Being a teen who gave speeches about the U.S. Constitution paid Heidi Schreck’s college tuition but also gave her something perhaps even more important: her voice. “It taught me not to be afraid to say my point of view in front of people who disagree with me,” she says. Schreck took her experience as a traveling one-person debate team and created her vital play, What the Constitution Means to Me, which is now running on Broadway.
Schreck began working on her Constitution 10 years ago, but it feels especially timely in this current political moment. She didn’t have a certain unnamed president on her mind — she simply wanted to tell the story of her coming-of-age and how she realized the Constitution became such an important document in not only her life, but for the women in her family as well. “I realized how deeply the document had shaped my life and the lives of the women in my family. And I became fascinated with all the Supreme Court cases that had to do with women’s bodies. Because I have this legacy of domestic violence and sexual assault, I also started to realize that that all of the laws around women’s bodies are connected and that they’re all connected to the fact that we weren’t included in the Constitution.”
In her “auto-legal biography,” Schreck, who is now in her 40s, portrays her 15-year-old self (no surprise that her current TV fave is Hulu’s Pen15, whose stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, she says, have a standing invite to her show) as she ties the traumatic history of the women in her family to the Constitution. And that trauma is palpable as she explores the sexual assault and physical abuse experience by her grandmother and mother, and the trickle-down effect that inherited trauma has on generations of women. While writing the play, Schreck carefully researched the topics she was tackling — from survivor’s guilt to listening to hundreds of hours of Supreme Court cases.
Citing writers Maggie Nelson and Janet Malcolm as major influences, Schreck says her goal is to make sure she’s not focused on one white woman’s perspective; she’s eager to show how this document affects everyone. Paraphrasing Toni Morrison, she notes, “Part of the task of the artist is to find a way to tell their own story without erasing other people’s stories.” That work was imperative to creating the play — she has a team of mostly young women who do everything from researching to fact checking to consulting to making sure that the play is up to date and is conscious of its place in the contexts of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Schreck herself went to anti-racism workshops and wanted to make sure there were different perspectives in the play (including a man and young black woman) just to show how white supremacy affects everyone. “We’re still negotiating this not to just acknowledge the way white supremacy and misogyny are linked, but also to acknowledge that white supremacy is something that harms all of us, so I kept trying to find ways to bring that out in the text.”
And while she’s managed to make a supremely personal play incredibly political and universal, a bit of the edge of telling her stories and the stories of her family has finally worn off. But one of the reasons she was drawn to the aforementioned Pen15 was the idea of reconstructing one’s teenage self from an adult perspective (another aspect of What the Constitution‘s structure that Schreck credits to many queer and female writers before her). So when she muses about what 15-year-old Heidi would think about what Heidi now is doing now, she offers some praise to her younger self. “I still have that 15-year-old in me — awkward, idealistic, quite innocent. Sometimes, I think when I’m doing the play that the 15-year-old me also knew more than she was willing to admit it. I think [she] knew that something was wrong underneath all of her optimism but couldn’t articulate it. And doing the play has been like a process of articulating and understanding that.” In that, and with What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck definitely succeeds.
A version of this story appears in the April 5/12 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.