How What the Constitution Means to Me made its way to a timely screen debut
With a divisive presidential election less than a month away and polarizing Supreme Court appointment hearings happening this week, there could hardly be a more relevant time to watch Heidi Schreck’s award-winning play What the Constitution Means to Me.
With theaters closed, it’s lucky then that a live recorded version of the Broadway play is headed to Amazon Prime on Friday in a new special.
Schreck tells EW it wasn’t always the plan to premiere only weeks before the election; she simply wanted to have an artfully filmed version of her work to someday share with the world. But once the pandemic hit, she worked hard to make this deadline.
“There came a point when we all decided, we think the best time to release this would be before the election,” she says. “Parts of the play suddenly become a little more electrified or they feel as they're speaking to this very moment, especially now with what's going on with the Supreme Court. There’s a lot of discussion of Supreme Court cases that have to do with the nominee who's being considered right now that I think will probably take on a new meaning.”
Joking, she adds, “I very much wish it would get less relevant. I can't wait until the play is obsolete and a relic of its time. I'll be very happy when that happens.”
As you might have guessed, the show, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is a personal and political meditation on the constitution of the United States. It stars Schreck, resurrecting her teenage self who earned her college tuition by winning Constitutional debate competitions across the country. Through interrogation of these memories and her prize-winning speeches, she traces the profound relationship between four generations of women and the ways this nation's founding document shaped their lives.
Schreck joined forces with director Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) to bring her play to the screen, following in the footsteps of other live stage-to-screen recordings like Hamilton, Springsteen on Broadway, and more. It was something Schreck wanted to do from early on in her development of the show Off Broadway. “I grew up in a small town in Washington State and so Broadway and theater in New York was pretty inaccessible to me,” she explains. “I grew up watching Stephen Sondheim musicals, the [PBS] Great Performances of them, and so I thought it would be exciting to capture a film of the show so that somebody from my hometown could watch if they weren't able to come to New York.”
Heller and Schreck have known each other for almost two decades, having met in New York’s downtown theater scene, where Heller began her directing career. So when Schreck reached out to ask Heller about directing a filmed version, the answer was immediately yes. For Heller, it was also to be the first release under her new production company, Defiant by Nature.
“Our motto for our production company has been about enhancing the voices of filmmakers and artists who we believe have something to say that maybe wouldn't get a chance to be heard in other circumstances: women, people of color, non-binary people,” Heller tells EW. “This felt like it really lined right up. Heidi's vision for this project has been so clear from the beginning; I found her play so moving and like nothing I've ever seen. It was a perfect thing to bring our company to and to say let's throw our weight behind this.”
The next steps were figuring out how to capture Schreck’s intimate play onscreen and give audiences at home an experience akin to the one in the theater. Initially, they discussed filming in several different locations, including the American Legion building in Schreck’s hometown where the play is set and the Kennedy Center production. But they quickly abandoned the idea to focus only on the version filmed in Schreck’s final weeks on Broadway.
Heller decided to approach the filming more like a stand-up special than other stage-to-screen adaptations. “We looked at a lot of comedy specials because the show is less of a big ensemble musical or anything like that, [and] it is much more of an intimate portrait,” she says. “We wanted to figure out a way to kind of bring it close to the audience and to feel that the performance was as intimate as it felt in the theater.”
There really aren’t any stylistic flourishes or eye-grabbing camera movements, so much as close-ups of Schreck, the rest of the cast, and the live audience. “Sometimes it's about getting out of the way of the story and letting it really speak for itself,” Heller reflects. “I loved the play in the Broadway house, but it was much bigger and it was a different experience to see this very personal story told in this giant house. If anything our hope was to kind of bring you even closer to Heidi and to get a sense of what the performance was from a really intimate place. We also got onto the stage with her, we kind of hid a camera behind her, so you can feel that communication happening between her and the audience in a different way.”
That audience is a striking component here since most filmed versions of live theater eschew that aspect of the performance. But Heller felt it was essential to convey the experience of the show. “Theater is a commune between the cast and the audience in the best way,” she notes. “And there's a beautiful part of the play where Heidi talks about a penumbra being the shadowy space between the light and the dark and that the theater is like that. We really wanted to capture this relationship that's happening between Heidi and the audience. The whole thing changed and shifted depending on how that communication was going.”
They filmed multiple performances over the course of the show’s final week on Broadway in August 2019, seeking to capture the varied shades of that give-and-take with a living, breathing audience. It required them to raise the house lights significantly more than they normally would during a performance.
The actors and production team were already feeling emotional about nearing the end of their run, but the conditions necessary to capture the audience on camera made Schreck feel even more emotionally raw. “That part was really scary because I wasn't used to seeing people's faces,” she admits. “Knowing that we were filming it to bring to a larger audience made it more emotional for me. Some of the things I talk about, that I had become accustomed to talking about, hit me in a new way because I knew that it would be going out to a larger audience.”
Editing the show together also helped Schreck consider the play and its structure in different ways. “I was a little shocked at how airtight it was,” she says. “Even though I know the text is very tightly structured, I thought I was, performance-wise, a little looser and I saw that this is a very shaped performance. I've been performing it for a long time, and it was interesting to see how airtight it was when I was cutting between different versions and we were trying to figure out which shots to use.”
The one thing that falls outside of that is the show’s closing debate, where Schreck engages with either Rosdely Ciprian or Thursday Williams over whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. Each night they would flip a coin, establishing who would argue for or against the Constitution, and run from there. The Amazon version features Ciprian, but there’s also a bonus option to watch a different version of the debate with Williams.
It proved the toughest nut to crack. “My monologue essentially remained the same for years. It felt new because new things were happening in the country, but the debate [portion of the show] actually changed,” Schreck explains. “We would update it every night — the basic points were the same, but we would update the cross-examination, we would add new points if something really shifted in the country. We would really try to make it feel relevant to that day, and of course, we couldn't do that for film.”
Some of that contemporaneous sensation had to go for this adaptation, most notably any direct reference to timely headlines of the day when the show was filmed. But they still wanted to express the live, fluid nature of the proceedings, which, in the theater production, included cast member Mike Iveson and ushers distributing pocket copies of the Constitution to the audience.
“One of the big things we did is really to try to allow you to get the feeling that the coin toss was real and that we argued different sides every night and that you can watch the other side if you want,” Schreck explains. “One of the things I missed about the show too is the way the play opens up to the audience, and to their participation. Giving out the Constitutions is such an important part of it in the theater, and we just couldn't replicate it.”
They discussed many options to achieve this, including intercutting between different debates with Ciprian and Williams or adding a virtual functionality making the “keep or abolish” argument a “choose your own adventure” approach for at-home audiences. Schreck says they’re also still eager to find a way to get audiences an interactive version of the Constitution to refer to during the debate, mirroring the events of the live show.
For now, they’ve resolved the conundrum by offering two versions of the debate, as well as title cards listing the statistics of Broadway audiences’ votes. “With the debate statistics at the end, [it’s] to give a sense that this changed from night to night; the audience voted differently from night to night,” Schreck notes. “So at least you understand that it was a living thing.”
Schreck hopes the show will continue to feel alive, different parts of it standing out and sparking conversations as the world around us changes. “I found performing this over so many years, that the conversations about it are different depending on what's going on in the country,” she explains. “Maybe knowing that you can own it in your own home, you could listen to it and watch it at different times depending on how you're feeling about what's going on in the country.”
One legacy that was completely unplanned: the show is a rare piece of live theater available to audiences in a world that has seen Broadway and other stages shutter until at least May 2021 due to a global pandemic. It’s made the project feel more vital and exciting to both Schreck and Heller.
“Theater is my first love and I have this strong desire that we as a society will realize what a benefit theater is and find a way to fund it from new sources and not let it die as a medium,” says Heller. “Because especially during this pandemic, it feels really scary for a lot of theaters. Like are we even gonna have theater once we come out of the other end of this? If having filmed versions of plays can help broaden the audience for theatre, it's a very positive thing. But I don't want it to replace live theatre, which I think is crucial.”
In many ways, it’s just the start of the show taking on a life of its own beyond Schreck. She wrote it as a personal account and she never expected it to appeal to more than a small audience off-Broadway. It’s exceeded her wildest dreams, even if it’s become increasingly scary and surreal sharing such private stories with bigger audiences.
“The one thing that makes it feel okay is just the response I've gotten while performing it onstage,” she reflects. “People waiting at the stage door to express their own vulnerability and to talk about their own stories and their own relationship to this country and to the document makes me feel braver about putting it out there.”
Seeing Maria Dizzia play a version of Schreck in the touring production (that has now been halted for an undetermined length of time due to the pandemic) also helped the actress and playwright distance herself from it. “It made me think, ‘Oh, it’s a play, it truly is a play.’ I know it seems like off-the-cuff memoir, but it's very carefully constructed. So I do hope someday that other people will do it and that it will be done at high schools and colleges,” she says, before adding wryly. “I do think it's a good part. You get a woman onstage talking nonstop for an hour and a half; it's a really juicy role.”
What the Constitution Means to Me was executive produced by Schreck, Heller, Robin Schwartz, Kyle Laursen, Peter Saraf, and Marc Turtletaub. The special was produced by Big Beach and Defiant by Nature, Heller’s newly launched production company. The producers of the Broadway production — Diana DiMenna, Aaron Glick, and Matt Ross — also serve as producers of the filmed version.