Some Nights, Men Explain the Constitution to Heidi Schreck

The playwright behind What the Constitution Means to Me ignores them, politely.

Heidi Schreck. Photo: Ike Edeani for Vulture
Heidi Schreck. Photo: Ike Edeani for Vulture
Heidi Schreck. Photo: Ike Edeani for Vulture

‘Oh, my God,” says actor and playwright Heidi Schreck, stopping dead in her tracks one recent Thursday afternoon. We’d just reached the apex of the Brooklyn Bridge, and three men had materialized, their upper torsos draped with undulating snakes and their sights suddenly set on the open-faced woman with the slightly mussed hair.

“I love you,” croons one. “Touch my snake.”

Schreck smiles.

“Give him a hug,” implores another.

Schreck demurs.

“I’m going to put my snake on you,” says the third. Then, lest the innuendo be lost on us, he drops his voice an octave. “I’m going to put it around you. A looooooong snake.”

“Okay, nice to see you!” Schreck says cheerfully, dodging the reptiled men just in time to avoid contact. Some paces later, she slows. “We were both so polite,” she sighs. “Did you notice that?”

It’s something she’s been noticing more and more since What the Constitution Means to Me, a show she wrote and stars in, opened at New York Theatre Workshop last month. The play itself starts off politely, with Schreck channeling her (very polite) 15-year-old self circa the days when she would compete for scholarships by giving prepared speeches about the Constitution (is it a crucible? A patchwork quilt?) to members of the local American Legion in her hometown of Wenatchee, Washington, wholesome enough to be the apple capital of the world. “I was big into contests when I was a kid,” Schreck shrugs. “Always looking for money.” In fact, Schreck was deft enough at charmingly pontificating on intricacies of the Constitution to rooms of old white men that she earned enough prize money to pay her way through college (“state school,” she quips in the show).

This is the conceit that kicks off What the Constitution Means to Me, and it functions nicely, as Schreck realized it would sometime between teaching English in Siberia, working as a journalist in St. Petersburg, returning to grungy mid-’90s Seattle to join a DIY experimental-theater group, and somehow spinning all that into winning two Obie Awards and writing for Nurse Jackie and Billions. But the conceit is only there as a framework, a nicety to be thrillingly exploded, as a grown-up Schreck finds she that can’t possibly be reined in by the strictures of the competition, that the powerful stories of the women in her family — a mail-order great-great-grandmother bought for $75, among them — demand to insert themselves. These stories of women and their bodies and the way in which their bodies have been legislated about are the fabric of America, too. “I was like, ‘I can’t actually talk about the due-process laws with the Ninth Amendment without talking about my own abortion,” Schreck tells me now, as we make our way across the bridge and toward the theater. (“I guess we have a therapy session’s worth of time,” she’d laughed when we met on the Brooklyn side.) “This is how the law plays out in real life on real bodies, so I have to talk about it, and we don’t talk about it enough.” Instead, Schreck laments, women choose to be polite. Or, rather, we don’t choose: That stance is chosen for us, embedded in us — as fundamental to our conception of self, and as humanly flawed, as the Constitution is to the conception of America.

Photo: Ike Edeani for Vulture

“Now that I’m performing the show, I notice all the situations in which I’m psychotically polite, and I’m like, ‘Wow — that actually kind of filled me with rage,’” she says. “That I felt like I should be nice to them.” This rage, “running like a river underneath the ebullient smile,” as Schreck puts it, creates the tension that fuels the show — and that makes it so relatable right now, as, in the face of so many events that call for fisticuffs, Democrats and women alike try to deal with our politeness problem. Then there’s the gallows humor. “It’s really fucking funny,” Schreck says as we pass a stall of street art featuring a painting of Trump wearing a Burger King hat. “Abortion? Abuse? Funny, funny, funny! It has to be funny. People who endure these things all, I think, develop a pretty ferocious sense of humor.”

When Schreck first started performing snippets of her show nearly ten years ago at open mics, feeling out what it would be, Obama was president and, she says, “There was a kind of personal urgency to the things I was trying to untangle.” The first time she performed the play the whole way through, her emotions were so intense that she had to leave the stage. “I did come back out,” she assures me. Now that urgency is pervasive, filling the theater with manic energy, as it did last week, when she performed on the heels of the Kavanaugh hearings. “People feel raw in the audience. I mean, the material hits a lot of people hard and so there’s always a kind of emotional rawness in the audience, but this past week it’s felt like the entire audience is that way. It feels very jagged, a lot of crying, a lot of enthusiasm. I would say that both extremes of reactions are heightened.”

There’s also a lot of truth-telling. Two constitutional scholars were consultants on the play, and the theater brought in the head of the ACLU to analyze it. Schreck’s interpretations passed muster, though that hasn’t kept the mansplaining at bay: “The audience can write out questions at the end to leave us, and several men have written long treatises about things I misunderstand about the Constitution.” Which helps with the shucking of politeness, the nurturing of the rage. “I kind of like it,” she says, of letting the feeling creep more into the show, and into her life outside of it. “I think I’m going to keep doing it because it seems the feeling of this moment. It feels like a righteous rage. It feels like a powerful, healing kind of rage. That’s the kind I want to tap into.”

What else does she want? “Okay, I have to admit to you that I did kind of want to touch a snake,” Schreck says sheepishly before we part ways. “I think we can agree that it was a complicated encounter. We can’t reduce it.”

Men Try to Explain the Constitution to Heidi Schreck