“It took me to some really unexpected places,” reveals Heidi Schreck of her show “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The idea of a play about her teenage years as a constitutional debater came to her over a decade ago. She started with an exploration of debate memories, but soon found herself examining the ways in which women are excluded from the constitution. Schreck was nominated at the Tony Awards in 2019 for Best Play and Lead Actress in a Play, and was cited as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Now this important piece of theatre is finding new audiences across the globe thanks to a filmed version on Amazon Prime. Watch the exclusive video interview here.
Schreck plays herself on stage, embodying both teenage and adult personas. The personal nature of the performance leads to incredibly vulnerable storytelling moments such as the history of domestic abuse in her family or feeling unsafe around a man when she was younger. “I’ve experienced a whole rollercoaster of feelings about it,” she explains, “it was terrifying at first.” As the Broadway run went on, the fear gave way to something more positive as audience members connected with her story. Schreck explains that she began feeling “a kind of connection with the audience, a communion with the audience, that was very moving to me.”
The performer was particularly moved during one performance when she discovered that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in the audience. Despite having the play in her bones for years at that point, she frantically fact checked her work just to triple check her accuracy before performing in front of the supreme court justice. To hear Schreck describe her reaction, check out this bonus audio clip from her Prime Video Presents podcast:
To capture the play for film, Schreck recruited Marielle Heller to direct. “Our goal was to capture, as well as possible, what it felt like in the theater,” says Schreck. Two performances were filmed inside the Broadway house in order to maintain the energy felt in the relationship between Heidi and the audience. Schreck was in awe of Heller “live choreographing” the proceedings backstage with an impressive camera setup. “I’m really happy that we captured it where it lived,” beams Schreck.
The play concludes with a spirited debate between Schreck and a teenage debater (Rosdely Ciprian) on whether we should abolish or keep the United States Constitution. The outcome was always decided by a randomly chosen audience member who acted as judge. Despite filming two different shows, both judges chose to abolish. The playwright notes that the majority of audiences actually chose to keep the document in place, but those she spoke to who opted for getting rid of it “found it liberating…allowing them the space and the freedom to possibly imagine something different.”
Would Schreck ever alter the piece to reflect current times? Probably not. The play often feels like it was written to directly reflect specific contemporary political events, but in reality it is speaking on over 300 years of history and amendments that still affect life in the United States today. As Schreck explains, “Until the constitution evolves or our country evolves, to grant in reality full rights to all people in this country, it probably doesn’t need to change.”
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