For the past few years, Heidi Schreck has been sharing personal stories about her family, as seen through the lens of the U.S. Constitution, on stages across New York City.
Her play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” was a critical and popular hit as it traveled from Clubbed Thumb, with a stop at Berkeley Rep, and then to New York Theatre Workshop and Greenwich House Theater. And yet, when the opportunity for Broadway arose, Schreck, who wrote and stars in “Constitution,” was in a state of disbelief.
“I might have laughed,” Schreck said. “I think I thought it was absurd.”
Though the feeling is still “surreal,” the critical acclaim has continued, as the play has been nominated for two Tony Awards, Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Schreck.
Schreck spoke with Broadway News about the show’s path to Broadway and what comes next.
Broadway News: Why did you decide to do this play?
Heidi Schreck: I actually had the idea 20 years ago, after I saw a play by Lisa Kron called “2.5 Minute Ride” in Seattle. It was this incredible autobiographical play about a trip she took with her father to visit a concentration camp. It was just so beautifully and humorously and generously told that, at that moment, I thought, “I would really like to revisit some of the history of trauma in my family in relationship to this contest I did [about the Constitution.]”
I had a really ambitious idea to connect a personal family story to every single amendment, but that proved too large. So I kind of gave up, and then 10 years later I got a commission from True Love Productions. And I was like “I think I’d like to revisit that Constitution family history play.” And so then I dove in and started reading and researching and talking with my family members.
BN: Was it hard to write for yourself on stage?
Schreck: Yes. I’ve been writing plays for years and acting for years, but this is the first time I’ve put myself in one of my plays. I have a fantastic director, Oliver Butler, and pretty early on he came up with this plan for rehearsal that was really helpful, because I would be rehearsing and then I would be mid-story and stop and say, “That’s not the right word,” and go back and change the word and try to rewrite. And he said I had to separate my two selves so that when I was on stage, I was just the actor. He encouraged me to just rehearse the play by telling the stories extemporaneously, which is part of where the structure of the play and the extemporaneous feeling of the play came from. I had to put away my writer self in order to make it happen. Then I would go home at night and process what I learned.
BN: Do you feel like you’re able to have some distance from the stories now as you perform it, or do they still feel personal?
Schreck: It really varies from night to night. Some nights the family history feels more present, and it can be more emotional. Other nights I feel more like I’m playing my character in a regular play, and it’s a little bit distant from me. It’s very unpredictable.
BN: Was your goal always to bring this to Broadway?
Schreck: No. I’d been working in TV for about five years, writing for television primarily, when I did the first run at Clubbed Thumb, and I thought “OK, this is perfect. It’s a summer festival. I can do this for a couple of weeks and then go back to writing for TV.” But people connected with it so much during that run, it became apparent quickly that it would have a larger life. I just never expected it to be on Broadway.
BN: What was the timeline for moving the show to Broadway?
Schreck: It happened very quickly. We had a run at New York Theatre Workshop that was extended a few times and then we moved to Greenwich House Theater. Then Matt Ross, one of our producers and also our PR rep, came to me and asked if I was interested in moving into Broadway. He said he had a plan for the team. He was very confident, and it’s an opportunity I was not going to say no to, obviously. So I found out on December 25 that we were indeed going to move to Broadway and then March 12 came and I was performing.
BN: What’s next for the play?
Schreck: The goal is to take it to other parts of the country, especially during 2020 and the election. It’s fantastic to present it to a New York audience and to a tourist audience, but I’d love to go to smaller towns. I’d love to go to towns like the one I grew up in, a small town in Washington state that’s pretty conservative. I’d love to take it to places like that.