Brow Beat

The Playwright Behind What the Constitution Means to Me on Questioning Our Founding Document

Heidi Schreck discusses her new show about the Supreme Court, teenagers, and sexual assault.

Heidi Schreck onstage.
Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me. Joan Marcus

As a teenager, Heidi Schreck saved up money for college by winning debate competitions on the importance on the U.S. Constitution in American Legion halls across the Pacific Northwest. As an adult—an acclaimed playwright, actor, and writer for TV shows like Billions and I Love Dick (the landmark episode “A Short History of Weird Girls,” with fellow playwright Annie Baker)—she’s come back to the subject of the nation’s founding document with a considerably more skeptical eye.

In What the Constitution Means to Me, which opened Sunday at New York Theatre Workshop and runs through Oct. 28, Schreck takes the stage surrounded by wood-paneled walls and endless rows of white men in military uniforms, attended by a stopwatch-wielding legionnaire as she runs through a re-creation of her prize-winning teenage talk. (The original is lost, although she remembers that it hinged on the idea that “the Constitution is like a crucible” and climaxed with a citation from “The Hollow Men.”) Schreck warns the audience at the beginning that she’s not going to do anything to make herself seem like she’s 15, and that’s because the adult Heidi keeps stepping to the fore, pointing out how the Constitution’s purportedly equal protections have often failed to apply in practice, especially for anyone who doesn’t look like the white men who wrote it. Encompassing the history of sexual assault and domestic violence in Schreck’s family as well as her own, constitutionally protected (for now) abortion—which, like any good Gen Xer, Schreck relates to Dirty Dancing—the play floats between dramatic re-creation and first-person monologue, climaxing with a nightly debate between Schreck and a teenage constitutional scholar. A few days before opening night, Schreck sat down with Slate to talk about the 14th Amendment, debating teenagers, and why you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

Sam Adams: Not counting your stint as a teenage orator, you’ve been working on pieces of What the Constitution Means to Me for 10 years, but it’s coming to fruition in a period—even a week—where the future and the legitimacy of the Constitution is very much under debate. Is that why you decided to do it now?

Heidi Schreck: It was not, no. I first performed a version of the piece in 2015, when Obama was still president. It honestly has changed very little since then. It simply has become, sadly, more relevant. But all the things I was exploring in the play have been in the play since the beginning—things having to do with women’s bodily autonomy, and the history and legacy of violence in my own family, and sexual assault in my own family. It just happens to be dominating the national conversation right now.

The fact that you’re talking about sexual violence and domestic abuse also aligns the play with the #MeToo movement, but there too it’s odd to talk about it being “timely,” as if these issues just started existing last year.

I’m thrilled to support #MeToo in whatever way I can, but the play is about the intersection of a lot of different constitutional issues, and that is one of them. My mom is a sexual assault survivor, and she was very open about it when we were growing up. At one point—this was in the ’80s—she published a letter to the editor supporting a girl who’d been sexually abused and stated her own history. So from my perspective, women have been telling these stories for a really long time, and it’s just no one has been listening the way they are now. I think that’s clear even if you think about Tarana Burke starting this movement back in 2006. What’s changed is the fact that people are taking these stories seriously now.

One of the things about approaching this as theater, particularly the kind of theater you’re doing, is that it feels like there’s the potential for the play to be different every night. There are moments when you’re on-script or even reading from index cards, and moments when you could be talking about what happened earlier that day.

I have the ability to change as I go along. It’s a living, breathing document. I’m working with two constitutional scholars, so as things come up in the news, I’ll call them and ask them for advice, questions, and I will change my synthesis of some ideas night by night, based on what new understanding that I have. But, actually, the index cards in the show serve a very particular purpose, which, because I’m telling a story of sexual trauma, I read it simply because it’s easier for me. That story, obviously, I know—I’ve known it since I was a teenager. It’s one of the most important stories in my family, and I just don’t want to have to completely relive it night after night, and so I read it.

You’re an actor as well as a writer, so it’s too easy to assume that what you’re performing isn’t what you’re really feeling, but when you get emotional on stage, it doesn’t feel like, “And now we have arrived at the part of the play where I start to cry.”

Right, no. I find the stories affect me differently every night, and my only goal is to get through it and speak the stories out loud, because I think there’s great power in that, and however I’m responding emotionally that night is affected by whatever is happening.

You’ve said that during the first workshop performance last year, you actually walked offstage because you had to compose yourself.

I did. It was interesting for me, because like I said, my mom’s been very outspoken her whole life about her abuse, but I didn’t realize how deeply I’d internalized the taboo about talking about violence against women. I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized the taboo about talking about abortion. I didn’t realize until I tried to speak publicly that that was scary for me.

The title What the Constitution Means to Me seems self-explanatory, but because you’re playing both yourself as a teenage and yourself as an adult, the “me” isn’t fixed. It makes the play a dialogue about what you thought then and what you think now. How has that changed?

I was an idealistic 15-year-old. I was a debate nerd. My dad is a history teacher. I grew up in a conservative town. I believed deeply in the genius of this document. To be clear, I still do, but I was a teenager in the ’80s, and I had a very whitewashed understanding of our history, and a very idealistic vision of our history. I grew up, went to college, learned a lot, read Howard Zinn. But when I started to make this piece, I didn’t know where it was headed. I just thought it would be interesting to take the prompt of the contest seriously and look at the Constitution now, try to understand how it affects my life, how it has affected my life and the life of my ancestors, just take that as far as I could go.

In doing that, I became even more disillusioned about some aspects of our country than I had been. I also learned things about my own family history that were troubling and difficult to grapple with. That progression from idealistic 15-year-old to a 40-year-old really struggling to understand my place as a woman in this culture, and in relationship to this document, is a real struggle. It’s something I’ve actually gone through while making the piece. I think that that’s what gets represented onstage as the 15-year-old me becoming fortysomething-year-old me.

You end the performance by debating a teenage girl on stage, which is a little like coming face to face with your old self.

My idea was to bring in someone who was my age when I started doing this contest, and truly just to find out what they’re thinking about our country and the Constitution. And they had to be a champion debater, because I wanted to have this live debate on stage. That has been one of the most gratifying things about the whole process. We spent weeks in a room with these two teenage debaters, we did practice debates, we would split into three groups, we had dramaturgs and stage managers, everyone would join a think tank, we would come up with our ideas. Thursday Williams, who you saw, she’s actually practiced constitutional debate, she interned at the Sonia Sotomayor institute. She actually knows more about the Constitution than I do.

Thursday Williams onstage, with Heidi Schreck visible in the background.
Thursday Williams in What the Constitution Means to Me. Joan Marcus

The judge you picked from the audience the night I saw the play chose you, but I have to say, I think Thursday kind of crushed you.

Oh, that was terrible! That was the first time she got a loss. That was so devastating. She came back the next time, and she just decimated me. I’ve actually just learned a lot from her. She’s thinking about these issues at a very deep level, way deeper than I was at 17.

You end the play with what amounts to an up-or-down vote on the Constitution: Should we keep it or abolish it and start over? Do you have a favorite side in that debate?

I mean, I love arguing that we should abolish it. I don’t believe we should abolish it. But I find it interesting and fun talking on that side.

I found myself swayed in both directions while the two of you were talking.

Oh, good, I’m so glad. Yeah, I was surprised now … so that was the first time that Thursday lost, but since then, both Rosdely [Ciprian] and Thursday have lost a couple times, which I never expected, and I’m kind of excited by that.

So much of looking at the Constitution now is thinking about its promises unfulfilled, but you have to ask as well which of those promises were ever meant to be fulfilled.

I mean, it does use the phrase, “We the people.” They just didn’t intend most of us to be part of that. I learned so much creating this, and one thing I didn’t understand before I started working on it was the difference between positive and negative rights, and it’s been a revelation to me that many countries, in this century and the 20th century, made positive rights constitutions, including countries with similar histories of violence and oppression, like Germany and South Africa. This idea that you can have a document that enshrined the right to health care, public education, basic standard of living, I find that thrilling, and it does make me question our document in a new way.

You spend a lot of time on the 14th Amendment, which contains the Equal Protection Clause, but also on Castle Rock v. Gonzales, where the Supreme Court ruled that a police department could not be sued for failing to enforce a restraining order, which allowed a woman’s estranged husband to kidnap and murder three of their children.

That was a big discovery for me in making the piece, the understanding that the Constitution did not require that kind of positive protection. It seems clear to me that violence against women is one of the biggest human rights violations in our country, probably in the world. What does it mean that our Constitution doesn’t protect us from that?

You say in the play that “If your stance is neutral, then you are perpetuating violence.” Can you talk about that idea?

I’ve been going to these workshops called Undoing Racism, which I really recommend. And one of the underlying principles is that, if you’re a white person, unless you’re actively doing something to undo racism, actively participating in trying to undo those structures, you are in fact perpetuating it, just by sitting in your role as a white person. I found that very meaningful, and it made me think about the Constitution and this idea of negative rights, and the people who are originalists, in terms of the Constitution saying, “Well, the idea is that it protects all of us equally.” So you can say the Warren court, the activist court, went too far. But I believe that stance that says, “Oh, it protects all of us equally,” assumes that there’s some kind of equality in our culture, assumes that it was born out of equality, which it wasn’t. The document excluded so many people from the beginning, because our culture is set up to exclude so many people, and to give power to one group of people—obviously, white men—that a neutral [view of that] document just perpetuates that problem.

To go back to original intent, it’s not like the founders overlooked women or people of color. They specifically meant for the Constitution to not represent them.

Yes. So my increasingly passionate view is that the law, and perhaps the Constitution, or maybe an equal rights amendment, needs to take active steps in order to rectify the inequality that is at the heart of our society. And if it’s not taking active steps, then it’s perpetuating violence and misogyny and racism.

And you feel that way as an artist, too?

I do. And I will say, I had the luxury, for many years … I was a woman playwright, a cis woman playwright, but I thought of my whiteness as some sort of neutral state, which it’s not. In the last decade, I’ve come to understand deeply how I’m writing from a very particular perspective, and that if I don’t question my assumptions about that perspective, I’m perpetuating inequality.

Your first play, Creature, was about Margery Kempe, a medieval Englishwoman who believed she had conversations with God, and What the Constitution Means to Me is about faith as well, albeit a secular kind. What brings you back to that subject?

Faith was a hot topic in my family growing up. My mom was an atheist, my dad taught Bible study, and now my mom goes to church, and my dad wrote his dissertation on Kierkegaard. So it was a constant topic of discussion and argument in my family. And in college, I became really interested in medieval women writers, who, of course, are all religious. So I just always had a fascination with people’s relationship to divinity or God or whatever you want to call it. I’m agnostic myself. And I guess, with this play, the Constitution, people do worship it. It has a kind of biblical status. It’s like liturgy. I became agnostic as a teenager, and didn’t necessarily believe in the Bible, but I did believe in the Constitution, so, for me, it is kind of the book I have to question.