On September 27 last year, like many people, the actor and writer Heidi Schreck watched Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give her compelling testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee about an alleged assault committed against her by then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
A few hours later, Schreck was scheduled to give that evening’s performance at the New York Theatre Workshop of What The Constitution Means To Me.
“I was on my couch with husband. I was really emotional, crying a lot,” Schreck recalled this week, eating a kale salad and drinking coffee in a Broadway restaurant. “Then I thought, ‘This was a big mistake. I’m exhausted.’ I was looking at Twitter, getting more upset, realizing I should have preserved my energy for that evening’s performance.
“But I felt so much better after doing that show, and so grateful to be in a room of people feeling the same I was feeling. I drew comfort and strength from them.” She paused, and laughed. “I have said to my husband, ‘We need to put these phones down, and go hike somewhere.’”
Schreck is as ebullient in person as she appears on stage—that ebullience able to quickly shift to extreme seriousness in a beat. In our conversation she will reveal her plans for making a film of the show, and why she doesn't want President Trump, who “terrifies” her, to come to the show.
The first time this author saw Schreck perform What The Constitution Means To Me—now on Broadway and garlanded with two Tony award nominations among many other laurels—was that same September evening. (Preceding its engagement at the New York Theatre Workshop, Schreck performed Constitution as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival in 2017.)
The feeling in the room that night was fragile and charged, and as this excellent, witty, illuminating, and wrenching production unfolded it both keyed into that energy and transformed it.
Hopelessness didn't suddenly become sunny optimism, but Schreck’s show—which skillfully combines the personal and political, and the extremely funny and the piercingly moving—encourages the audience to believe, or re-believe, in the aspirations of the Constitution and its possibility.
In the show Schreck first sketches her teen passion for the Constitution, growing up in Wenatchee, Washington as a young debate champion traveling around American Legion halls, before the show becomes deeper and darker.
The play is not just about the document’s strengths and failings but also about Schreck’s experience of abortion, and violence against women, including the trauma and physical and sexual abuse endured by her grandmother and aunt at the hands of her grandmother’s second husband—and how Schreck's mother, then aged 14, made a brave stand to stop him.
The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, is a to-scale rendition of a Legion hall, its walls filled with portraits of genuine members, sourced from a Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Schreck (with surreptitiously added ones of Schreck's co-star Mike Iveson and director Oliver Butler).
Fast-tracked to Broadway on a wave of critical and audience acclaim, What The Constitution Means To Me (The Hayes Theater, to August 24) has become the surprise hit of the current Broadway season.
The play has been nominated for two Tony Awards: Best Play, and Schreck for a Best Actress in a Play. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, it has already won Best American Play at the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and the Dramatists Guild of America’s Hull-Warriner Award, and also been nominated for best play in the Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and Lucille Lortel awards.
“I’m really excited,” Schreck said about the award win and nominations, laughing so hard as to endanger the digestion of kale. “That will be good color for the piece: ‘Then she spit out her salad,’” she said, laughing (after swallowing the kale). “I mean, it’s a childhood dream come true. I’ve been doing theater since I was 6 years old.
“I have taken various detours in my career—I’ve been a journalist in Russia, taught English in Siberia—but if you asked me what I wanted to be when I was 6, I would have said, ‘ballerina’ or Broadway star. It’s very strange completing the circle in this way. It’s thrilling.”
Did she want to win the Tony?
Another hearty laugh, and luckily no mouthful of salad.
“I mean sure, have you seen the show?” she said, still laughing. “It has ignited the 15-year-old-on-the-debate-circuit in me. She tried to win everything. I mean, look, I already feel so lucky. This is not the trajectory I expected for the show. I thought this was a downtown show. I spent most of my career working downtown.
“This move to Broadway was not what I ever imagined for the show. All of this feels extra. I’m not ‘campaigning’ for a Tony. Maybe my producers are. I’m just trying to make the show great every night, so if I don’t win it’s not my fault.” Another rumble of laughter. “I already feel like I’ve won. It’s so far beyond my expectations for the show.”
She would like to return to perform it in Wenatchee. “I think that will probably happen. It would be amazing to perform it in the actual Legion Hall, but I think I’d have to do it in a theater. The hall doesn’t seat that many people.”
Constitution is almost a one-person show. Schreck is joined on stage by Iveson and then, at every performance, two teenage debate champions from New York City—Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams—take it in turns to debate Schreck at the end about whether to keep or scrap the Constitution. A coin toss decides who will argue for what, and then the audience that night votes on the winner.
Did Schreck want President Trump, or Mike Pence, or any member of the Trump administration, to see the play?
“That’s a fantastic question,” she said, then paused. “Maybe this is… I just don’t… I… Honestly, no. I don’t have any faith it would mean anything to them or they would hear it. And maybe that’s based on a little bit of the experience of conversations with my very conservative relatives, where I argued vehemently and found I wasn’t heard or listened to.
“I decided to cut those relatives off and not give all my energy to them. They weren’t open to seeing me as a full human being anyway. I would rather give my energy to people who are open to it. So, yeah, I would prefer those seats occupied by people who need the show, want the show, and are open to what the show is doing.”
I asked what she thought of Trump.
Schreck sighed. “I mean…”
There was a heavy silence, her ebullience utterly deflated.
“I, errr, I think he’s terrifying. It’s terrifying that someone that unqualified and volatile and wrapped up in himself and own ego is our president. I think it’s scary that someone who doesn’t have the temperament to be a good leader is president. Obviously my politics and views are to the far left of him. But that isn’t what scares me. His unpredictability and also what seems to be a lack of intelligence is scary.”
She is “of two minds” if Trump is actively endangering the Constitution. “If he tries to stand in the way of a peaceful transition of power that would definitely put our Constitution at risk. Every step he takes that ignores or skirts the basic tenets of the Constitution weakens it and that scares me.”
Schreck said that there were some parts of the Constitution that enabled some of Trump’s “scarier policies.” She is in favor of reforming how the Supreme Court works, particularly the conferring of lifetime terms and the reform of the Electoral College.
“But I also believe the Constitution is our greatest hope in terms of preserving democracy in the face of what could become tyranny,” said Schreck. “I do believe that document is our greatest hope right now. Different sides might interpret it differently, but those sides respect the document. That feels important to me right now.”
Some of her family members are Trump supporters. They haven’t seen the play, and Schreck has not communicated for them for a while.
Hillary Clinton, who told her she had participated in the same debating competition when younger, has come to see the show (and recommended others do, too); Chelsea Clinton has been twice. Norman Lear has attended: “He did the contest the first year it was ever contested. His speech, he told me, was about how the Constitution protected him as a young Jewish man."
Laurence Tribe, constitutional scholar and co-founder of the American Constitution Society, has become a friend and top-tier sounding board after being advised to see the show by his grand-daughter. Preet Bharara has come, as has congressman Antonio Delgado.
At a recent Broadway performance Schreck had seemed genuinely emotional when talking about the abuse within her family, as if tears might come.
“It’s sort of unpredictable for me on any given night. Some nights I can get through that section with fortitude. But this Broadway run has been more emotional because my mom finally saw the show for the first time.”
Schreck had gone through the show’s most sensitive material with her, and her mother had been a drama teacher. But because of her seeing the show Schreck had had “deeper conversations than ever before” about the abuse by Schreck’s grandmother’s second husband, and why her grandmother had refused to testify against him in court. Those conversations have led to that part of the play feeling more raw to perform.
On any given day, how the audience is feeling affects her too. At one performance, she was aware of someone in the first row sobbing over the murder of Jessica Lenahan-Gonzales' three children by her estranged husband (a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court). “If people are reacting, showing open grief, it will hit me hard,” said Schreck. “On a night like Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh, it becomes a communal subtext which brings us all closer together.”
The process of writing it began with personal trauma, grief, and family history; the political, legal, and historical elements came later.
Schreck has a support team of fact-checkers, experts, and researchers ensuring all the dense information she presents on stage is correct. Now 47 and less wide-eyed, Schreck tries to channel her 15-year-old-self’s determined optimism, although over the last year she has also found a way to key into her rage.
“I’m not a person who gets angry openly and easily. Doing the show so many times means I am able to access it more fully.” She said that people may not realize how much the play’s director, Oliver Butler, has done to animate everything on stage. “There is my 15-year-old self trying to win a debate, and there is a 47-year-old woman trying to make a coherent story out of inherent trauma. I’m free within that to make a very different emotional journey every night.”
“I am aware that some people are deeply impacted by it,” said Screck. “I have a lot of people who wait for me at the stage door afterwards. There are emails and letters.” People tell her stories about the violence endured by their grandmothers. "I think the majority of people’s lives have been touched by this violence in some way.”
Her mother told her she had loved it, and that its structure was good, and that she was grateful that it was so funny. The family had moved past the abuse of the past, Schreck said; her mother has had years of productive therapy.
The Constitution was “a talisman” for Schreck as a teenager. "I was very passionate about it. I don’t have that same passion now. I have a very clear view of it. I grew up in a small, homogeneous town, and I really believed that this country was a democracy and one of the best places to live on earth. I was a very patriotic kid. I believed in all the ideals set out by the Founding Fathers.”
Growing up and going to college made Schreck realize “how many suffer in this country, particularly people of color, and my awakening to the fact as a woman I have been really screwed over by this country and government. I think waking up to all of that caused the scales to fall. Then I realized this document didn’t stand apart from that."
Schreck agrees with the prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who called the Constitution a “covenant with death.”
“It is. It enshrined slavery. It was evil at the beginning. I can’t look at it with that kind of passion I used to look at it with.”
As she says in the play, Schreck wishes America could have a “positive rights Constitution,” as countries like South Africa have—even if they are not perfect—that “actively protected human rights. But I also no practical way to make that happen, so my desire is to keep this Constitution and pass amendments to fix some of its structural problems. But we haven’t passed an amendment since 1992. This is a supposed to be a living thing, but it doesn’t feel very living.”
From gender politics to immigration rights to trans rights, Schreck is a huge fan particularly of the Fourteenth Amendment, granting “all protections of the laws,” and which makes, for Schreck, the Constitution and play “living entities.”
On the day last October when Trump was threatening to do away with birthright citizenship, the audience that night erupted into applause when Schreck spoke about it.
Around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, the audience at the end voted to do away with the Constitution; now they vote to keep it, she said. “Those hearings showed what was wrong with the Supreme Court, and people felt there was something wrong with that document. Now, for obvious reasons, the feeling is that we really need it right,” said Schreck.
In the Obama era, when the play was in fledgling shape, Schreck performed it Downtown, and recalled mainly female audiences feeling emotional about it. Now, she said, “I know for me this is such a time of confusion and frankly I feel a lot of despair. The show gives me the opportunity to be present with all those feelings, and understand why we’re here and imagine something different and better.
“I can’t read the audience’s minds, but I think on a fundamental human level, the play offers them a place that is safe for them to grapple with all those feelings, a place to be confused together, and to understand and think from a wide perspective—and to find solace in each other. It’s very isolating to go home and watch this all play out on TV. The play brings people together.”
Even though it has quickly consumed her life, the play is never a burden, Schreck said; sometimes she is physically and emotionally exhausted. She has to protect her voice, and “have to live like a kind of nun,” not seeing friends or staying out late.
She is working on a raft of non-Constitution projects: an Amazon adaptation of Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy; an adaptation of a Polish movie The Lure; a couple of plays that she started a couple of years ago that she wants to return to; and a play she would like to write for Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who starred in her 2014 play Grand Concourse.
I asked if there were plans for a film of What The Constitution Means To Me.
“There’s definitely interest. We haven’t made anything officially happen, but we’re working on it.”
How would they shoot it? As a staged adaptation, reflecting it back as a play; or more cinematically, with events described on stage actually played out?
“I don’t know. That’s the issue for me. I’d love for more people to see it, and more people who don’t agree with me to see it, as much as audiences in New York agree with me. I would just love for it to reach people who have different views to me, and maybe reach a girl like I was at 15 in a conservative town who was lonely and isolated and who had different beliefs to everyone around her.
“It is a play and it’s hard to film plays well. It seems deceptively like (Hannah Gadsby’s) Nanette but it’s really not. I’m trying to figure out with Oliver how to translate it to film.”
The other issue is the play’s popularity means that, while Schreck would like to perform it in as many places as possible, she physically can’t. So, she is considering out how licensing it out for others to mount would work.
“I want to perform it in the town I grew up in, but I can’t go to every town. I feel nervous about it, but the plan is that I would be involved as the playwright the first few times it happened in a rehearsal room; then someone would play me, just like Lisa Kron in Well, or 2.5 minute ride.” Schreck hopes there would be a way to step out of the play and be themselves for a moment, maybe in the debate moment.
Schreck has been surprised by the play’s success. It was, she said, her first return to theater after five years of writing for television. When she first performed Constitution in 2017, she had been working on it for ten years. She and Butler debated what “magic” they could bring to it as contrasted to the more visually striking TV magic of special effects and the like.
“There’s something about live debate that’s extemporaneous that you can only do in theater, as well as the very basic connection between audience and performer and storyteller and listener,” Schreck said. “I think it’s the most basic form of what theater is and maybe that’s why people are responding to it.”
And with that, Schreck left to give her voice a steam bath in readiness for another evening of civics and soul-baring.