Heidi Schreck had her doubts when director Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) approached her about filming her Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me. The autobiographical production, which ran on Broadway from March to August 2019, draws from the writer and actress’s experiences to show how the Constitution shaped her youth in Wenatchee, Washington. It also reconciles the document’s many flaws.
“There’s something a little painful about seeing a version of it that’s frozen in time,” Schreck confesses. “This was very much a live event. We kept the debates fresh every night based on what was happening in our country, and you can’t do that now.”
What the Constitution Means to Me, a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony nominee for Best Play, examines the Fourteenth Amendment and its effect on generations of women in Schreck’s family. Onstage, we learn the American Legion’s Oratorical Contests helped Schreck pay for college, and the experience gave her the liberty to make decisions about her body without the permission of elderly white men. Now in her forties, Schreck’s concerned with how the Constitution deprives people of color, immigrants, and other underrepresented groups their basic human rights. At the end of every performance, Schreck and a real New York high schooler (either Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams, depending on the night) debated whether or not the Constitution should be abolished, and an audience member had the final verdict. Schreck believes it should be amended, not abolished, but it’s fun to take sides.
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“A neutral constitution is a terrific idea provided that everything is already fair—but everything is not,” Schreck says. “I started to think more and more about the idea of what it would mean to have a constitution that contained positive rights that in fact attempted to right some of the wrongs that were present in the founding of this country.”
Heller’s filmed version doesn’t just feel like a stellar piece of entertainment. It feels like a cathartic “finally” at a time when the legitimacy of the Constitution and the future of in-person theater is very much up for debate. Before the film, this story about how vital the Constitution is for everyone couldn’t exactly be seen by everyone—in the 2018-2019 season, the average cost per ticket for a Broadway play was $116.12. The streaming of What the Constitution Means to Me marks a first for Amazon; despite their business-related motivations, it’s a bold move to make theater more financially accessible to the masses, following in the footsteps of Hamilton, which fast-tracked to Disney+ in July and broke app download records.
This will be the first time many viewers see the show—or any Broadway show, for that matter. Anyone with an internet connection and a screen can watch the play at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre for $8.99. “I grew up watching an old VHS of a live performance of Sweeney Todd that I just watched over and over,” Schreck says. “For me, film and video were my access to Broadway growing up, and I really fell in love with the theater by watching those things. I feel happy that people who maybe live far from New York or don’t get to go to the theater regularly will get to see my play.”
Schreck spent the last decade working on and off on What the Constitution Means to Me. In addition to writing and appearing in other plays, she worked in television as a writer on Nurse Jackie, Billions, and I Love Dick. The idea for the play’s debate segments emerged through her TV work: She wanted to create something that changed nightly, based on what the audience and judge decided and what had happened in the United States that day. This could only be done in theater.
What sets Constitution apart is the process of “unlearning” false information and challenging and redirecting what audiences hold true during and after each performance. Schreck tells a story about how the ratio of nine men to every one woman in Washington State affected the women in her family who came from Sweden and Germany.
“It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that was a false fact that completely erased the Indigenous women who lived in Washington State,” she says. “The play really started me on a process of unlearning.”
A work like Constitution is undoubtedly worth celebrating, but Schreck is adamant that other plays by and starring women get the attention, and money, they deserve. The fact that Constitution recouped its $2.5 million investment in July 2019 set a theatrical precedent. Women aren’t risks. Original works aren’t risks. People of color aren’t risks. This is why she’s using her platform with Amazon and her privilege as a white woman to amplify other voices and call out institutional racism and other injustices in the performing arts. “I started to think of my own position as a white person,” she says. “Growing up thinking of myself like a lot of white people do, I thought of the neutral as the default, and realized what a damaging idea that was.”
She’s hopeful for a change, however—she’s witnessing it in the work of industry leaders like Stephanie Ybarra of the Baltimore Center Stage and Maria Goyanes of the Woolly Mammoth in Washington D.C. “The entrenched norms of how theater is made will change,” she says of the reckoning happening in the industry and its programming during the pandemic. “Nonprofit theaters are leading the way in terms of how we can make theater anti-racist and how to make theater more equitable and fairer, and pay people better.”
A woman telling her story and demanding to be heard is a powerful and political act. While Schreck’s journey with the Constitution began as a way to process generational trauma, she’s transformed her knack for storytelling into a powerful message that inspires others to tell theirs. She emphasizes that bringing the show to the screen isn’t about accolades, but “the value in all of us taking care of one another and trying to inspire each other and galvanizing one another, especially during this time.” She adds, “We need each other, we need to prop each other up, and we need to give each other hope. We can do that.”
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