A scarily dramatic and somewhat random story from a mother, for audience members who allow themselves to become “The Pregnant Dreamer;” for crowds seeking to “evade a curse on their unborn child by choosing their own path… unlocking secret knowledge and whispers of terror,” at a time when the crisis of Roe Vs Wade’s desecration of a woman’s bodily rights to abortion is paramount – all of this, inspired by author Maria Tatar’s research on the horror history of fairy tales, is at the heart of filmmaker and devised theater maker Josephine Decker’s newest staged work, The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles.
A Texan renowned for writing and directing independent films such as Shirley (2020, and starring The Handmaid Tale’s Elisabeth Moss) and Madeline’s Madeline (2018, featuring Helena Howard from The Wilds), The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles’ Decker is fashioning this new choice-driven theater work with the Obie Award-winning Pig Iron Theatre Company of with whom she first studied and worked with nearly 20 years ago. Premiering in Philadelphia, now through October 2 at the hilly, pebbly Rigby Mansion, Decker and Pig Iron’s site-specific, immersive performance dreamscape vividly, but without definition or judgement, “explores the complex decisions that mothers, fictional and real, must make about their children’s lives.”
“It’s a funny thing making a show about pregnancy and motherhood while living all of the things inside of it,” says Decker on a day where she and the Pig Iron troupe are just a tad behind schedule. “I’m always having to be more than one place at a time as a mother, and theater such as this just magnifies splitting myself into pieces. At least it is an authentic place, drawing as it from reality.”
The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles’ co-director and Pig Iron co-founder Dan Rothenberg wrote of their collaboration that, “This feels like such a risky and personal work to bring to an audience in these first terrible months after the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Working with Josephine on this piece, I hear the word ‘choice’ in a new way, against a backdrop of the titanic forces at work in pregnancy, forces that demand our respect and humility. I feel like Josephine’s story, and the stories she has excavated for this work – these stories refocus our attention on the fear and grief and sometimes absurdity of the journey of pregnancy. The choices parents and people who are pregnant make or are made for us. Without making room for this grief and complexity, how can we as a society ever hope to make policies rooted in compassion?”
Starting from conversations as to how the physical/social/spiritual concept of pregnancy is “deep and throbbing with the unknown, surrendering one’s ideas of how things will definitely go,” Decker looked at control as a malleable issue. “No plan can go according to plan,” she says. “The feeling is that you are never getting everything exactly right.”
Because the Rigby Mansion space is not amenable for large crowds, Decker and the Pig Iron crew (“Mostly mothers and/or parents” adds Decker) used the location to support and reflect the themes within The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles – the unknown, not being to see everything at all times, being forced to make choices and rely on instinct. “Throughout the show there’s usually more than three things happening at once,” says the director and performer. “There are many options, many paths that an audience can take in seeing this show. So far, the way it is written, we found that there are at least 190 different tracks as to how you could see the show. And, even as its playwright, I do not understand that completely, but it feels appropriate – like fully understanding a child or a mother.”
At 190+ tracks upon which one can travel, Decker’s Path is just like real life.
The reality of The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles, oxymoronically, is that audience members are invited to walk through a dream (or a nightmare) unfolding, individually, for its attendees. Decker states that you become this “pregnant dreaming person having anxiety about recent news” and must solve such real-life dilemmas and guessing at/making their own fates. There are beckoning prompts that can call audience participants/pull the crowd into where it might to be, but choice is still the ace in the house of cards that is The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles.
Within that house of cards, choice – the central issue behind the Supreme Court’s reverse engineered, tearing down of Roe V Wade, the landmark decision ruling that the Constitution had conferred the right, for all women, to have an abortion – takes on new meaning. First, about a “processing of grief, a poetic lyrical experience” felt by and translated from the heart of its author, Decker finds the collaboration with Pig Iron, through this new theater piece, therapeutic. “How moms get by was a big issue here, though ultimately it became more personal, closer to home for me,” says Decker. “When the group who worked on this show and I got together, it just got very vulnerable and personal about who we were as pregnant people and parents, and we built our own safe space to discuss our own issues.”
Adding in fairy tales, dark ones at that, complicated matters even more so for Decker. When the history of fairy tales moved from the ancient oral tradition to being written down for the monied elite with the advent of the printing press, violence took hold and blame was re-assigned. “No mother would leave their babies in the woods, but if we look at it all, moms throughout history had to make challenging decisions about who would make it,” she says. “That is part of the conversation we’re having now: there are lots of people with tons of resources. That abortion is so wrong. Then there are different conversations as to how people get by and how abortion is right. Who will make it?”
The history of fairy tales related to pregnant women is a contemporary conversation, a replay of the past, flipped for the present and again portraying how women’s oral stories got taken over by men who designated themselves as the scribes of their time, the only ones writing things down. “More and more, this story became about the self-sacrificing mother, then the witch, then the maiden,” says Decker.
Returning to the present day and where we stand with the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe V Wade’s fortune, Decker states that she and Pig Iron were already in script-formation and workshop creation when the court’s decision came down. “As a Texan who knows how gruesome my states is towards moms who need abortion, or those aiding and abetting abortion, I had my own feelings,” says Decker who made a short film about the topic before fully jumping into The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles. “That film helped me to see how we speak about abortion as if it was one thing, as well as speaking about motherhood and pregnancy as if it one thing. The word, “mom’ – everyone who says it – it always has a different meaning. It has a shared meaning with the person who raised you, but every experience is unique. It’s always just between the two of you. Abortion is not different than that. People can have, maybe, similar circumstances, but there are no two people who have same the exact same experience of going through something like that. To some degree, for this show, that made me want to be more specific… the show is hard to read, and elliptical, and I have this funny feeling that people will wonder what it’s about and what it stands for. Even when an abortion is part of a life. People who are pro-choice can often be easily framed as pro-abortion. Everyone having this conversation is devastated. But, as a doctor I spoke to in Texas said, “every woman having an abortion is a woman in crises.”
Noting how abortion is an horrific moment to go through, (“they are not doing this with any level of soullessness or being cavaliere”) Decker sought to give The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles as much specificity as she could while remaining open – characters who deal with a mother’s history of having done something similar but never being able to talk about it all. “It’s horrific to have et make those choices, any choices, then go through what you must do after – no matter what choice you go with. That’s the paths, the forks you take that are significant no matter which you choose, and will have ramifications for the rest of your life, having the child or not having the child.”
With all of this, Decker believes that the idea of empathy looms large throughout The Path of Pins or The Path of Needles, – a play populated by women or people playing female characters – “even when there is a total lack of empathy,” she says. “There are many sinister characters, many loving characters, and then there are characters existing at some complicated path in-between. The goal is that all of those characters are aspects of the same mind. Like in a dream, everyone existing within it is a reflection or an aspect of you and your own psyche.”
Vague as that might sound, Decker wants audiences to come into the new work with the space and openness to allow its storytelling and its sense of chance to unfold. “It would be easy to put a soundbite about abortion on this show, but we’re trying hard to look at all this in a complex way, a way that is full of emotion and resonance as to how grief feels in making those choices. Either of those choices…. I hope that we get in on all the complexities of motherhood, and inside of that, showing the empathy for all of its sides, choices and options. This issue is full of complexities just like life is. Art is full of complexities just like life is.”