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The official poster for Primordial at the Tank Theater in NYC

Q&A | Lillian Isabella's Primordial Tells the Truth About Birth

Lillian Isabella is a playwright and actor in New York City whose work delves into intimate sexual and reproductive issues that most people feel uncomfortable talking about — which basically makes her our people. Her current work Primordial is now playing at the Tank Theater in New York City from February 1s to the 25th.

Based on more than 1000 pages of interviews with 50+ birthing people, Primordial aims to create a safe space for the audience to explore some wildly different birthing experiences, which range from ecstatic to devastating.

Your first play How We Love/F*ck seems like a kind of precursor to Primordial in that it dealt with sex, whereas Primordial is about birth. Can you tell me more about that first production?

Yes, that was my response to the Me Too movement. One of the most surprising things for me at the time was that a lot of men in my life had no idea that women were going through that.

Playwright Lillian Isabella

I grew up in an all-female household, so I was told stories from a very young age about sexual harassment and being careful and all this stuff. So I was shocked that there was such a difference in perspective. It was very disturbing.

My play How We Love/F*ck was kind of a response to that. I think sexuality and intimacy is supposed to be fun and pleasurable. So I interviewed a bunch of women about their positive experiences with sexuality — what did they enjoy? What has their journey been like? And then I turned it into a play where five actors brought all of these stories to life.

So it was a celebration of female sexuality in the midst of a really important political shift.

When did you realize that you wanted to focus on pregnancy and childbirth next?

During the next to last performance of the play, we did a Q&A talkback, and at the very end, we asked anybody have any other questions? And my producer shouts out from the audience what's your next play gonna be about?

I had not given it a thought before, but I said it’s gonna be about pregnancy. And I was like, well, I just declared this publicly, but it felt super right.

Why do you think you had that impulse?

I like to choose topics that make people uncomfortable. Talking about female sexuality makes people uncomfortable. Pregnancy and childbirth make people really uncomfortable. And yet it has impacted all of us, we’ve all been born.

Which aspects of childbirth do you think are most uncomfortable to discuss?

I think it's so interesting because a lot of the people I spoke to expressed frustration that it didn't seem like anyone wanted to talk to them about pregnancy or childbirth, which left them feeling very alone in the experience.

Childbirth is so profound, so life altering. There's no comparison for it. Yet talking about it isn’t normalized. For example, I’lll be watching a movie and I will notice how, in a lot of movies, the male lead character’s wife is pregnant in one scene and in the next one she's holding a baby. Meanwhile, we've just followed the male journey as he's accomplished something. And I'm like, hello, this person just birthed a human being, but it’s this tiny little footnote in the story.

Were the women you talked to excited to share their stories? What kinds of stories did you hear?

Definitely. There was a woman who experienced ecstatic birth, so she danced her baby out and had an orgasm when she was giving birth. She gave birth four times and also had a traumatic experience with one that she didn’t want anyone else to go through. So she created this whole company called dancing for birth. And the idea is that dance both gets your endorphins flowing and helps your body move the baby out naturally. We’re not supposed to be confined to a bed lying down. So she created this whole company encouraging women who are giving birth to dance.

And then other stories are quite sad and even disturbing. For example, one involved medical abuse, essentially. So the play touches on a lot of trigger warning areas. I hope that it does so in a way that allows and invites conversation, rather than causing polarization.

I think a lot of the time when we politicize things, we don't allow the humanity or the personal story to come through, and that's often what happens with marginalized bodies — those topics are the ones that get heavily politicized.

(Photo credit:Mari Eimas-Dietrich) Primordial being performed live at the Tank Theater in New York City

I remember being pregnant and I would avoid researching certain fetal health conditions because I thought, if I didn’t know about it, it wouldn’t happen to me.

Yeah, so there's this looking away, I guess. And that’s typical in our culture. We are not encouraged to look at childbirth and to talk about it.

How do we get over that impulse or find a way to look more closely and be comfortable doing it?

That’s why I'm a writer, because the theater has this agreed upon set of rules. And so my hope is that it creates a space that's safer to hear these stories. It's safer because it’s not a political arena. It's not your home. You’re with a group of people who are all attuned to what’s happening on stage.

There was this study that showed that when people are in a theater together watching a live performance, their heartbeats sink. And I think that there's something to that, that if you're in a safe space with agreed upon rules — it's a play, these are actors, this is a playwright — you can trust these artists to give you an experience that allows empathy to come in.

It’s so wonderful that you’re bringing uncomfortable, intimate issues into the light in a safe space. Why are YOU so comfortable with these topics?

-That's a great question. I'm not actually sure when the pivot point for me was. I think I'm an uncomfortably intimate person. Hmm… how do I put this? I feel like the stage specifically is a very safe space to get uncomfortably intimate because there are these agreed upon rules for engaging. There's safety in that. So for me, it's super fun.

When did you realize that the stage was a safe place for you?

Probably post-college was when that realization started to happen. I was an actor, first — I went to NYU Tisch for acting — and then I really just dove into playwriting and got very excited by that. I felt I could express myself more that way, but also because I was in control of the kind of roles I was playing. When writing theater, I could be as intimate as I wanted to be.

(Photo credit: Mari Eimas-Dietrich) Actors sharing verbatim birthing stories in Primordial.

Do you share your own stories in your plays?

Overall, I specifically enjoy highlighting other people. My first play has a bit of my own sexual journey in it because it was connected. But for this one, I've never been pregnant. I've never given birth.

Primordial is a form of “verbatim theater,” what does that mean exactly?

It’s a 50-page play that’s been culled down from a thousand pages of transcripts from real conversations about pregnancy and childbirth. My goal is to respect and maintain the meaning, intention, and order of the words spoken by each person I interviewed. But then I’ve woven them all together to tell a story. So there are some monologues, but they add to this larger dialog and build into a kind of cacophony of experience.

How many people's stories did you draw on for the play?

There are over 30 stories and very diverse, just all different types of experiences and people. Diverse in age and somewhat in gender. I have mostly cis women, but also a non binary trans person and a trans man.

There's also ethnic diversity and ability diversity, including a quadriplegic who gave birth to twins. It's an incredible story, and there's a whole documentary about her, actually, called Dani's Twins. She's a total badass.

How does it feel, after all that work, to finally see the play being performed?

I'm just so passionate about the play that I've created and the stories that are told. They are so powerful, I feel that I’m being driven by something bigger than myself. And I feel grateful for all my collaborators. The Tank & Meghan Finn, Artistic Director at The Tank, green-lit the production and that Meghan signed on to direct the play. Her brilliant imagination lights up the stage.

The performers are intimately and evocatively channeling these stories: Nina Fry, Marisela Gonzalez, Adrianna Mateo, Jordan Mosley, Rebekah Rawhouser, and Paula Sim. Adrianna is also performing her stunning and addicting original compositions for the show live on stage with violin and piano. Leslie Guyton choreographed beautiful movement and co-directed. Our stage manager Max is keeping us running with such dedication and care. The whole thing is beyond what I could have imagined it would become. And this isn’t even half of the team on board making this happen.

(Photo credit: Mari Eimas-Dietrich)

When did you first realize that you could do this — you could be a successful playwright?

There have been a few moments, but for the very first documentary theater play that I created for The Metropolitan Playhouse, I interviewed Jonas Mekas, who is the founder of Anthology Film Archives. After WWII he was in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany before the United Nations brought him to live in New York City and he eventually became known as the Godfather of avant garde film.

I interviewed him and created the play and then I got up on stage and played him — a 92-year-old Lithuanian man. After coming to see it, he told me that I had done a wonderful job and that I was a good storyteller.

Coincidentally, a New York Times reporter was following Mekas for an article and came to the play with him. A couple of years later, that reporter John Leland wrote a best-selling book called “Happiness is a Choice You Make.” When it came out, I got a message from Mekas , telling me to go find the book, because Leland had written about going to see my play.

At the time How We Love/F*ck was just about to go up at the Cherry Lane Theater. I ran to a bookstore, found a copy of the book and it practically opened up to the page about my play. I was freaking out and telling the bookseller. And I just had this moment, like… I'm on the right path. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing right now.

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Nicole Zeman
Nicole Zeman

Nikki Zeman is the Head of Content & Community at Origin — a dream job that allows her to create eye-opening content about pelvic and sexual health. Before Origin, Nikki worked at Cosmopolitan, Women's Health, and Parents Magazine as an editor, health journalist, and advice columnist.

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