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How to write an angry, hopeful play about the Constitution

“This thing is not designed for you to win”: Heidi Schreck talks about turning personal history into a play about the founding documents.

Heidi Schreck wrote and performs in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop
Heidi Schreck wrote and performs in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop
Joan Marcus

When Heidi Schreck was 15, she’d travel around the Pacific Northwest for speech competitions hosted by American Legion chapters. Along with other teenagers, she’d give extemporaneous speeches about the meaning and importance of various amendments to the Constitution and participate in debates — and, hopefully, bring home some prize money, which is how she paid for college.

Now Schreck is a playwright and performer. In her latest show, What the Constitution Means to Me (which played at New York Theatre Workshop through November 4, then transferred to nearby Greenwich House Theater, where it will run through December 30), Schreck recreates the American Legion hall and pretends to be her 15-year-old self, talking about the Constitution — at least until her youthful optimism gets broken up by both her adult realism and the stories of her family’s past, particularly when it came to violence against women.

Heidi Schreck performs What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop.
Heidi Schreck performs What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop.
Joan Marcus

What the Constitution Means to Me is moving, angry, heartbreaking, and strangely inspiring, as Schreck deftly shifts between her own personal history, stories from the lives of her women ancestors, and deeply researched knowledge about Supreme Court decisions and arguments that weave together policy, rights discourse, and the personal.

Schreck speaks about domestic violence, policing, abortion, and much more as she tells the story. The show ends with a brief (and unscripted) debate between Schreck and a young woman debater — a startling but effective ending to a show that looks at the generations of lives that have been affected by the Constitution.

I met Schreck in the East Village to talk about the show the same week that the Kavanaugh hearings were happening in the US Senate. It felt incredibly and almost excruciatingly apropos. We talked about the pros and cons of debate in today’s political discourse, how strangely relevant the show felt for something that had been in development for a decade, and the hope we find in teenagers’ optimism today.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alissa Wilkinson

I know the show has been in development for a really long time. But the country has changed a lot over that decade as well. Has the show changed much?

Heidi Schreck

The strange thing is that it hasn’t changed that much, and yet it seems to be more and more relevant. There are ideas that have been pulled to the forefront because of what’s going on, but so much of what is in the play was there already — like the dissection of Griswold v. Connecticut, where we play the tape of the [Supreme Court] justices deliberating, has been in there for like five years. It’s a little scary to me how relevant it seems.

Some of my synthesis of ideas has changed. And sometimes it’s just because I’ve been working with people; Nadine Strossen, who was the first woman president of the ACLU, came to the show the other night to do a talkback. I’ve been talking with her and she’s been educating me on a few other things I didn’t know. Every time I do the piece I learn more and more. My ideas are formed by scholars and by what is going on at this moment.

But I would say the gesture of the piece was always what it is now. I just didn’t ever think it would be quite as timely as it is.

Alissa Wilkinson

That seems to be pretty common these days — I keep talking to filmmakers who say, “Yeah, it might look like my movie was made in response to the Trump era, but it was in development long before that.”

Heidi Schreck

I first performed it when Obama was president! I performed when I thought Hillary would be president.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s why the structure of the play is so interesting. It starts out as being a speech, it ends by being a debate, and then in the middle it’s basically a memoir about your family’s history, all intertwined with the history of the US Constitution. But what was your starting point? An idea? A message? A memory of your teenage self giving lectures for college scholarship money?

Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson in What the Constitution Means to Me, surrounded by photos of American Legion members, at New York Theater Workshop.
Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson in What the Constitution Means to Me, surrounded by photos of American Legion members, at New York Theater Workshop.
Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck

I started with an idea: to recreate the contest, and my 15-year-old self. That just seemed like a fun, juicy premise for a play. I had no idea where it would go — I mean, I had an inkling of how my rabid optimism as a 15-year-old would compare to my realism in my 30s, when I started writing the play. I knew that I loved extemporaneous speaking, so a lot of the show was developed extemporaneously. I knew I loved the challenge of the contest, which was to figure out how to find personal anecdotes in story and memoir that actually connected with the Constitution. I knew how difficult that was.

Then I really followed that premise as far as I could go. In the process, I ended up unearthing a lot of new stuff about my family and revisiting a lot of old trauma, particularly with my mom. The conversations between my mom and I have been fascinating and, I think, pretty transformative. Our relationship has transformed because of it.

So I really was just following that question: What would it mean to make the Constitution personal for myself now?

Alissa Wilkinson

I was homeschooled as a teenager in the 1990s, and back then the conservative Christian homeschool community put a big emphasis on speech and debate.

Heidi Schreck

Really?

Alissa Wilkinson

It was a big part of the culture — one of the ways to connect with other homeschoolers and also prepare to be a skilled debater. For some people it was very connected to being a foot soldier in the culture wars. But that meant the show felt very familiar to me, especially with how precocious it is to be a teenager earnestly talking about the Constitution. Does that describe your experience?

Heidi Schreck

I think what was fun for me to revisit was the blithe confidence with which I talked about the Constitution at 15, without having any real effective knowledge or understanding of what all of that meant. My speech really was titled “The Crucible of the Constitution” — which I actually think is pretty good!

But I know for a fact that at 15 I didn’t connect the dots in my head and my gut and my heart. When I go out on stage every night, it feels like a process of reliving my growing up, reliving my disillusionment, reliving my understanding of things that I couldn’t process at 15. Then I come to the moment in which I started to viscerally understand what it meant to be a woman in this country. That took a long time for me. I think for most of us it takes a long time.

Alissa Wilkinson

And you’re out there on the stage doing most of it yourself, though it’s not a one-woman show. For most of it, there’s also this male character, played by Mike Iverson, sitting on stage, watching you, standing in for all of the American Legion members who did the same thing when you were a teenager. And he eventually briefly tells his own, real story. Was he always part of the show?

Heidi Schreck

He entered the play about the time I started talking about my own abortion and about violence in my family. I honestly think I just didn’t want to be alone onstage talking about that. I wanted an ally!

And then, because I was doing the American Legion contest, it seemed natural that it should be a man. It’s possible I subconsciously wanted a male ally; I’m not sure. But that was the impulse behind it.

It’s funny because sometimes people will say, “I wish he did more, I wish he were more deeply integrated in the piece.” And I understand it, but I also feel like he’s there for what I need him to be there for. Right now I get to just have a male figure there to do what I need him to do.

Mike Iveson in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop.
Mike Iveson in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop.
Joan Marcus

Alissa Wilkinson

You’re also surrounded on stage by shelves with rows of portraits of American Legion men ... How many are there?

Heidi Schreck

I don’t even know. I should ask! The hilarious thing is that Mike is up there, and the guy who played Mike’s part before him is up there, so sometimes I sneak a look at that.

When we did the show in Berkeley [at Berkeley Rep earlier this summer], a man came in and discovered himself on the wall. He was actually so excited. I was worried that he would be disturbed by the concept of the show, but he wasn’t — he loved the show and he came up and got his picture taken by his old picture.

Alissa Wilkinson

I presume the contest is still ongoing today?

Heidi Schreck

Oh yes.

Alissa Wilkinson

But I haven’t personally participated in it, and I imagine lots of people in the audience haven’t either, and I can imagine how people would find the whole idea of having teenagers stand up in front of a room full of men and talk about the Constitution ... kind of weird.

Heidi Schreck

Like, what is she doing?

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you gotten those kinds of comments from audience members along the way?

Heidi Schreck

Strangely, no. I think maybe because speech-giving is something we all understand and have had to do at some point, and we watch politicians and we know the hand gestures and TED Talks. I think that people seem to kind of take it at face value. And I’m shocked at actually how many people come up who have done the contest, and so many people have done debate in high school, so they all get it. I think everyone should do debate in high school, personally.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m actually really interested in that particular opinion, because I agree, but I’ve had arguments about this with people who are made really uncomfortable by debate. More recently, I’ve had conversations with people about whether the kinds of debate that sometimes happen in high school and college have led to the culture among politicians and pundits that emphasizes “owning” your opponent and scoring points over them, rather than sticking to principles.

Heidi Schreck

Our debate coach for the show is from NYU. She was incredible. She’s a policy debater, which is the kind of debate where they talk as quickly as they can in order to get as many points as they can. You can barely understand them; it sounds like a different language, and if you can’t rebut it, then you lose. That does not to me seem like the most interesting form of debate. But other forms still exist — parliamentary, Lincoln-Douglas, and some new forms, too. Have you listened to the Radiolab episode “Debatable”?

Alissa Wilkinson

I haven’t!

Heidi Schreck

About five years ago, a team of students of color somewhere in the South started challenging the very foundation of debate. They would come in and say, “We’re actually not gonna debate you on this topic, because this whole format is racist, the assumptions we’re working with are racist, and they exclude us. We’re gonna debate this other thing. So go ahead and respond.” And they started winning debates. This is now evolved into a form of debate that a lot of students use. They say, “We’re actually going to change the terms of the conversation, because the conversation itself is rooted in assumptions that exclude us.”

Alissa Wilkinson

So they challenge the proposition?

Heidi Schreck

Yes. If the topic is “should we abolish the Constitution?” they’d say, “We’re not going debate that. We’ll debate another proposition instead. Here’s why.” And they won a lot.

Alissa Wilkinson

Wow.

Heidi Schreck

I find it really thrilling.

To me, that seems like one of the great benefits of debate: At its core, the basic principle of debate is that you have to question every assumption. You have to back everything up. It’s like being a journalist. You have to actually back everything up with fact. You can’t take any of your thinking for granted. So even if for a while the form itself gets stuck, someone eventually will come along and say, “Well, if we don’t take anything for granted, what about this?”

Alissa Wilkinson

I think some people’s worries about debate also stem from the fact that when you show up at a debate, you don’t know which side you’ll be arguing. And what if you actually firmly oppose the argument you have to make? Does that foster unprincipled arguments?

Heidi Schreck

Yeah, that’s a problem. I think that’s a problem especially right now. What does it mean to try to get into the headspace of those you disagree with? What does it mean to try to understand them? It is an act of violence to even try to do that? Is it racist to do that? I think those are big questions.

Thursday Williams debating in What the Constitution  Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop. Williams and Rosdely Ciprian alternate in the role of debater.
Thursday Williams debating in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop. Williams and Rosdely Ciprian alternate in the role of debater.
Joan Marcus

Alissa Wilkinson

Watching what you were doing on stage, I was struck by how risky it is — at least in some ways of thinking — to mix what is supposed to be a “rational” argument with all this personal history. People can dismiss you, saying, “Well, your argument is based on emotion.” As you’re crafting the show, are you thinking about that?

Heidi Schreck

Yes, I think about it all the time. I get nervous about it. It’s what makes performing the piece scary. But I also really believe in how important it is to connect those human emotional things to law. I think it’s crucial, and that when we’re not doing that we’re in trouble.

I’ve found actually a lot of lawyers who come to the show, particularly constitutional lawyers, actually tend to agree. It’s very easy to forget the human stories that are behind these Supreme Court cases. Everything gets distilled to, say, Gonzales v. Castle Rock. And like what does that even mean? Who’s Gonzales? She’s a woman; she had three daughters. She’s a person.

I listened to just hours and hours of Oyez.com [the online archive for Supreme Court arguments]. I also found in listening to the Supreme Court justices themselves that you can’t pretend feelings don’t come into play in their rulings. If you listen to the justices on Griswold, they’re so uncomfortable talking about women’s bodies. They’re so freaked out, and it makes sense, as I say in the show, when you think about what was going on in their personal lives. It’s a lie to pretend these things aren’t personal. It’s all personal.

So in that sense I feel like, yeah, I work hard to try to be as precise as I can. But also the personal is messy. Feelings are messy. That mess is part of our laws.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think at times in our history we’ve thought you could frame laws and documents that were divorced from the personal, that were somehow totally objective. But that’s funny, because by the end of the show you’re talking about the Constitution as if it was a person — but your 15-year-old self probably thought it was possible to think about it entire objectively, right?

Heidi Schreck

Absolutely, although she was just obsessed with winning. Now, I’m like, “Oh, there’s no winning, 15-year-old me. I’m sorry. This thing is not designed for you to win.”

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s probably why people get worried about winning becoming the sole objective, especially for impressionable young people.

Heidi Schreck

Absolutely.

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you found that the show is changing you as you perform it?

Heidi Schreck

The first time I performed the full show was about a year and a half ago at a small theater on the Lower East Side, and I actually walked off stage before I got to the part about the violence in my family. I didn’t realize how deeply I had internalized the taboo around talking about sexual violence and domestic violence. I thought I was pretty open about it. My mom has always been open about it, she’s always supported other survivors. And I didn’t realize until I tried to say it. That entire run I really was sick to my stomach before every show.

For me, though, the ability to talk about it night after night is has been transformative, and a lot of people stay and talk to me after the show. It’s both helped me come to terms with the legacy in my family and also realize just how prevalent it is. I think we’re all seeing that right now.

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you felt yourself approaching the news differently because of it? Obviously this is a big, big, big, big question — especially right now, with the Kavanaugh hearings happening in the Senate. With the Supreme Court, the laws, and so many stories about violence against women, it’s a lot to carry.

Heidi Schreck

It’s a lot to carry. I’m a rabid follower of Rebecca Traister and Jill Lepore — I appreciate those women. I need Rebecca’s ability to synthesize these things, to write that violence against women and not letting women have control over their own bodily autonomy are linked. That personal physical dominance is linked to legal dominance. That these things are not an accident, and they’re not happening in a vacuum.

So even though I get overwhelmed, and I kind of have to put the news away for several hours every day — it’s too much — I feel hopeful that so many people are now able to see these connections.

I went to college in the 1990s, so I had a lot of incredible professors who helped me make these connections but I feel like it’s in the national popular discourse now.

Alissa Wilkinson

And nobody can be in the audience and not see the link, at this point. You don’t even have to draw it.

Heidi Schreck

I don’t even have to draw it. Yes, I appreciate that. My preferred form of theater is to set things next to each other and let you draw the conclusions.

Alissa Wilkinson

You also get to interact with a teenager every night too, in the debate round that ends the show. Can you talk about that?

Heidi Schreck

Oh my god, I love them so much. I have two incredible teenage girls who trade off debating with me every night. Rosdely [Ciprian] is 14, Thursday [Williams] is 17.

Rosdely Ciprian debating in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop. Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate in the role of the debater.
Rosdely Ciprian debating in What the Constitution Means to Me at New York Theater Workshop. Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate in the role of the debater.
Joan Marcus

Alissa Wilkinson

And how did you find them?

Heidi Schreck

We auditioned debaters. Rosdely was the first person we cast, a year and a half ago. We just put out a call to debate clubs all over. Kids came in, we gave speeches. We mostly just talked to them about their interests. And then when we needed an additional person, we put out another call, and Thursday came in. Thursday does Constitutional debates; she interned at Sonia Sotomayor’s program this summer. She really raised the level of the debate.

We spent like a week and a half altogether, every day, just the three of us, debating extemporaneously, breaking up into little think tanks and coming up with our plan. Thursday brought a lot of new arguments to the table, so that was exciting.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve personally been encouraged by my interactions with teenagers lately, who seem to really care about the world. But it’s interesting to me that they even want to be involved in debate anymore, given the world that they see around them.

Heidi Schreck

I’ve now worked with probably six different young debaters in the show in its various iterations, and I’m struck and moved by their optimism. The young women I’ve met have had fantastic teachers, because they’re very clear-eyed about what’s going on, but they have a lot of hope. I experience them as having a greater sense of entitlement to speak their mind and become involved in the world than I did at their age — a greater sense that it is their right and even duty to speak. They have a sense that they can effect change in the world and in our country.

It may be just the particular young women I’ve met, but that’s the feeling I’ve gotten. But look at the Parkland kids. I do think there is a sense of these kids are ready to take over.

Alissa Wilkinson

How is their optimism different from the kind of optimism or idealism you had as a teenager giving speeches about the Constitution?

Heidi Schreck

I grew up in a small, conservative, very white town. I didn’t know the real history of our country when I was growing up. I knew the whitewashed version. These young women know the real history. They live in big cities; they have a different upbringing than I had. The sense I get is that they just have more faith that you can actually effect change. That’s different from what I felt as a teenager.