It was by sheer coincidence that Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me opened in the midst of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, but seldom has a work of theater been better timed to its moment. As Christine Blasey Ford tried in vain to stop her alleged assailant from being appointed to the nation’s highest court, Schreck was onstage reenacting the speech her 15-year-old self had given in American Legion halls across the country that sung the praises of the United States Constitution—and, as her present-day self, reckoning with the ways its vaunted protections fall terribly short. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose words figure prominently in the play, poised to be replaced by a justice who promises to erode those rights even further, Constitution, which ended its Broadway run last August, is coming to Amazon Prime Video in a version filmed by Marielle Heller.
Schreck, who gave birth to twins in April, took a welcome break from the Barrett hearings on Monday to talk about why she misses performing the show, how it looks in 2020, and why we might just be asking the Constitution to do too much. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: Have you been watching the hearings at all?
Heidi Schreck: I started watching this morning. I got really frustrated. Except for Amy Klobuchar, who, I thought, did a good job, I felt like the Democrats were being too polite, frankly. And I got enraged and had to turn it off.
One of the things we talked about when Constitution was off-Broadway was how the “me” in the title is really plural: The play is in some ways a conversation between your 15-year-old self and your, to quote the filmed version, “very late-40s” self. Now that it’s been over a year since the show closed, is there anything 2020 Heidi would like to tell 2019 Heidi?
Fifteen-year-old Heidi was so filled with hope and so optimistic and full of activist energy—which is of course, then, the thing that kind of breaks down over the course of the play and then in some ways reconstitutes itself, right? But I was thinking the other day that watching the debate, particularly right now, I look at that [late-40s] Heidi and think: She was so innocent. She was so young. I feel 100 years older than when I filmed that last August.
Probably only 80 percent of that is having kids.
You were onstage performing Constitution in the middle of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, and the filmed version is being released the week of Amy Coney Barrett’s hearings. I assume that’s intentional.
Well, not exactly. We were hoping to have the film out last spring. But then I got pregnant, and Mari [Heller] went off to shoot something. There were a number of factors that made the editing a little bit slower than it would have been. And there was the pandemic, so then we had to make a big push to edit it over the summer and also find someone who wanted to distribute it. We knew we wanted to try to get it out before the election. That was definitely a goal. But really, the fact that it’s happening right now is circumstantial.
How do you feel about it being released now, then? Lindsey Graham said in his opening statement to the Barrett hearings that “there’s nothing unconstitutional about this process,” and we’re going to be hearing that word a lot.
Honestly, I feel a little depressed. The play opened, as you said, during the Kavanaugh hearings, which again, was a coincidence. And I mean, things just keep getting worse in the country. I wish this weren’t happening. I wish we weren’t in this position right now. I wish there were not Supreme Court hearings happening right now. To whatever extent the show might get people to think about the importance of what’s going on right now, the fact that these hearings are going to be life and death for people, I guess I’m happy that it’s coming out now, if maybe there are people who don’t understand that. I’m glad that the show is happening while this is happening, if it will motivate people to do … what, exactly, I don’t know, but understand the gravity of what is happening right now in those hearings.
“Life or death” is not hyperbolic either. The arguments in the case that could invalidate the Affordable Care Act are less than a month away.
Exactly. People could lose their health insurance. If you think about the Voting Rights Act being in peril, that becomes life and death in a whole other way, in terms of the structural inequality in this country, racism. And then obviously, a woman’s right, a person’s right to decide what to do with their reproductive choices, that is life and death. And marriage equality, which, given Justice [Clarence] Thomas’ statements, is in extreme peril. The extreme consequences of having a 6–3 court—I can’t help thinking of it in this way because I just gave birth—for what will be the majority of my daughter’s early lifetime is really scary.
The physical realities of doing eight shows a week aside, do you wish you were onstage performing the show right now?
I do, because performing the show actually gave me a kind of strength, and it also gave me a feeling of hope. There’s a very cathartic element to the play, so even though I confront the trauma of our country’s history and I confront the trauma of my family’s history in the show, coming out the other side always made me feel stronger by the end of it—like I had a physical way of dealing with all of my feelings and coming out feeling like I was ready to keep going and to fight and to contribute something positive to the narrative. But I don’t get to do that right now. I’m probably struggling with some postpartum anxiety and depression. But I wonder if that feeling is what so many people are going through. It’s a very difficult time, I think, for most people to keep a sense of hope and also to maintain a kind of resilience. Some of us have it easier than others. I would put myself in that category. But I feel like the pandemic is just adding a whole extra layer to that feeling of How do you keep going?
Lindsey Graham’s insistence that Barrett’s hearing is constitutional reminds me of the way the show dwells on the Ninth Amendment, which says that we have rights that the Constitution doesn’t cover. But that cuts both ways. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says the Senate can’t block Merrick Garland, or that it can’t confirm Amy Coney Barrett the day before the election—or a month after it.
And as we know, there’s also nothing in the Constitution that says we can’t add more justices to the court, eventually, to balance it. My teenage self was obsessed with the Ninth Amendment in part because it’s so vague and has some poetic resonance. All the things that the Constitution doesn’t say, all that it leaves open to interpretation, I was very enamored with as a teenager. I will say now, getting older and also performing the show for so many years, I really started to think about the constitutions of other countries, constitutions that were made in the 20th century, and the fact that almost all of them contain explicit human rights protections. I think about that a lot, and I think about it with what’s going on with the court right now, because I think if, for example, our Constitution contained the Equal Rights Amendment that explicitly stated that there was no discrimination based on gender or sex, or if we had positive rights, for example, or that you can’t discriminate on the basis of race, or some countries have the right to clean air and water too—after performing the show for that long, I started to think about possible amendments to our Constitution that would protect human rights in this way. Because it does feel like it’s absurd for those rights to be, one, in question, and, two, to be left up to, as I say in the play, the whims of nine people who weren’t even elected by us.
Let’s say you have the opportunity to sneak into the National Archives and make one binding change to the Constitution. What would you change?
I would abolish the Electoral College, because I think a lot of the things we are facing right now have to do with a minority who has taken advantage of laws in the system to assert their will over a majority. That minority would be, obviously, the conservative minority. I think that they have used loopholes and flaws to assert their beliefs over what the majority of the country actually wants and believes.
I don’t think this court, with six conservative justices, is going to represent the will of the American people, either. If you look at the statistics, the majority of people don’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. The majority of people support marriage equality. The majority of people in general support things that these conservative justices want to overturn.
It’s sometimes said that a Supreme Court justice is one of the most powerful people in the world. Are we leaving too much in the hands of the Constitution or, at least, the court charged with interpreting it?
I do think we put too much on it, and I do think it’s important, especially for liberals, to recognize the power of the state and local government and to get involved. I don’t think we pay enough attention to local politics or state politics. But I do think there are some basic human protections that actually you shouldn’t have to fight for in your state legislature. They should simply be guaranteed.
You talk in the play about how your father was the one who drilled you in the history of America’s founding documents, but he voted for Trump in 2016, which you said felt like a “betrayal.” Is he still there? Is he going to vote that way again?
No. He’s not, and I want to have a deeper conversation with him about why. I think the events of the past couple of years have, thank God, gone too far for him—what happened with George Floyd, with those protests and the way they’ve been handled. And frankly, I think the way my dad’s friends have responded to things has influenced my dad. He has a lot of conservative friends, and I think—and I hope that this is true—that the feelings among his friends have changed and that has helped him change his point of view too. I’ve noticed on Facebook with part of my family or my husband’s family who lean conservative, them posting in support of Black Lives Matter. I feel like that has been a really hopeful sign.
You performed versions of What the Constitution Means to Me for over 10 years, but now that it’s been filmed, this is the version that will endure. What do you think it will say about this time when people watch it 20 years from now?
I think about that a lot, because I have kids now who are going to be able to watch it. That is horrifying. My most fervent hope is that it feels like a relic, like, Oh, that was of a certain moment, one interesting little glimpse of that time before things got better.
You mention that performing What the Constitution Means to Me brought you to a place of hope every night, and some nights the audience got there with you. You end with a debate over whether to keep or abolish the Constitution, and most of the time, the Constitution wins. Where do you find hope going forward from here? Or do you?
I absolutely do. I find hope just because I am alive. I get up every day and I don’t feel like I can do that without having some glimmer of hope, you know? It’s not just having kids—I mean, yes, of course, I want to have hope for my kids. I want to do whatever I can to make life better for them than it is right now. But that’s just true for all the people I love, my friends, my family. I feel like I want to do whatever small thing I can to help make this situation better. And I think the act of doing things gives me hope. It’s a little bit fake it till you make it, where I’m like, OK, I’ll do some calling today or I’ll write postcards, and just the act of doing that will give me some hope.
And then secondly, I do think—and I want to be really careful about this because I don’t want to be Pollyanna—but I think the fact that these conversations have become more mainstream than ever, the fact that my conservative relatives can say Black lives matter, the fact that we’re having this really intense reckoning as a country where the past trauma is being faced and addressed and people are talking about it and feeling the import of it, I do think there’s possibly hope in that. We have so much trauma that we haven’t faced, and we’re not like Germany or South Africa, who actually had ways to openly face and at least attempt to work through the grave human rights abuses perpetrated by their countries. We haven’t had that with slavery. We haven’t had it with the genocide of Indigenous people. I feel like we’re on the brink of having that kind of reckoning, and maybe there’s a kind of healing that’s possible if we do that. Maybe there’s a way to move forward if we actually reckon with that, and atone—and I don’t mean atone in a necessarily spiritual way, although I mean, sure, spiritual is good, but maybe in a practical way. Maybe reparations for structural inequalities. Maybe righting some of those wrongs as they’re still being played out now.