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Pig Iron Theatre Company, The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles, directed by Josephine Decker, 2022, Rigby Mansion, Philadelphia, PA. Photo by Johanna Austin. 

Director Josephine Decker on Translating the Experience of Pregnancy into Performance

Devised and directed by Josephine Decker in collaboration with co-director Dan Rothenberg of Pig Iron Theatre Company, The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles made its world premiere in September as part of the 2022 Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Featuring a cast composed primarily of mothers, the immersive performance centers on the experience of being pregnant, at once joyful and uncertain—and sometimes scary. 

With multiple scenes running simultaneously in and around Germantown’s Rigby Mansion, the fairy-tale–inspired piece presents audience members with the choice to follow different paths, offering hundreds of unique permutations of the show.  

In the videos below, Decker talks about how she drew on her own experiences with pregnancy and motherhood (as well as her background as a filmmaker) in developing the piece, and she explains the intentions behind the work’s unconventional structure and content.  

Decker on working in live theater as a filmmaker. 

Josephine Decker. Filmed at Rigby Mansion on August 29, 2022. 

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It's been really nice working in the theater. I mean, just that most of the journey of making the work is an embodied experience, a very physicalized experience, I mean, this way of working, especially, we're devising a theater piece. So I think when you're building with actors and you get to be in a room playing and, I don't know, just having fun, it's just been really, really nice. 

So yeah, I feel really blessed. It has definitely made me take a step back and look at film and say, why doesn't this happen more in film? There are writers rooms for television. And I think that's the closest you get. And that's also, as a director of mostly feature films, I haven't really gotten to work in that way. So this was just so special to find these languages with one another and with our bodies that feel new and old. 

I feel like I would love to do way more of this kind of creation. And I'd love to do it for film too. But I understand why it exists more in theater. Like, this work I definitely think is a theater piece. It's very embodied. There's a lot of dance. It's extremely site-specific. It's extremely immersive. 

There's a lot of interaction with the audience. So the audience will be making a lot of their own choices about how you navigate the space. But also, they'll literally choose different through lines. We realized at one point that there's like 280 ways you could see the show because there's that many-- of you take this track and then this track and then this track and then this track, there's usually three scenes running at once, and there's five scenes. But there's also an opening scene. 

As a playwright, it's also been complicated because there's no way I can ever know everything the audience will experience, which is a little scary. There's a thing about nurturing a work in an a space that you can control, which is maybe like a normal theatrical space. This is definitely a less controllable space. And it's harder to control the audience too. 

And as I was talking about it with Dan, and he was like, well, we can't control this. And we won't be able to control that. And I was like, but that's kind of what pregnancy is like. You can't control it. 

You can't control the environment. You can't control what's going on in your body. It's just going to play out how it's going to play out. And really, science really can't do much of anything or even intervene until really late in the pregnancy. So it feels appropriate to be in an environment that's going to be speaking with us in the project. 

Decker on the poetic structure of The Path of Pins and the Path of Needles. 

Josephine Decker. Filmed at Rigby Mansion on August 29, 2022. 

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As much as I really love narrative, and I love a narrative that kind of loops back and ties things up, and structure can be so exciting, my favorite kind of structure is a poetic structure. A more or maybe even you could call it a song structure. I like a structure where it feels really like oh, of course. Of course, this has to happen. But you also don't understand and you never could have predicted. 

And this way that things come together is just the most unique, insightful way. I mean, not to say that's not-- those are the poems I love. That's how I feel about poetry, that the way that the words come together all of a sudden yields an insight that could not have been forged with any other words in any other way. But you don't really know why you're having such an emotional response. 

And I really pray that we are able to create a similar feeling with our piece. Our piece is not a clear narrative. It doesn't necessarily have a character that you're following beginning to end. There are a few characters whose through lines do grow. But the actors are playing many characters in many different scenarios. 

But I think that the different scenarios build on one another and that there are three pieces happening at once. And there's also overarching in the piece, there are a few ways of thinking. There's sort of a fairy tale way of journeying through the piece. And then there's some more modernish scenes. And then there's some very dance-based scenes. 

And so the piece overall invites you to puzzle it all together using maybe a more like emotion-centric brain than like a logic brain. And I think there is a very strong, I hope, emotional logic to the piece that pulls you through and that you have, I hope, at the end, a feeling that is this flash of emotion or insight that opens something that ideally goes with you far beyond the length of the piece. 

Also, in trying to pull the whole piece together and working on an ending and, I guess you could call it kind of a climax, although I really think I'm not into the Aristotelian climax concept because I think in woman's world, there doesn't have to be one climax. You know what I mean? Like, there are many. And so actually, there are many potential endings for this show, and some that go on for a very long time. 

It's very funny because Dan keeps saying, I want the show to be the same length for everyone. And I'm like, is pregnancy the same length for everyone? You know what I mean? And he's like, we can't let some people out 15 minutes before other people get out. And I'm like, why not? And he's like, what if they're carpooling? And I'm like, well, then they'll wait. 

Decker on creating work about the experience of pregnancy, birth, and early motherhood. 

Josephine Decker. Filmed at Rigby Mansion on August 29, 2022.

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One of the greatest works that we were looking at as research for the project-- talked a lot about how there's tons of literature around the trauma of war and soldiers coming back from war and experiencing the trauma of seeing someone die next to you or in front of you and a friend dying. And then there's almost no literature about the trauma of pregnancy and birth and of early motherhood and how tenuous life is in that moment and how that is actually living inside of you or that death could be inside of you. 

I didn't mean for it to be unsettling, but it definitely is a bit unsettling. And I think it is because we are not shying away from the most terrifying aspects of pregnancy. And I think it's also because they are present even in a perfect pregnancy. Your imagination is going to the scariest places the whole time. 

So navigating all of the fears of pregnancies and how real does feel and the anxiety that it kind of grips you throughout-- can grip you throughout a pregnancy-- we really wanted that to be present because it is present, because it's not a romantic thing. I was like pregnancy, so romantic. And even when we were raising money for the show, I was like, this is going to be so nice and fun. And then, of course, we got into it and it's like, no, this is going to be-- I mean, it is. 

I think the experience of the show I hope will be very fun and exuberant but also very haunting and, yes, unsettling. But I hope it also becomes deeply personal because you are making choices. I hope it becomes a very deeply personal journey. But we definitely didn't shy away from the darkness of fears basically, the pregnancy fears. And those fears sometimes turn into reality. 

I, myself, have had very complex journey of now having two healthy living children and that it's tragic and devastating. And I feel like that's kind of normal. I actually think that, in a way, you could say you're bearing life, you're also bearing death, because every life has a death. Many lives don't ever begin. And so that is present in the piece as well. 

I had been writing and trying to get at what I was aiming for. And I think kind of a revelation came when I realized that the ending was not going to be expressed through words and that words were kind of failing me. I was like, I'm just telling so much. It's trying to be resolved in dialogue and it needs to be resolved-- if there's any resolution, it needs to come from a physical place. 

And so it's sort of-- I mean, I won't give anything away. But I think the end of the show is kind of the climax of the work of a mother, I think the work of mothers and how it crescendos and how a selflessness can become violence, I guess you could say. 

Josephine Decker is a filmmaker and performer. Her experimental feature films include Madeline’s Madeline, The Sky is Everywhere, and Shirley, which stars Elizabeth Moss and received the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.