🎭 Has It Gotten Easier for Women in STEM? | “Ada and the Engine” @ Theatre Unleashed

Ada and the Engine (Theatre Unleashed)I’ve written before how, when I see multiple shows in a weekend, there tends to be a connecting thru-line that I never realized when I scheduled these shows. That was certainly true last weekend, and it hit me during the closing scenes of Ada and the Engine at Theatre Unleashed (FB) (studio/stage), which we saw Sunday evening. Earlier that morning I had been at our synagogue’s Purim Carnival, celebrating the agency of Queen Esther in saving her people, and Saturday evening we had seen Matilda Wormwood using her agency — and the power of her mind — to rewrite her story. What hit me as the story of Ada drew to its conclusion was that Lady Ada Lovelace had also used her agency — and the power of her mind — to rewrite her legacy and reputation as the daughter of Lord Byron to become a mathematician. She also overcame her mother’s desire for her to be a distinguished socialite. She became what was (in essence) the first computer programmer. Never mind that the computer didn’t really exist. The computer industry has a long history of promoting vaporware.

I first became familiar with Ada Lovelace as I was finishing up graduate school in Computer Science, with a specialty in programming language. I had been following development of the Steelman programming language competition, of which the eventual winner was the Steelman Green language. Steelman Green was eventually standardized and released as the programming language Ada, MIL-STD-1815A. The language has been updated since 1983 when it first came out, but I still have the MIL-STD on my bookshelf. It was named Ada, of course, in honor of Ada Lovelace, the first programmer.

This brings us back to Ada and the Engine, written by Lauren Gunderson, who has written a number of science-themed plays. Ada tells the story of Lady Lovelace. It covers her life from when she was an 18 year old mathematician and socialite looking for a husband, through her marriage to Lord Lovelace, up to her eventual death. It focuses, however, on her relationship with Charles Babbage and the work he was doing on the Difference Engine, later the Analytical Engine. Ada is remembered as the first person to see the broad potential of the Babbage’s Analytic Engine, and the developer of the first algorithm for the engine — essentially the first program.

But what struck me during the show was how things have changed so little. Ada fought to be seen as more than just a daughter of her famous father, or wife of her famous husband. She was forced into a role, and not seen at the time for the mathematical talents and insight that she had. In a world where women engineers have to still fight for recognition parity and pay parity, can we really say we’ve improved all that much. As Gene Spafford has written: We are out of balance with respect to women in technologyAda and the Engine reminds us that this has been a long battle. But Ada, and Esther, and Matilda remind us that we have the power to rewrite the story — we have the power to increase the visibility and parity of women in STEM fields (and I would be remiss if, at this point, I didn’t mention my long-term involvement with the sponsors of the Scholarships for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS), which everyone should support). PS: You want proof that there’s discrimination against women in STEM? NASA just cancelled the first all-women spacewalk because they didn’t have two suits of the right size for women.

Back to Ada and the Engine: Knowing my background and my history, it is probably not a surprise that I really enjoyed the show. So did my wife, who is also an engineer. We felt that the story captured well the history and excitement of Ada, and brought her to life with a wonderful energy and … for us … the correct math and science. It was also helped by the fact that, under the direction of Heidi Powers (FB), the cast brings the story to life with exuberance and joy.

In the lead position is Jessie Sherman (FB)  as Ada Lovelace . We saw Sherman last summer in Beauty and the Beast at 5-Star Theatricals, and she brought the same energy and giddyness to Lovelace. I think the best way to characterize her performance is that the mathematics were bursting out of her in excitement, and that joy made her performance special for the audience. She also had a few singing moments in the show that were quite beautiful, using musical arrangement from Jennifer Lin, who is the musical director of Matilda. Connections, folks, connections! The music and lyrics for those songs were by The Kilbanes.

Playing the main men in her life were Alex Knox as Charles Babbage and Gregory Crafts (FB) as Lord Lovelace. Both literally towered above Sherman — I think they had at least a foot and a half of height on Sherman, providing a metaphorical demonstration of the difference in stature. Knox’s Babbage captured the excitement of an engineer and scientist of the age — as well as the arrogance. His performance presented an interesting relationship between the quasi-romantic (but perhaps only in the mind) and the business relationship, and demonstrated well the power dynamics that often come into play with women in the professional technical world. Crafts had a different role: the husband of someone who didn’t understand his wife having a technical relationship and friendship, but who learned how satisfaction of that aspect of his wife’s nature made her whole. Anyone who is married to an intellectual or a scientist understand that well, and I think Crafts portrayed it right. I must also acknowledge all the work that Crafts has done outside this show for the LA Theatre community and the #Pro99 efforts (I was one of the audience members speaking up on behalf of that effort).

As Ada’s moether, Anabella Byron, Denise Nicholson (FB) brought the right level of sternness and disapproval and authority to the role. Watching her facial expressions while Ada was interacting with Babbage said multitudes about her attitudes on the matter.

Rounding out the cast was Casey Hunter (FB) as Lord Byron and Michelle Holmes (FB) as Mary Somerville. Hunter’s Byron is really only seen (as Byron) in the opening and in the final scenes, but he does a great job with those closing scenes. Holmes role is even smaller, showing up introducing Ada to Byron at a few parties.

The scenic aspects of the show — set, props, and hair design — were handled well by Jenn Scuderi Crafts (FB), who did a really great job with a small budget.  Costumes were designed by Denise Barrett (FB), and worked well. Movement was choreographed by Roger Fojas (FB). This went beyond the few dance numbers; there was some really interesting choreography as the actors portrayed the analytic engine and the gears and cogs that made it work. The sound design of Graydon Schlichter (FB) provided the appropriate ambient sound effects, and Gregory Crafts (FB) lighting established time and place well. It also worked well with Kevin Hilton (FB)’s projection design, which provided context and the background mathematics. Other production credits: Tanya Nancy Telson (FB) — Stage Manager; Tom Moore (FB) — Dramaturg; Rosie Bryne (FB) — Dialect Coach; Jim Martyka (FB) & Gregory Crafts (FB) — Publicity; Matt Kamimura (FB) — Production Photography.

Ada and the Engine, continuing the parallelism with Matilda the Musical, also runs through March 31, 2019. Tickets are available through the Theatre Unleashed website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. As an engineer, programmer, and mathematician (really, my Bachelors degree from UCLA is in Math/Computer Science; my Masters in in Computer Science), I found this to be a wonderful show. The science is right, the story is right, and the performances were great. It is well worth seeing.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

March was to conclude with us back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that date had to chance so that we could attend the wedding of our daughter’s best friend, who is a wonderful young woman.

April starts with Steel Magnolias at Actors Co-op (FB) and the MoTAS Men’s Seder. During the week, we are back at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) for our rescheduled performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The next weekend brings the annual visit to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (FB). The third weekend of April will bring Fiddler on the Roof at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The fourth weekend of April is open, although we may see Chris McBride’s Big Band at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and I may book a show for myself. Looking to May, the month starts out with Sister Act at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, simply because we love the work of this theatre, and we want to see how a small theatre tackles this big show. The second weekend of May brings  Falsettos at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. Who know what the weekend will bring! June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.