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Powerful Performance Exposes the Constitution’s Effects Upon Our Bodies

Heidi Schreck’s ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ illuminates the Supreme Court’s history of disregarding human bodies — and its slow, incremental steps toward progress

Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at New York Theatre Workshop.

Heidi Schreck in ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ at New York Theatre Workshop through Nov. 4th

Joan Marcus

Heidi Schreck wants to talk to you about inherited trauma. She wants to tell you about the trauma that’s been passed down from woman to woman in her family: from her great-grandmother, a mail-order bride who died of “melancholia” at age 36; to her mother, who had to testify against her step-father when she was 14, after a decade of watching him rape and abuse her mother and sister.

She also wants to talk about the trauma that we’ve passed down culturally, from generation to generation, as every woman is socially trained to inherit “centuries of belief in her own worthlessness.”

And she wants you to know about the trauma we’ve passed down structurally, through the use and misuse of the United States Constitution.

In her bracing performance, What the Constitution Means to Me (currently at New York Theatre Workshop through November 4th), Schreck guides us through that legacy. Using her family’s own history of violence and abuse as a guide, she illuminates the Supreme Court’s history of disregarding women’s bodies (and black bodies and Native American bodies and queer bodies and immigrant bodies) and its slow, incremental steps toward progress.

Her examination focuses on the social impact of the 9th and 14th amendments. The 9th, she explains, leaves room for growth, stating that we can have rights outside of those written in the document: “The constitution doesn’t tell you all the rights you have, because it doesn’t know.” She points to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who explained the amendment using the word “penumbra,” a place of partial illumination. And it’s in that penumbra that so much of our modern progress has been made: Roe v. Wade (“a case all about penumbras”), the right to birth control, abolishing sodomy laws. And the 14th: a “giant, supercharged force-field,” in her words. It’s one of two reconstruction amendments that has ultimately been used to extend the rights of American citizens to all Americans, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or immigration status (“the right to not be locked up, or have anything – or anyone – seized from them without a fair trial.”)

Schreck inhabits two bodies during the performance: herself at 15, competing at a constitutional speech contest — idealistic, painfully polite, passionately in love with Patrick Swayze — and herself today — informed, quietly angry, unusually attached to a sock monkey. She moves freely between the two, punctuating her childhood’s narrative with their inherited history of trauma, and the ever present potential for violence. (In one story, she and her friend went on birth control when they were 15, “just in case we went in a hot tub and sperm swam up and attacked us. Or you know, in case of a real attack”; in college, a boy she barely knew made a pass at her, and she has sex with him “just to be polite.” But she remembers a small, faint voice in her head, telling her to “stay alive.”)

And speaking of inherited trauma: Schreck has been writing this piece for nearly a decade, and performing it for several years, but this run coincided precisely with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, making it strikingly and unnervingly relevant. Rolling Stone spoke with Schreck about how she created the piece and how #MeToo, the Trump presidency and Kavanaugh impacted the performance.

It seemed like there were a few nods to the Kavanaugh hearings in the show. Did you change the show at all once you realized they’d be happening at the same time?
No, all of those things were in the show before the Kavanaugh hearings. I never expected to be debuting this show that week. I couldn’t believe it. I felt heartbroken, but I also felt angry that my play was now being written about and talked about alongside the name Brett Kavanaugh. I felt like: No! I’ve been working on this for a decade — get out of my space!

I’ve changed very little about the show since 2015. But I performed a version of it when Obama was president, and the exploration of the legacy of sexual abuse and physical violence in my family was all at the heart of the show, and the way that legacy relates to our constitution and to our Supreme Court. It’s been there for almost a decade, but it’s depressing that the show has ended up being this relevant now.

Does performing the show feel different now than it did in 2015?
Everything feels heightened this time. The audience’s emotions feel much closer to the surface. On stage, people feel emotionally raw to me. And people cry through it — which I understand — and I feel like maybe it’s good to make a space where people can have all those feelings.

It must be intense to excavate your family’s trauma every night, especially in the last month. What’re you doing to take care of yourself in real life?
I want to pretend that I have a fantastic self-care routine, but I’m really bad at it. Honestly, the day of the Kavanaugh hearings, I watched her testimony in the morning, and then I knew I was going to have to do the show. I was terrified, and I was exhausted. And I thought nobody wants to hear more of this.

But, when I got to the theater, I think I was filled with rage, and that translated into this enormous storehouse of energy. And when I went out on stage, I felt this kind of electric energy coming back from the audience. I realized it was cathartic and helpful to be in a room full of people processing this and going through it emotionally together, instead of lying at home on my sofa despairing as I scrolled through social media. So I discovered that night that the show itself has become a kind of self-care for me. There’s just something helpful about being together with a community in this moment that I find empowering.

You’ve been working on this piece for 10 years, how did you first approach it?
I’d had the idea since I was very young to make a play about the contest that I did as a teenager. It was such a formative experience for me. I loved it. It made me believe I had a right to speak. So it’s been in my mind probably for 20 years. And then, 10 years ago I thought, ‘Well I’ll start by attempting to recreate the speech I wrote as a 15-year-old.’ I knew my mom had thrown it away and I decided, what would it mean if I tried to go back to this now and reinvent it. And that was the first thing I performed, and people really responded to it, so I decided to keep going. The next step was I decided what I wanted to do was a kind of deeply personal investigation of my own relationship to the Constitution, my family’s relationship to it, and that, of course, led me to narrow it down to the effect that this document has had on generations of women in my family and on their bodies.

At the top of the script that you release to the press, there’s a note that says that it’s “a blueprint for a live event.” How much does the show change from night to night?
I’ll tell you the truth — basically the structure is completely set. I have the freedom to do what I want, but the show is a carefully structured series of questions, and so those remain the same. But on any given night, I might tell a story a little bit differently. I will sometimes toss in references to things that are happening now. For example, when the violence against women act expired last week, I now bring that up when I’m talking about the Jessica Gonzales case.

Your teenage character is portrayed as a hormonal, boy-crazy kid — who might not be ready for some of the traumatic realities of this play. When you were 15, were you thinking about the document’s relationship to women’s bodies when you were doing those competitions?
No, absolutely not. At 15, all I was thinking about in terms of “being a woman” was how in love I was with Patrick Swayze. That’s how I began to understand womanhood.

I didn’t understand the real relationship I had to this document. I was just very young and idealistic and I gave lots of speeches about the freedom of the press and about the incredible reconstruction amendments. I saw it as a force for good, in relationship to all of humanity. I never thought about it in relationship to myself or, specifically, myself as a woman.

You said your mom threw away your original speech. Do you have any idea how close this play is to what you performed in the competitions?
[Laughs] OK, I know that my metaphor was a crucible. I do know it was called “The Crucible of the Constitution.” And I really think that’s just because I played Elizabeth Proctor.

I remember that I ended with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” poem, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” And I would gesture with my left hand and then gesture with my right hand, and then the shadow would be in between [laughs]. I didn’t choose to include it, but I do talk about the penumbra! What I ended up making was a play about the shadow between the idea and the reality.

The play is directed by Obie award-winner Oliver Butler. How did you choose to have a man direct this piece?
In full disclosure, I had been working with a woman on the piece before, and she was sadly not available. I’ve known Oliver Butler for many years. I knew he had a lot of experience working in non-traditional theater forms, and I knew he had experience making things from the ground up. So I decided I wanted to work with him because I felt like he would understand the nature of the piece. We also went to the women’s march together in 2016 with a bunch of folks. We all went on a bus, and I spent a lot of time talking to him on that bus, and I really felt like yes he’s the perfect person for this. It’s actually been helpful to have his voice in the room because his position as a white, heterosexual, cis man is the voice I’m speaking out against. I think we’ve both transformed each others thinking about a lot of things.

In what ways?
I’m inspired a lot by the queer women performance artists I grew up idolizing in the 1980s and ’90s: Holly Hughes, Lisa Kron, Marga Gomez. I looked to them in terms of finding the structure and in terms of dealing with autobiography and putting myself on stage as myself. I think I ended up teaching him a lot about those structures. And then he, in return, helped me shape those structures in a way that made them [more accessible] to people who aren’t familiar with that history.

A production of the play is planned for D.C. in April. Do you expect the play to change at all, as the political climate evolves?
I learn more and more each time I do it, so I’m constantly rewriting. I first performed the show in 2015, when Obama was still president, and people really responded to it. Then in 2016, Trump was elected, but the #MeToo movement hadn’t started, and I performed shows very similar to the one you saw, and people seemed to find it deeply relevant. My guess is that it’s because I’m talking about things that are hundreds of years old, and they’re problems that are not going away, so I won’t have to change it that much.

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