If you’re watching a play and suddenly get freaked out by national politics—wondering, WTF can theater do to help?—just think of Heidi Schreck. The playwright-performer has created career-making plays that ask tough but humane questions about community and personal responsibility. There’s earnestness, but also humor and heartbreak, bubbling through works such as the soup-kitchen drama Grand Concourseand her newest play, What the Constitution Means to Me. For the latter (running through October 28 at New York Theatre Workshop), Schreck drew on her experiences as a teenager who traveled the country to American Legion halls to debate other students about, yes, what the country’s founding document meant to her.
The play begins as a humorous reminiscence and re-creation by Schreck, playing her youthful self, then gets darker and more complex as she grows up and realizes the government has historically betrayed women and people of color, and the Constitution is not some magic parchment protecting them. For Schreck, the agonizing question is: How can the document protect the people who were left out of its very creation? Our theater expert, David Cote, chatted with Schreck about human rights, volunteering, and gigging in TV.
There’s earnestness, but also humor and heartbreak in Schreck's work. / Photo courtesy of Heidi Schreck
What Should We Do?!: Your new playis about how the Constitution handles—manhandles?—women’s bodies. In real life, Brett Kavanaugh called birth control “abortion-inducing drugs” before the Senate and now he's being accused of attempted rape when he was in high school. Obviously, your play is not relevant at all.
Heidi Schreck:I know. What’s so strange is that I’ve been evolving this play for a decade. I’ve been performing pieces of it out and about, like at Catch and P.S. 122. I started telling the story of my abortion five years ago onstage, and it’s alarming that every year the play becomes more relevant instead of less relevant. I find that scary.
WSWD: In the play, I find your explanation of the Constitution and amendments really clear. I felt like: Can she come explain all of the Constitution to me?
Schreck: I think we all feel like that right now! But I have a very specific lens through which I’m looking at the Constitution. I mean, women weren’t part of the document in any way whatsoever. The framers just assumed, well, the women will stay home and take care of the men making this document. The rest of them we won’t worry about. Especially people of color—women of color. One idea I trace is that it’s hard to make a document work for people who were left out of it at the very beginning.
WSWD: So in 2018 is the U.S. Constitution a masterpiece of humanist thinking or a profoundly inhumane document?
Schreck: I won’t give it away, but that question is at the heart of the show.
“The Constitution was built to protect that small group of rich white men, and I believe that’s what it continues to protect, ultimately. I’ve run into this idea that the document is somehow neutral. It’s such bullshit.”
WSWD: There’s an idealism in the play that’s really touching. Idealism, but also a kind of honest anger.
Schreck: I grew up worshiping this document, as a very innocent 15-year-old. I was nerdy and loved politics and loved reading about government and had utter faith in this document. And while creating this piece over the past decade, I started to wonder what it means to rely on a document that enshrined slavery from the beginning, that left out women. What does it mean to build a nation on that, and what are the real and psychological scars that are left from that?WSWD: It makes me think of so-called “originalists,” like the late Justice Antonin Scalia. As a white male conservative, he kind of shared your youthful wonder about the Constitution being a magic document. A magic document that privileges a minority.
Schreck: Yes. The document was built to protect that small group of rich white men, and I believe that’s what it continues to protect, ultimately. I’ve run into this idea that the document is somehow neutral. It’s such bullshit. In fact, to be neutral at this moment is actually to be a force of oppression. You can’t remain neutral without upholding the status quo, which is oppressive, which is violent, which is racist.WSWD: Between this play and 2014’s Grand Concourse, I sense a theme of public service or civic-mindedness. Where does that come from?
Schreck: Definitely from my parents. My dad was a history teacher, my mom was a debate coach. They urged me—I’m not gonna say forced—urged me to do this contest, so I spent my four years of high school studying the Constitution and giving speeches about it. And they were also social justice activists, so I grew up working in soup kitchens, working with young people. I was just at my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in Wenatchee, Washington. I hosted, and it was packed with people from the community whom they had worked with and kids they had coached. Their values are that it’s your obligation to give back as much as you can to your community. That’s why I love being a part of the theater community so much.
“It’s hard to make a document work for people who were left out of it at the very beginning.”
WSWD: Like many playwrights, you’re also gigging in TV: Billions, I Love Dick. Is there a change of headspace writing for a series versus theater?
Schreck: One thing that has sort of changed in my playwriting is, I feel very excited now when I’m writing a play, to do things onstage that one can only do in the theater. That’s part of the impulse behind why sections of What the Constitution Means to Me are extemporaneous. The play is very much about the audience’s connection with all of us as performers, and it has a very live, sometimes chaotic feeling to it. I think that’s in part because I’m just so happy to be back onstage. I really missed it.
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