Heidi Schreck’s 2017 play What the Constitution Means to Me might be one of the more unlikely shows to make the leap to Broadway in recent years, winning a Tony nomination for best play and becoming a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in drama. (A lecture-recreation of debates about the meaning of U.S. citizenship that isn’t a musical? Wild!)
In the play, Schreck recounts her time as a teenage whiz on the U.S. Constitution. She participated in debates on the document at American Legion posts and other venues that helped her earn money for college. But she also reflects on the limitations of the Constitution in truly guaranteeing equal rights under the law, tying it in with the history of domestic violence suffered by women in her own family tree. (If you’ve never read up on the case Jessica Gonzales v. United States of America, prepare to be outraged and chilled.) The second half of the show (directed by Oliver Butler) features Schreck’s character going toe-to-toe with actual teenage debaters, and there’s also some audience interaction as we’re asked to consider whether it’s time to start over with a new Constitution or work harder to improve the one we already have.
Schreck isn’t on tour with the show, since she is expecting twins. So her friend and Broadway vet Maria Dizzia (also known to fans of Orange Is the New Black for her performance as Polly Harper) is doing the honors, joined by Mike Iveson and Rosdely Ciprian from the original Broadway production and Jocelyn Shek, who joined the cast in Los Angeles. She talks about what it’s like being Heidi onstage and what the Constitution means to her. The following is edited from a longer interview.
What is it like playing someone you know?
I saw the play four times, so I have a sense of the self that Heidi brought on stage with her. When you’re watching someone and you see them doing something, it kind of lives in you a little bit as an audience member. I had that sense going into it. So when I was rehearsing it I always tried to access that memory that I had of what it felt like to be in the presence of that person and find that in myself.
I never really tried to imitate Heidi totally, because it felt a little bit that how the play lives is that it’s just asking whoever is doing it to be their authentic self. The thing that is most important to the play is that you feel like the person on the stage is talking to you, not that there’s a persona.
One of the things that’s great about knowing Heidi for such a long time and actually seeing part of the process is that she was really able to tell me what she was thinking about. So often that’s the one thing that you don’t get when you’re working on a play. You have lines and you start to develop a sense of who the character is, but you have to figure out how to go from one line to the next. Heidi was able to tell me exactly what she thought about when she was performing onstage–why she included certain things in the play, how she felt in moments.
And there were some interesting differences. Who Heidi was as a 15-year-old is different than who I was. There are obviously some similarities, but early on when we were working on things, I would be reticent or pulling back. I don’t think I was as exuberant as a 15-year-old as she was. It’s funny, but in rehearsal one day, the director said to me after I did this one speech–you know how she talks about her competitor, Becky Dobbler? [In the play, Dobbler offers the warm-and-fuzzy analysis that the Constitution is “a patchwork quilt,” whereas Schreck counters, “It is not a patchwork quilt. It is hot and sweaty. It is a crucible.”]
He said to me, “That was good, but I think that version was more like Becky Dobbler.” And if I’m really honest with myself, I think I was a little more of a Becky Dobbler when I was 15, and that somebody like Heidi would have come along and swept the floor with me. So that’s something that is really exciting, to access that part of myself and that exuberance, that sense of freedom and having a passion that just overtakes you. And I have to say that working on this has been so beneficial to me as an adult. Trying to find that 15-year-old self has actually informed the freedom and the joy I feel throughout the play.
There are actual teen debaters in the show who join you in debating the Constitution in the second half. What do you think it’s been like for them?
Jocelyn is from LA. Rosdely has been with the play since its inception. She started working on the play when she was 12. Jocelyn is 14, and she’s traveling with us from LA to Chicago. It’s the first play she’s ever been in. She’s so astounding. The challenges of being from LA and performing for–you know a lot of times students come to the play and they’re from LA. So there’s that feeling of performing for your peers. And now I’m excited to see her in Chicago and performing for people who don’t have any idea who she is. That’s a whole other challenge.
The play itself feels like a living document because of all the changes that are happening with the courts and legislatures. Virginia just ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, for example. Is there room in the show for acknowledging these breaking developments?
The second half of the play is the debate. That’s the section that allows for that. So the debate is updated every day. Everybody contributes to it. The stage managers, the director, Heidi, the debaters, myself–we all talk about things that we’ve read and that we want to include in the debate. Obviously Virginia has been a huge part of that and now that the House has voted to revoke the time constraints [on ERA ratification], we’re waiting to see what the Senate will say. The debate is really the place where Heidi allows for that growth to happen and for the play to always be speaking to the current moment.
What was your experience as a youth debater like?
I remember how it felt to do that, to have memorized a speech or to have written my own speech and be delivering it for the first time. You learn a little bit of oration. Just like Heidi worked with her parents, I worked with my parents. I remember things I learned in my English class to incorporate them into my speech, like the anaphora in Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar–“and Brutus is an honorable man.”
Two things have been very important. First is remembering the way in which [during the debate] there’s this moment where you felt like your whole self is at the ready, and I think that’s part of what Heidi likes about it so much. Her creative self and her intellectual self and her social self –putting it out there and just being up in front of everybody and allowing yourself to be a target so much.
I also have to say I forgot so much about what makes debate successful and I’m not as great a debater as Heidi was. So really I’ve learned so much from Jocelyn and Rosdely. I listen to the way that they debate and I try to mimic them and I hear the way they make points. Rosdely has this very authoritative stillness that I try to copy.
Do you get student audiences who are debaters as well?
We have debate clubs come to the show. Just the other day a school came and it was about 15 students who are all debaters. And they came backstage afterwards and Jocelyn spoke to them. It’s always great to have them in the audience. Just to hear the perspective. It makes it feel more immediate. With older audiences, there are aspects of it that are more of a memory play for them, a little bit. But when the audience is really mixed with young and old, the play just has this really great immediacy.
Are audiences surprised by the amount of interaction and buy-in the show requires of them?
I find that really the play invites people into it from the beginning, because the play starts with the lights up. So that tells everyone that they’re a part of it and that they’re not being shut out right from the top. Audiences are really vocal and they’re really vocal right at the top because I think there’s a real understanding that they’re being included.
How much did you have to bone up on the Constitution? And do you have a favorite amendment now?
Good question. I have to say, I was really investigating the Constitution for the first time. I didn’t encounter it as a student. I did take American history but there wasn’t a class I ever had where we looked at it really closely. Also I think that most of the time you focus on the Bill of Rights. So Heidi gave me a book called The Citizens’ Constitution by Seth Lipsky and I looked at that. Also the book that she mentions in the play that she used to prepare [as a teen]–Your Rugged Constitution. Which is an awesome book. There’s a line [in the play], “There are little cartoons that explain all the amendments to you.” And I actually did find that to be very helpful.
I think the 14th Amendment is the one she goes into depth in and that really is the amendment that has been so remarkable to me. It’s part of the Reconstruction Amendments and it was able to be used to get rights for some other people. And the thing that is really amazing to me is that later in the play, there’s the idea of the 14th Amendment being such an important key to people’s freedom in the United States. And then after the Jessica Gonzales decision, feminist legal scholars said it was the death of the 14th Amendment for women. [The U.S. Supreme Court held that Gonzales, a Colorado woman with a restraining order against her abusive estranged husband, could not claim her 14th Amendment rights were violated because the police refused to enforce the order.] And that is something that every night I feel like I reckon with a little bit. Because it’s such a powerful thing that women have been shut out of. v