one cares about you that much.
What are the most important business and/or personal lessons you’ve learnt along the way?
Sleep as much as you need to. And a bit more. Work done while tired will generally need to be redone.
Set your goal based on a sound business case, and pivot when you know the new direction has a sound business case.
Do you have a mantra that has guided you more than any other?
Your actions today define your future
It’s all about the potato (this is a long story)
Which woman do you most admire and why?
Ada Lovelace, of course. She was brilliant, knew it and acted on it. Her social privilege was a big enabler, but as a women, a less driven and capable person would never have achieved what she did.
And my mother. She was an extraordinary role model. My mother, Mary Benning, was born in 1935 to a bus driver and a seamstress in an English village. By 1952, at the tender age of 18 she was piloting airplanes in Africa.
Is there anything people consistently misunderstand about you?
People comment on my optimism and smiley nature.
In fact I suffer from acute depression, have done ever since I can remember. For years it was very bleak including a hospital stay, now I manage it a bit better through a host of daily rituals and practices including being teetotal, meditation and getting plenty of rest. As well as having incredible support from my friends, family and my colleagues.
The episodes of being immobilised and bedridden are increasingly fewer and shorter.