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Interview: Heidi Schreck on the Unexpected Trajectory of What the Constitution Means to Me

Schreck's Tony-nominated play is now available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video.

It's safe to say that Heidi Schreck never expected What the Constitution Means to Me to go beyond its brief run at a summer theater festival in 2017. But now, after sold-out off-Broadway and Broadway runs, a Tony nomination, a Pulitzer finalist distinction, and a national tour, Schreck's acclaimed work has made it to the screen. With the recent release of What the Constitution Means to Me on Amazon Prime Video, Schreck sat down with TheaterMania for a conversation about the surprising trajectory of her piece, its positive (and negative) worldwide response, and how she expects her 6-month-old twins to react when they're old enough to see it. Watch What the Constitution Means to Me here.

Heidi Schreck
(© Seth Walters)

Here we are, three years since the initial run of the play at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks. Did you ever think that we'd be talking about a filmed version?
No, I did not think that. I really thought it would be a downtown show. It would have its life at a small theater and then it would be over. And not only that, I really did not think that the world would look like this when this film came out.

The history of the piece is bookended by Supreme Court confirmations — you started at New York Theatre Workshop during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and it's on Amazon timed during the Amy Coney Barrett hearings.
Honestly, it's horrifying. We knew it was a possibility that Justice Ginsburg would have to pass one day, unfortunately, but just that it would happen at this juncture is really terrifying and painful. I really did not expect that this would be debuting while another Supreme Court hearing was going on, and one that feels so scary. It truly threatens to change the course of this country and how the laws in this country work for the next 30 years, for what is to be my new babies' whole adult life, and so many hard-won rights are in danger of being rolled back. I really wish this weren't happening.

Looking backwards, did the success of the show surprise you?
It totally surprised me. [laughs] This is how I felt when they told me I was having twins, actually. I burst into hysterical laughter. I feel a little bit like that about the play. No, I never remotely imagined that this would be its trajectory. I had been working in television for almost four years at the time, and when Maria Striar asked me to do it for Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks, I thought, "This is perfect. I'll do it during my hiatus from television."

I thought, "It's too weird of a play even to have a larger off-Broadway house pick it up. It's too specific and weird and personal and I didn't understand the form. It's not going to go to Playwrights Horizons or anywhere like that. But, I can have an amazing run of it at this theater company, and it'll be a 10-day run and I'll go back to TV." This is not some false modesty. I truly thought that was the play's life. Because "Who wants to see a play about the Constitution, and then, what is it?" It's not really a one person show, because there are other people in it, but it kind of is, and then there's this debate. But also, knowing that it was going up at Clubbed Thumb, I felt a lot of freedom not to make it more ... normal, I guess. I think there was something about getting to do it with Clubbed Thumb and Maria, who is an amazing dramaturg who doesn't try to make things more mainstream, that I allowed myself to leave in parts of the show that feel a little clumsy or don't add up, which result in it feeling different and special.

When did filming it become part of the equation?
I knew I wanted to film it while we were still at New York Theatre Workshop. As you know from the show, I grew up in a tiny town and didn't have access to New York City, and we lived three hours from Seattle, which had a major theater. I didn't get to go to theater a lot as a kid, and really got my theater fix from watching Sweeney Todd on an old VHS. I wanted to make it available to more people, especially to younger people. I approached Marielle Heller, who is an old friend of mine who I've known since my downtown theater days. When I first moved to New York, she was acting as a playwright and director downtown; her film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a play that she acted in at 3LD. I approached her right about the time we were moving to Broadway to see if she would consider filming it.

Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me
(© Joan Marcus)

What has the response been to the film so far?
People are filling my Instagram message box every day. People from all over the world, actually. I've gotten really nice messages from people in Belgium and Spain and South America. And on Twitter. It's been exciting, because I wasn't sure how the play would translate. But people around the world are responding to it, which has been great.

But there's sort of the other side of it — I've also attracted, pretty much for the first time, an army of right-wing men — and they are mostly men — telling me really angry things. In the trailer, I say, "Living Constitution," and it got a lot of men angry that I'm calling it a "Living Constitution." I guess they consider themselves "Originalists," so they're calling me stupid and a moron and a Communist and various things. So that part has been strange. It's strange because a lot of the hateful messages I've gotten are based on the trailer, which really makes the show seem a lot sweeter than the show actually is. I assume they're not going to be watching the whole thing, but if they do, I can't imagine what's gonna be coming at me.

One day, your little 6-month-old babies are gonna be able to watch What the Constitution Means to Me. Have you thought about that?
I was thinking about this the other night. I was looking at them thinking, "Oh my god, they're gonna be able to watch this one day." Honestly, the first thought I had was, "They're gonna be so much more advanced than I am, and cooler and smarter." I feel like they're gonna be like, "Ugh, our mom's politics are so old-school." "Our mom didn't understand anything about the world." They're gonna totally take me on. I'm both excited for them to watch it one day and a little scared.

This interview was adapted from a longer conversation, which you can watch in full here.

Watch What the Constitution Means to Me here.

Sign up for Amazon Prime Video here.