‘SHE’: performing the lives of engineering women

Elizabeth Bruton

On a cold and wet November evening, we entered the Stage@Leeds performing space for SHE, a public performance by final-year theatre and performance students at the University of Leeds.  The enticing poster showed a young woman with a printed circuit board projected onto her face.

Over a period of eight weeks in October and November 2019, and inspired by presentation on the Electrifying Women project by Graeme Gooday, these students devised, wrote, and performed SHE as a play with music. This promised to teach us about the ‘bold and brilliant’ women who fought for ‘rights and equality’ so that we may all grow, learn, prosper and thrive.  Supervised by Dr George Rodosthenous, the students undertook research for SHE in the Feminist Archive North holdings of Women in Science and Engineering to find stories of UK and US women who had  innovated in technical and scientific fields.

Poster for the production of SHE at the University of Leeds 21-23 November 2019

Upon entering the minimalist space before the performance begin, we met a young girl on a swing at centre stage. This was Yasmin Rapley playing a young version of British pioneer pilot Amy Johnson; the stage was soon brought to life by the multi-character cast and an immersive use of props.  Throughout the performance, we were presented with engaging dramatic vignettes from the lives of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – with a simple musical score and soundtrack effectively grounding the emotional content of the play.

Interwoven throughout the first half were the life and achievements of Amy Johnson, British aviator and long-distance record breaker.  We began with her early family life and her father’s fish market in Hull and then university studies and the female community surrounding and supporting her at Sheffield University. Soon we moved on to her pioneering long-distance aviation successes, including becoming the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia; her marriage to fellow long-distance pilot Jim Mollison only eight hours after they first met; and her tragic and disputed death after ditching in the Thames in January 1941.

A young Amy Johnson contemplating her future (still from the production of SHE at the University of Leeds, more photographs here)

Briefer vignettes of other women were interwoven with the central narrative of Johnson’s life. The first of these was Grace Hopper, who in her World War Two navy service did early pioneering work in computer language, later becoming a leading American computer scientist and  United States Navy rear admiral. Her wartime service as one of first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer was vividly brought to life as was her key role as the inventor of the first compiler for a computer programming language. Her innovation of giving computers recognizably human speech, “Hello World”, now a common test phrase in computing, was beautifully projected onto the stage floor.

In a more humorous interlude, we met the unnamed – actually Frenchwoman Herminie Cadolle, considered inventor of the modern brassiere, also known as the bra.  Invention and innovation comes in all shapes and sizes it seems!

We were also introduced to American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her work as a “computer” at Harvard College Observatory  – although translated to Oxford in SHE – which led her to discover the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.  Leavitt’s deafness was also effectively dramatised – Leavitt was shown to turn down her hearing aid at anyone’s mention of when the limitations of what women could do, especially in the field of astronomy.

Next, we met Emily Roebling and her engineering contributions to construction of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in New York when her husband and chief engineer Washington Roebling was bedridden for a decade with compression sickness caused by his work on the project.  The upbeat conclusion to the first half cheerfully turned some of the audience into airline passenger to show the EasyJet Amy Johnson Initiative, which encourages more women to train as pilots.

Emily Roebling managing the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge during her spouse’s infirmity (still from the production of SHE at the University of Leeds, more photographs here)

The second half opened with a depiction of young women starting their unorthodox top secret work in codebreaking at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. We see stories of romance amid the interception of enemy wireless messages by members of the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS) during the Second World War. Later in the play we return to these women in later life sharing their wry and candid observations about Bletchley life when at last they could talk publicly about their role in shortening that war.

Next up was a dance interlude showing the experimental theatrical lighting work of American actress and dancer Loie Fuller with her patented stage effects that used the chemistry of stained glass. Following on from this, we met another actress, innovator and patent holder Hedy Lamarr. For a long time, Austrian-American actress Lamarr was celebrated for her on-screen skills and natural beauty, but with her inventive skills ignored by the military establishment in World War 2. Lamarr, we learn, made key contributions to frequency hopping in collaboration with modernist composer George Antheil, used to prevent torpedo jamming in the 1960s . These later formed the basis for our present-day wifi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.

The last two women’s contributions to science, technology, engineering and mathematics spanned the everyday and theoretical. The story of Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, reveals both her great determination and the financial exploitation of her labour-saving device for women workers by male corporate executives who could not at first believe that its inventor was not a male Joe Cochrane. Finally we see perhaps the best known female scientist Marie Curie and the originality of her research on radioactivity in the early twentieth century.  Nobel prize winner Curie is also the subject of a play currently running in New York City exploring her friendship with pioneering British electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton.

The enthusiasm and skill of the entire cast and crew along with the simple, minimal and beautiful staging of SHE and the impeccable research made the play a real joy. It was an eye-opening portrayal of the often hidden past of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, with an inspirational message about their potential future contributions too. 

Feedback collected from the audience afterwards was very positive:

  • “SHE was an impeccable production. Clever and inspiring storylines combined with a gripping set and lighting design – this is a must watch.”
  • “SHE was an emotional rollercoaster. Emotions fluctuated throughout the show leaving you exhilarated and uplifted. The actors took on multiple roles and moved with ease and professionalism into these different personas.”
  • “SHE was a relevant and current piece of theatre, bringing issues that have plagued society over the years to the forefront. Passionate and emotionally inspired performances by the cast thrust these contentious themes before the audience, leaving you awestruck.”