PHILADELPHIA — In Signers’ Hall, at the National Constitution Center, the writer and actress Heidi Schreck walked among the Founding Fathers. Alexander Hamilton’s nose had gone shiny from 16 years of selfies. So had Benjamin Franklin’s lap. Ms. Schreck, whose play “What the Constitution Means to Me” will be ordained and established at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater beginning March 14, didn’t seem impressed.
“I do like feeling so much taller than these men,” she said recently, as she appraised a sulky George Washington, who was admittedly taller. “Everyone talks about how handsome Washington was, but I’ve never seen it,” she said.
In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which premiered at Clubbed Thumb in 2017 before winding toward Broadway via Berkeley Rep, New York Theater Workshop and the Greenwich House Theater, Ms. Schreck, 47, recreates the prizewinning speech she gave as a teen debater in Wenatchee, Wash. Back then she toured American Legion halls with a spiel called “Casting Spells: The Crucible of the Constitution.” She called the United States Constitution “a living, warm-blooded, steamy document.” She had a big-time crush on a roll of vellum. And on Benjamin Franklin, too.
But she has had 30 years to think about what those spells do and don’t conjure. The document and the men who made it work less magic on her now. “I’m tired of venerating them, I guess,” she said as she stood amid the 42 life-size bronzes of Constitutional Convention attendees.
Just opposite Franklin, a touch screen squatted. If you wanted, you could finger-scrawl your signature, adding it to the virtual document. Or you could dissent. “I’m going to dissent,” Ms. Schreck said.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” topped plenty of 2018 year’s best lists. Hillary Clinton called it, via Twitter, “an empowering call to consider what it means to be a citizen.” Chelsea Clinton, who was responsible for bringing her parents to the show, remembered looking around at the audience and thinking “how wonderful that there were so many people clearly so interested in a young woman’s journey with the Constitution.”
Directed by Oliver Butler and co-starring Mike Iveson and two teenage debaters, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, it is mostly a solo show and mostly autobiographical. Ms. Schreck wishes there were a better word than autobiography. “Auto-legal-history?” she offered. Think of it as an autobiography with amendments.
The play begins with Ms. Schreck fangirling the Constitution, then glides into stories of her own life and the lives of her mother, maternal grandmother and great-great grandmother. With charm, keen analysis and audio from several Supreme Court cases (she is a devotee of oyez.org) she traces a growing disillusionment with a document written by a small group of men — mostly rich, mostly slaveowners — who didn’t count many Americans as fully human.
Shrewd, crazy funny and sometimes shattering, it’s a comedy about constitutional law and inherited trauma that makes the political very, very personal. Could Hamilton write that? (Fine: Maybe.)
Ms. Schreck has been a regular in downtown theater since she and her husband, the director Kip Fagan, moved to Brooklyn from Seattle in 2003. (They live in Park Slope, just above the playwrights Erin Courtney and Scott Adkins and below the director Lila Neugebauer.) Perhaps you saw her as a hula hooper in Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation”? Or as an enigmatic office assistant in Anne Washburn’s “The Internationalist”?
She is honey blond and sweetly pretty, characteristics she wields like protective camouflage. (While “What the Constitution Means to Me” marks her Broadway debut, she has had callbacks for half a dozen Broadway roles over the years, usually prostitutes.) She often plays sunny characters with something steelier underneath. “Onstage she carries with her a whole bag of contradictions,” said the director Leigh Silverman, a frequent collaborator.
In person, she’s like that, too: Charisma in the front, intellectual rigor in the back, and what Ms. Silverman calls “this kind of dark intense third rail of emotion” vibrating underneath.
In 2009 she made her playwriting debut with “Creature,” about the medieval wannabe saint and champion oversharer Margery Kempe. More plays followed and a few years later she also began to write for television, with stints on “Nurse Jackie,” “Billions” and “I Love Dick.” She often writes about people trying — and just as often failing — to be good in a world that may not be so interested in goodness. “She’s drawn to questions of identity, faith, and power,” her neighbor Ms. Neugebauer said.
Many actors become writers to generate roles they could play. But that wasn’t Ms. Schreck’s motive. “I was constantly in this flourishing downtown scene where I got to play incredible parts,” she said. “I had so many parts that were worthy of me.”
She wrote, instead, because she’d always written, because she felt compelled to write. Though she never soured on acting, she stopped performing when she began to land television jobs. “I was in my 40s and decided it was time to make up for a lifetime of having no savings account,” she said. (Even starring on Broadway means a pay cut, though not an outrageous one.)
The idea for “What the Constitution Means to Me” came to her maybe 20 years ago. Then it left. “It was too ambitious,” she said. “I got tired and started writing other things.” About a decade ago, she began performing a 10-minute version at various benefit nights. (“Her charm piece,” Mr. Fagan called it, speaking by telephone. “She would kill me if she heard me say that.”)
In 2015, years late on a commission from True Love Productions, she began to expand it, integrating other stories, other amendments. A little later, in thinking about the 14th Amendment (that’s the one with the equal protection clause) she incorporated her family’s own history of intimate partner violence and invited another actor — originally Danny Wolohan, now Mr. Iveson — to join her onstage, contributing what she calls some “positive male energy.” (If it needs saying, “What the Constitution Means to Me” is tip-to-toe feminist without being anti-male. “I’m the daughter of a father!” Ms. Schreck jokes in the play.) Mr. Butler enlisted two years ago, helping to add a closing section in which Ms. Schreck and a teen debater argue whether to retain the Constitution or to scrap it.
Some critics have found the structure rambling (Ben Brantley called it “agreeably baggy”), the ending frustratingly unresolved. This is more or less deliberate. “I always knew on a gut level it needed to be digressive and unpredictable and slightly out of my control,” she said later when we’d left the center and found “the giant Philly cheesesteak,” Ms. Schreck, a cheesesteak virgin, had requested.
She wanted to make a play, not a TED Talk, she explained between tentative nibbles, a play that would link the cold clarity of legal dictums to “the messy ungovernable way our human lives usually play out,” she said. A tidy ending doesn’t work for her. “I don’t know how the story of our country ends and I don’t know how my own story ends either,” she said.
The trickiest part of that story is the part that’s not exactly hers. At the first Clubbed Thumb performance, when the play turned to the sexual violence her mother, aunt and maternal grandmother had endured, she walked off the stage, overcome she said, with “a kind of primal terror.” She didn’t want the audience to understand these women as victims. She didn’t want to discuss their sexual assault out loud. But she does it every night, reading that story from a stack of index cards, keeping her voice steady and her body still.
Her mother hasn’t seen the show, though she and Ms. Schreck have discussed it in detail. She’d planned to come last fall, but “she was afraid she would cry through the whole thing and I was afraid I would cry through the whole thing,” Ms. Schreck said. She is coming to opening night on Broadway. “So it’s possible that our Broadway opening could be terrible,” Ms. Schreck said.
The Broadway opening may also depend on what happens in the news cycle that day. Though “What the Constitution Means to Me” was developed during other presidencies and mostly sidesteps very current events, it has a way of speaking to its moment, becoming a different text during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, say, or when migrants at the United States-Mexico border were met with tear gas. This uncanny prescience, which Mr. Butler, the play’s director, described as “very spooky,” helped motivate the Broadway transfer.
“Everything that happened in the news just fed into the energy of the audience,” Diana DiMenna, one of the play’s producers, wrote in an email.
But the play exists independent of front pages. It is, at its big and hungry heart, a record of one woman’s very particular affair with the Constitution — from early infatuation to bad romance to complicated breakup. Ms. Schreck can’t quit the document, not quite, but her fascination has shifted to how it affects people’s lives right now and how it could be improved — with an Equal Rights Amendment, say, or a guarantee of environmental protection — to make those lives better.
She knew this already, but her visit to the National Constitution Center and a stop at the National Archives in Washington last month confirmed it. A couple of days after the Philadelphia trip, after she’d devoured the rest of the cheesesteak at 4 a.m., she called to talk about it. “I’ve realized I just don’t care about the Founding Fathers,” she said. Once upon a time she might have sat in Benjamin Franklin’s lap and pursed her lips for a selfie. Not now.
“I’m sick of worshiping them,” she said. “And I’m tired of their stories. I’ve heard them a million times. I don’t care anymore. I want to hear other people’s stories.”
Source: Read Full Article