It’s not too complicated. Heidi Schreck wrote a play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” In it, she talks about how when she was 15 years old she began to travel the country to speak about and debate the Constitution for prize money that eventually put her through college. Since the first iteration of the play in 2017 all the way through its acclaimed Broadway run, which earned her writing and performance Tony nominations, Schreck played herself. Not only as a teenager, but as a grown woman, reflecting on her own history and that of her family. She discusses topics from immigration, the Supreme Court, her abortion, the domestic and sexual abuse that affected her family and millions of others. She also talks about how the Constitution has failed so many people, such as Jessica Gonzales, a woman who sued the U.S. after the police refused to help her when her estranged husband kidnapped (and later murdered) her daughters.
Now, the show has opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum through Feb. 28, but Schreck is unable to perform it, and this is where it could get confusing. Schreck turned to her friend and fellow Tony nominee for her performance in “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” Maria Dizzia to take on the role of playing herself (sort of.) Although she introduces herself as Heidi, Dizzia has her own moment where she addresses the audience as herself. This isn’t unusual, as her co-star Mike Iveson, also from the Broadway production, also steps out of his role as a friendly Legionnaire to tell his own story. Even the audience is asked to take on a different identity, with the character of Heidi addressing them as her primarily white, male audience from her debates.
In short, Dizzia is playing Schreck’s version of Heidi, and rather than distract, it lends a poignant unity to the new production. “What the Constitution Means to Me” retains director Oliver Butler, who has been with it since its premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018. While Schreck wasn’t able to travel to L.A. for rehearsals, she was Skyped in and worked with Butler and Dizzia to update the text to reflect the casting change. In a conference call, Variety spoke to Schreck and Dizzia about the show and this unique case of sharing an identity.
Heidi, since this show is about you telling your story, when did you first start considering having someone play the role?
Heidi Schreck: Well, I’m pregnant with twins, and I knew when we first started talking about a show in L.A., that hopefully I would be pregnant by then. When they asked me about doing it, I told them I really wanted to but wasn’t sure it would be me necessarily. I had always imagined that the play could have a life without me. So I asked them if they were open to the possibility of someone else doing it, and they were. I’d also been doing it for three years, so I was ready for a break. I’m so grateful to Maria that she’s carrying on the story for me in this remarkable way.
Maria, how did you feel when she first approached you?
Maria Dizzia: It was a mix of things. I was so excited because I love the play and thought she was amazing so the idea she would ask me…there was something so fan-fiction about it! I really trust Heidi a lot, so I started out the process not knowing what my place was in it yet but if Heidi felt I should be there, that I would find it. I’m discovering more and more what the play is, even in performance. Heidi hasn’t just written something that’s interesting to watch, but something that changes artists who do it. It really does something to you. I can feel already I’m going to be a different performer and actor on the other side of living through this play over and over again. It’s the biggest gift.
Schreck: Maria’s a great acting teacher and acting coach. When I was first working on the play at New York Theatre Workshop, I did acting coaching with her on the side. I realized going into the workshop that even though it was my story, I was still going to have to approach it as an actor. I’d been kind of relying on the fact it’s my story but it was also a play. She really helped me get in touch with what it means to play myself as a character.
Maria plays Heidi but all the characters in the show at some point address the audience as themselves. I read you worked together to put some of Maria’s own story into the show?
Schreck: I wasn’t quite sure when we started rehearsing how much of Maria’s own story should be folded into the play. So we spent two very long weekends together where I just interviewed Maria and took down her stories from her life that related to the play. I left with many pages of stories and it was like a whole other play. So we went for this iteration which is kind of the most economical form in a way. To let the play be what the play is and find a place where Maria can become herself before the end of the play, before the debate. I want the debate at the end to be where the play opens up into an act of community engagement. By then I’ve allowed the audience to become themselves, mike to become himself, and I wanted Maria to become herself.
Maria, how much are you playing a character and how much are you representing someone you know?
Dizzia: I don’t feel like I’m playing the Heidi I know. I joke that we all have our own Heidi. Having seen the show and being in rehearsal with Heidi and having her share with me where certain things come from, I feel like there’s nothing that I have done consciously to mimic her. However, Heidi sent me a tape of a debater and I watched it and stole hand gestures from that debater. They really helped me a lot. What’s interesting is Oliver said that everyone becomes more themselves as the play goes on. The audience are told to be men at the start and by the end they’re told they can be themselves. It happens to the legionnaire, it happens to Heidi and then with me, I become myself.
There are a couple moments in the show where you talk about women and violence and you make a point of saying you know the lines by heart, but you choose to read them off index cards. Can you talk about why you do that?
Schreck: It’s a fascinating question because I think Maria, as an actor, had to discover her own reason. At first, I had to do it because I found telling the stories of my grandmother and Jessica Gonzales too overwhelming. During rehearsal I put it on cards so I didn’t have to live through it, I guess. I realized that when you’re on debate team, these are the cards you use to present evidence. There was something about telling the story of the violence in my family in a factual way using the evidence cards – it allows me to relay them as fact. It protects me, it protects the audience in a way, and it allows me to tell the story without feeling like I’m sensationalizing it in any way.
Dizzia: Heidi and Oliver had shared the evolution of the cards to me. In working on it, there were two things the cards started to do for me. One, I it helped this feeling that if I didn’t read from the cards, people wouldn’t believe me. As Heidi said, it’s evidence, I have these headlines and stories written down and it makes me feel like there’s more power and it’s less likely they could be dismissed. Also, the cards I use are actually Heidi’s old cards. She had them on Broadway with her and they’re old and dog-eared. They were going to reprint them and I really like having them, so they reprinted them and taped them onto the old cards. It means a lot to me. I put them in my pocket and know they’re Heidi’s. It makes me feel connected to her and the story.
I imagine this show really speaks to people on a personal level and they want to share their own stories with you?
Dizzia: I think because they know I’m an actor, I haven’t had the same experience of people sharing their private experiences with me. But people have thanked me for the performance and told me how connected they felt to the story. It’s really motivating to feel like what you’re doing is important.
Schreck: I’m actually a pretty guarded person in life, I’m more introverted than the play would suggest, and at first, I was afraid to tell these stories. So when people first started sharing their stories – talking to me outside the theater, contacting me on social media – I was so grateful. It made me understand that it was okay for me to tell these stories and I truly understood why I was doing the show.