At the start of the filmed version of “What the Constitution Means to Me,” playwright and performer Heidi Schreck says that every time she walks out on stage, “the world has changed. I never quite know what’s going to happen.”
These days, that feels like an understatement.
Schreck first started workshopping the project, which connects her personal family history to the U.S. Constitution and eventually ends in a debate over whether to keep or abolish the famed document, in 2008, during Barack Obama’s presidential administration. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that she had her completed version, adding the end-cap debate in 2017. She performed the play during the height of the #MeToo movement, including the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. It was on Broadway, nominated for a Tony and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Now, through Amazon Prime Video, she has a global platform for the piece a month after the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a week after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pushed the 25th Amendment into the news cycle and just days after Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings began.
“It was never written to be topical; it really was this personal exploration of the document. But the things that are happening right now are the results of things that were planted really 400 years ago,” Schreck tells Variety. “Because of that, it always seems to interact with whatever’s happening in the country. And I think that’s just because the problems we’re facing right now and the nationwide reckoning we’re having with the sins of our past is a long-term conversation. The play is a long-form conversation, too. It wasn’t written for this moment, but different sections of the play become more important at different times, or more vivid at different times.”
“What the Constitution Means to Me,” which was directed for the screen by Marielle Heller, is a filmed version of Schreck’s stage play, shot over two performances (“a matinee and an evening show on the same day,” Schreck shares). The play begins with Schreck discussing the Constitutional debate contests she not only participated in as a teenager, but which she also usually won. She re-creates that winning speech about how the Constitution is “a crucible” — although she says the original, which her mother threw away, “was a little less goofy than the one I do here” — and then participates in a so-called extemporaneous exercise of speaking on one of the amendments — the 14th — that she pulls out of a hat. (Schreck reveals that although in the contests she truly never knew what she’d pull, she didn’t have multiple options for her play.)
“I decided to do the 14th amendment because I think it’s the most important amendment in our constitution because it talks about equal protection under the law,” she explains.
The prompt of the contest was always to draw from a personal story when discussing the amendments, and Schreck does that in spades by taking her audience through the clauses of the 14th Amendment. She starts by making jokes about how her great-grandmother came to the U.S. because her great-grandfather “ordered her from a catalogue,” and then moves into talking about birth control and her own abortion through the lens of the due process clause and, eventually, equal protection, which leads her to discuss the domestic violence in her maternal grandmother’s home.
“My family story was a jumping off point to look at the ways the equal protection clause has both been used by people to create important change and the ways in which, even though it says explicitly that it guarantees equal protection under the law to everyone, that fails to be true. I talk about the ways the people who interpreted that amendment failed my family, but that’s a way to talk about the grander failure as I see it,” Schreck says.
Although Schreck admits in the piece that her teenage self never would have wanted to talk about such personal things, Schreck now shares that the original impulse of writing the play was deeply personal. It “came out of my need to work through my family history,” she says. “I grew up in a safe household and a good household and didn’t think that what my mom went through had affected me, but when I was in my 30s I started to realize it had affected me: it affected my relationship with my mom, it made me distrustful of the world, and I had to start working through all of that. In a way, making this piece was how I did that.”
At times, Schreck has gotten very emotional on stage — something that is captured in the filmed version. Here she did not do multiple takes of anything in order to offer different levels of emotion; she truly performed it in real-time, although the end result was cut together from the two aforementioned performances.
“I was playing to the house, so there didn’t seem to be any way to perform any differently,” Schreck says. “A couple of the closer-up shots we did on stage, I remember watching them and the energy did feel different, but there was no way to scale it for the camera. Luckily it’s not a huge house. I just had to play to the audience that was there and trust that it would be OK.”
Schreck says she learned the truth about the violence her grandmother, mother and aunt endured around the age of 15, which was the same time she was participating in these contests, which further linked the stories organically into one piece for her. But diving deep into her own family wasn’t enough: She also had to research the Constitution just as heavily. In doing so, she learned about “Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales,” in which a woman sued over her local police force’s lack of protection against domestic violence, which she brings up in the play. She also utilizes recordings from decision-makers, including the infamous interview with Ginsberg when she says there will be enough women on the Supreme Court “when there are nine.” (This, Schreck admits, hits a little harder these days.) And at the end, she brings in a current teenage debate champion. In the filmed version, that is Rosdely Ciprian, who began performing with Schreck when she was only 12 years old and who confounds Schreck at one point by drawing a comparison between the Constitution and the horcruxes of “Harry Potter.” Together, the duo take opposite sides of a debate about whether to keep (but continue to amend) the Constitution or abolish it in favor of a new one.
“Making the show has certainly given me a new way to look at the document,” Schreck says. For her audience, which is now global and filled with many who did not learn the details of these amendments in school, “I just want to get them talking in general. The purpose of the ‘keep or abolish’ debate is first to provoke discussion and also to encourage us to imagine the future — to consider reimagining some of the systems that aren’t working. I don’t personally think it’s practical to abolish the constitution, but the idea is to do a little exercise and imagine if we got to be the people who invented America, what would we do?”
“What the Constitution Means to Me” is now streaming on Amazon.