What the Constitution Means to Me: HEIDI SCHRECK with Erin Courtney
Heidi Schreck’s groundbreaking play What the Constitution Means to Me is a game changer. Weaving together stories from three generations of women in her family, Schreck embarks on an existential conversation with the United States Constitution. While the piece is quite funny, it also delves into the violent, real life consequences of American political ideology and governance. Her other plays—Creature, Grand Concourse, and The Consultant—adhered to the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place. In Constitution, Schreck chooses to construct a time traveling collage, placing personal stories next to Constitutional law, allowing space for the audience to make their own connections.
On the morning of September 13th, Heidi and I walked to the polls in Brooklyn and discussed her show at New York Theater Workshop.
Erin Courtney (Rail): Here we are off to vote in the New York State Democratic Primary. Who are you voting for today, Heidi?
Heidi Schreck: As an American citizen, it’s my right to keep my vote private, Erin. I am voting for the person who cares the most about the subways.
Rail: I will say, this is probably the first time in my life I am excited to vote in a non-Presidential primary.
Schreck: Same. This insurgent progressive wave is inspiring!
Rail: Tonight is your second preview for your play What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop, which you also perform in. How’s it been going?
Schreck: It’s a bit of a blur. Sections of the piece are extemporaneous, and that’s hard during previews because so many things are still up in the air and we are making changes every day. I forgot a crucial story last night which was scary—though at the curtain call people were more responsive than they’d ever been, so perhaps that story wasn’t as crucial as I thought.
Rail: At fifteen, you were actively and habitually embodying debate structure. I think that the structures we engaged in as young people really inform how we see the world and how we make art. How do you think that particular structure has influenced how you see the world and how you make art?
Schreck: Debate taught me to interrogate my own assumptions about the world, which is vital to making art. On the high school debate circuit—the NFL (that’s The National Forensics League, not football)—you have to be ready to argue both sides of the topic. To me, this is connected to the kind of empathy you need as an actor or writer, the willingness to imagine someone else’s point of view, even when you disagree. I also competed in extemporaneous speaking, and that form is uniquely theatrical. You are up on your feet, thinking through ideas in front of people, not quite sure what you are going to say next, playing off the energy of the room. It was great training for becoming a performer.
Rail: In your other plays, you often have central female characters that are undergoing a personal transformation regarding their belief systems which puts them in conflict with the rigidity of the systems they are still operating within. In other words, individuals change, and they find themselves trapped by a system that cannot change. Something really unique about What the Constitution Means to Me is that it proposes the opposite experience. In this play, you put two women center stage (yourself and a New York City teenager, Thursday Williams or Rosdely Ciprian on alternating performances) using language and logic to debate systemic change. The personal experience of an individual becomes the lever for changing the system. It’s so liberating. How much do you think about agency as you construct this piece? What are other ways we can all engage in encouraging more agency in our lives, communities, and art?
Schreck: I honestly had no idea where I was headed when I began making this show. I knew I wanted to play with the form of the contest as a dramatic structure, and I knew I somehow wanted to connect my personal family stories to the Constitution. While digging into both of these things, I had a kind of revelation about my own life in relation to these structures, these laws, this document that most of us revere. I had studied feminist legal theory in college, so I had some practice analyzing these structures, but it wasn’t until I specifically did the work of relating these things to my own life—and the lives of my mom, my grandma, my great grandma—that it started to come to life for me in a pretty overwhelming way. I have a history of physical and sexual violence in my family, on my mom’s side (not in my own nuclear family, thank god. My dad is fantastic.) and I finally started to feel in my bones the truth that this was not just “personal” violence but the result of both cultural and legal violence, especially in relation to misogyny and white supremacy. Also, I have come to believe while working on this piece that this legacy of trauma and violence is essentially baked into our Constitution. I’m sure smarter people than I could take me down on this in a debate, and in fact Thursday and Rosdely do it every night, but right now I’m willing to stand behind my arguments.
Rail: I never learned to debate in school which is shocking to me. I think it should be a required full year class. I’ve learned a lot about debate through your show. The thing that I keep thinking about is how debate values language as a precise tool for change. Language is action and has consequences. In our current political climate, it is essential that we remind each other that words matter and facts matter. Do you feel like performing in this piece feels different as our political landscape changes?
Schreck: The piece feels much different, yes. The first time I did a full showing was in 2016, when I thought we were about to elect our first woman president. I was also talking about things—sexual violence, abortion—that were not dominating the national conversation the way they are now, even though of course many women were talking about them. It’s funny with the #MeToo movement, sometimes people say, “Oh women are finally talking about this! Thank God!” and I’m like, women have always talked about this. The problem is that no one was listening.
I sometimes think of the show as a kind of healing ritual. That scares me to say because I am allergic to sentiment and always want to find the “tough” ending to my plays. The fact is, though, that performing this has been transformative for me and for my mom, and apparently for at least a few of the people who come to the show—often people with similar histories. Also, a ritual is a living thing, it’s an action you take and hope that something comes of it—its purpose is not to give you answers. My friend Bryan Doerries—who runs Theater of War, translates Greek Tragedies, and performs them at military bases all over the world—talks about how when Ajax was first staged it provided a way for the Greeks to grapple with their collective PTSD after so many years of brutal war. Cribbing from Judith Hermann’s great Trauma and Recovery I sometimes think of the piece as a way for me to grapple with the inherited trauma from the violence in my own family, and in our country. Though obviously, I am not comparing myself to Sophocles! My attempt is a smaller, more personal grappling with these forces.
Rail: This piece also reminds me of the way Surrealists used collage, specifically Max Ernst. He would take these Romantic novel illustrations and then replace the man’s head with the head of a bird and wrap a snake around the woman’s dress. He was taking two source materials that normally do not go together, but by artfully placing them in the same frame, a whole new host of associations are born. Can you talk a bit about how your collaborations with actor Mike Iveson and director Oliver Butler impacted the piece?
Schreck: Oliver began working with me on this piece about two years ago, when it was still quite mysterious to me. I invited him to join me for the Clubbed Thumb production because I am a rabid fan of The Debate Society and I knew he had a talent for collaborating with writers from a very early stage. I bought him a drink, gave him the most rambling, discursive pitch about this piece I was making about the Constitution and my great-great grandmother who was a mail-order bride and high school debate and abortion and sexual abuse and the unremunerated rights of the 9th Amendment, and he was like: “I’m in!” Which pretty much sums up the kind of collaborator he has been: generous, brave, and willing to follow this thing wherever it was taking us.
Danny Wolohan worked on the first few iterations of the piece, and he created the role of the legionnaire. In addition to being a wonderful actor, Danny’s a feminist and has done a great deal of investigation about his relationship to masculinity. His willingness to share his stories about that really informed this play. He, sadly for us, got a job on Broadway and couldn’t join us for this round, but luckily I got to cast the insanely talented Mike Iveson. As you know, I first worked with Mike on a workshop of your play Black Cat Lost at Soho Rep, and he is one of my favorite artists in New York City. I also trust him completely, which was the number one job requirement.
Rail: Is there anything else you are thinking about right now that you want to close with?
Schreck: Yes. I am thinking about how lucky I am to be working with these badass teenage debaters. Thursday Williams and Rosdely Ciprian are brilliant young women, and I have had fascinating conversations about the Constitution and our country with them. I’m so grateful they are doing the play, and I can’t wait to see what they do in the future.
What the Constitution Means to Me, by Heidi Schreck, directed by Oliver Butler, runs through October 21 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street, Manhattan). For tickets and further information, visit https://www.nytw.org/show/what-the-constitution-means-to-me/
Erin Courtney is a playwright living in Brooklyn. She is currently writing a commission for Playwrights Horizons and is in the middle of writing a musical with Max Vernon called The Tattooed Lady. She is the program coordinator for the Brooklyn College MFA Program in Playwriting.