spring theater

What What the Constitution Means to Me Means to Them

Tony Kushner has a favorite new play. Heidi Schreck wrote it. They have a lot to talk about.

Heidi Schreck and Tony Kushner. Photo: Peter Hapak. Styling by Anatolli Smith; hair by Taichi Saito at MAM-NYC; makeup by Robert Reyes at MAM-NYC. On Schreck, dress by Derek Lam.
Heidi Schreck and Tony Kushner. Photo: Peter Hapak. Styling by Anatolli Smith; hair by Taichi Saito at MAM-NYC; makeup by Robert Reyes at MAM-NYC. On Schreck, dress by Derek Lam.

In late 2018, when Heidi Schreck’s play What the Constitution Means to Me was produced at New York Theatre Workshop, New York’s drama critic, Sara Holdren, called it the best thing she’d reviewed all year. It’s an unusual drama — mostly a monologue in which Schreck recounts her life as a teenage debater in American Legion competitions and intertwines those experiences with those of her adult self. Tony Kushner, the world-spinning playwright best known for Angels in America, appears to have agreed with our critic, because he’s seen it three times. In advance of Constitution’s transfer to Broadway, Kushner and Schreck spoke with Holdren about the play and its reverberations large and small.

Sara Holdren: We might as well start big. I’m going to borrow from Krista Tippett: What gives you hope right now, and what frightens you? It could be in a general sense, Lord knows, but let’s make it specifically about theater. What about the world of theater gives you hope right now, and what concerns you?

Tony Kushner: Well, I have it easy.

Heidi Schreck: You go first.

T.K.: Your show. You know, I went back to see it three times and sent everybody I know to see it. Honestly, it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever seen, which explains my going back a second time. But I think the third time I went back, I realized that I was getting something out of it beyond the absolutely magnificent writing and the extraordinary production.

It’s such a terrible time right now — it’s frightening in ways that are really without parallel for anyone who’s conscious and, well, not a Republican. And you know, I’ve always been a little skeptical of the notion that there’s something sort of shamanistic or medicinal or restorative about theater in a kind of mysterious way, but I really felt that What the Constitution Means to Me was that. And every time I went back, I left feeling more hope about the survival of our democracy. Great art always does that to a certain extent — in the same way that a really terrible play can make you want to jump off a bridge.

H.S.: Thank you for saying all that. We’ve talked about this before, but when
I actually saw you in the audience for the third time—

T.K.: We had this moment of, “Oh. Oh my God—

H.S.: I mean, I started doing special parts of the show just for you.

T.K.: I thought I saw just a tiny flicker of concern in your face. Like, This is getting a little creepy …

H.S.: Actually, what went through my head was I hope I don’t let him down! I mean, maybe I was having kind of a rocky show, but I do remember thinking, Oh, he’s probably going to see through it this time. He’s going to see that I’m an impostor! [Laughs.] But it was very moving to me — also because, as you know, for so many people you’ve been a huge influence. I saw Angels in America when I was 21, when I was in college. I stayed with my best friend at the time, Jeff Whitty, and we Rollerbladed up from Chelsea to see it. And we watched [both parts] in one day.

T.K.: Jeff was in the most bizarre play of mine, Hydriotaphia.

H.S.: I saw that play! I loved that play. I really like medieval things.

T.K.: It was nuts. Jeff played the soul of Sir Thomas Browne.

H.S.: Yeah, he was great at playing a soul. He’s a special soul. Anyway, we then stayed up basically all night talking about [Angels], and then Jeff took me the next day to see the real Bethesda Fountain because I’d never seen it. So we Rollerbladed up there, since it was the ’90s.

T.K.: The fountain is the most beautiful thing.

H.S.: I feel like we spent a lot of that day just talking about our country and the future and — though we were a bit later generationally — the people we had lost to AIDS. Like my ballet teacher. And I just remember feeling a great sense of hope, sitting at that fountain, talking about the future of our country.

So I guess when you talk about resisting thinking of theater as a place of healing or shamanistic in some way, it’s scary because, well, we’re treading into territory that maybe we shouldn’t, but I know that for me, [Angels] felt like a healing ritual.

T.K.: Well, there is something about just … you know, I won’t name names, but I saw a play this weekend that made me incredibly angry, and my husband and I had a big fight about it afterward because he loved it—

H.S.: Oh, I’m very curious!

T.K.: And, you know, being in a crowded theater with people who are loving something that you’re despising is not necessarily a good feeling. But to be with a group of people loving something and drawing great value and meaning from something collectively is an experience that — well, it’s a cliché now how hard it is to find those experiences. We’ve eliminated moviegoing as part of that thing. We don’t see movies in groups anymore, and that is one of the most important functions of theater.

Everything that’s coming at us from the White House is so pornographic and fascistic and horrible, so to go into a place where you realize that — I mean, what else holds a democracy together but a patient confidence in the justice of the people? And no matter how deeply inculcated you are in that idea, you need the experience of the people. You need to see that you’re in a world with a lot of people in it and you don’t have to agree on everything. Constitution ends with a debate and, you know, a vote—

Schreck, far right, onstage. Photo: Joan Marcus

We should talk about that vote. [Ed. note: At the end of the show, after she debates a teenage student, Schreck asks an audience member to vote on whether we as a country should keep or abolish the Constitution.] I first saw the show at Clubbed Thumb in the summer of 2017, and the vote was to keep it. And it’s not that everything was going great at that point, but by the time I saw it again at New York Theatre Workshop last fall, there had been a shift in the air — it was on the day of the Kavanaugh hearings. And I remember thinking, Oh, the vote is coming, and genuinely not knowing what would happen. I felt like I was no longer in a world where that would be the obvious choice or even necessarily the right one.

T.K.: All three times I saw it, that was the vote.

H.S.: They kept it?

T.K.: All three times.

H.S.: People only vote to abolish 20 percent of the time. We keep a little tally backstage. But around the Kavanaugh hearings — that was when we got the most abolishers, actually, and I think it was because … well, because it was being shoved right in our faces, the fact that things are not working structurally. The idea of this document being created by white men for white men was so vivid in those days, and I think there was a willingness in people to say, “Yeah, let’s chuck it and start over.” And that was exciting for me. I personally love it when people vote to abolish. It makes my play feel so much more radical! Somebody actually said to me, “Your play’s really radical when people abolish the Constitution, and it feels less radical when they don’t. So don’t you want to try to control that in some way?” And I was like, “The whole point of the play is that I don’t control it.” It’s a civic act. We decide as a community how to move forward. So I don’t get to decide whether it’s more or less radical at the end.

T.K.: It mattered so much to me what this person who was selected was going to decide. I really felt that I had a lot at stake. Personally, I would have been devastated had they voted to abolish. But I also wondered if the vote is a little bit tilted because Thursday and Rosdely [the students who debate with Schreck onstage on alternating nights] are so completely magnificent.

H.S.: We did switch sides at Berkeley [Repertory Theatre] a few times, and we’ve been talking about switching sides again when we move to Broadway. I think we’re going to try it in previews. We’re also just trying to find ways to make the debate even riskier. Now that we’re so comfortable with each other, we want to see if we can throw each other off our games a little more. But I will say a part of the decision to have Rosdely and Thursday argue to keep the Constitution is that they both fervently believe that we should keep it — and there’s a guiding principle to the play, which is that people get absolute consent over anything they say or share in the show or how they present themselves. How they do their hair, what they wear, everything. You try as much as possible to share your real feelings about things and to share your real self.

I don’t really think we should abolish, either, because I don’t think there’s any practical way to make it happen. But if I were a magician and I could say, “Let’s pause everything for a moment,” I would absolutely burn it and start over! I just don’t believe there’s a way to actually do it.

T.K.: That’s a problem with democracy.

H.S.: There are no magicians.

T.K.: And that’s a really profound question that the play delivers you to. I feel like it’s everything I’ve been struggling with for years, personally and politically and as a writer. It’s evolution versus revolution. You know, from all the work that I did on Lincoln, the central question of democracy is that there needs to be some kind of mystical bond, the mystic chords of memory: the Union.

And what Lincoln did was to create this substitute — a pretty conscious secular substitute for theological principle. So that people who grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and had never seen a black man or a slave, they went and died for “the Union.” And if you pick at that, you know, there’s nothing there but this stack of paper. And now every day we’re at this place where, well, not the population, but a substantial minority of the population and their representatives in Congress — which are, you know, half the legislature — are willing to just sort of throw that idea in the shitter.

Did you ever consider having some sort of gadget thing where, instead of one person being the final decider, everyone in the audience could vote?

H.S.: Oh, I love that. We’re not changing the set, but maybe that’s where we can spend all that Broadway money! [Laughs.] You know, it’s so funny about the set, because when Rachel Hauck first brought me the design … you know, I did what I say in the play, which is that I just described to her all the things I remembered [about the American Legion halls where she debated, which were full of pictures of the legionnaires]. And she came back and was like, “Here’s your dream-slash-nightmare.” And I was like, “I … I don’t know, Rachel.” And she was like, “This is what you described.” And I said, “But don’t you think it’s … kind of heavy-handed?” And she said, “I think it’s reality.” And I said, “Okay.” I was just overwhelmed when I saw all the faces of the men. I don’t think I realized that that was the fantasy version I had described to her, you know? So when I saw this … wall of men’s faces … it does feel very claustrophobic to stand up there surrounded by men—

With no door.

T.K.: But we’re also looking at these guys, and at times we feel very … you know, they’re people who served the country, and that’s a civic thing. And as you talk, we’re sort of wondering how many of them did terrible things in addition to being, you know, “good patriots” — and it becomes such a complicated and rich thing.

H.S.: Yes, I have a complicated relationship with them too. I’m a huge fan of this book Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman, and one of the pieces in that book is about how the culture is steeped in violence for men. And how women, as survivors of sexual violence in this culture, and survivors of military trauma have a great deal in common. I’ve gone back to that book many times while doing the play, because it’s just such a beautiful handbook about how to face and move through trauma and inherited trauma. And now I sometimes think of [the men] up there as allies. Fellow victims of a violent culture.

I will say, too, that doing the contest at 15, I felt that those men deeply believed in freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Like, I remember talking about the Second Amendment one year and arguing in favor of gun control in front of these men, many of whom belonged to the NRA, and winning. There was a sense that even if we disagreed, we all believed in this larger thing, which is that I get to have my point of view, even as a 15-year-old girl. And I get to stand in front of you and you’re going to give me the prize, even though you don’t completely agree with me — which right now feels like something that’s in short supply.

T.K.: It feels like an ethos of a not very distant and yet somehow very distant past.

H.S.: Yes, it does.

T.K.: Where people believed in fairness, that the superstructure that we’ve all sworn allegiance to is going to create opportunities and possibilities — so that you find, you know, a plausible occasion for hope even in an American Legion hall.

I really love that phrase, “a plausible occasion for hope.” Whether we’re talking about Angels in America or Constitution, we keep coming back to this idea—

H.S.: A plausible occasion for hope! I love it. It’s sort of wonderfully not overstated. It’s my new subtitle. What the Constitution Means to Me: A Plausible Occasion for Hope.

Whereas now we’re surrounded by a sort of apocalyptic discourse. So much “canceling,” so much malice and bitterness and despair—

T.K.: I don’t think despair really comes about through a tough, clear-eyed encounter with reality. I think despair is Trump’s inaugural address, the “American carnage” speech. That feels like this Nazi-era, Götterdämmerung, “If we can’t have everything, no one will have anything” sort of mentality. There’s an active desire for annihilation. Whereas, you know, there’s so much that’s really tragic in the stories that you’re telling, Heidi. And then these men on the Supreme Court who are entrusted with finding a way toward justice botch it with such malevolence and almost conscious intent — and it’s heartbreaking. But I don’t think the play would have the ability to generate the hope that it gives us if it didn’t go down to the depths and then come up again.

H.S.: Yes. That’s different than despair, right? That’s looking as clearly as possible at the wound. You know, right before the election in 2016, I was working on I Love Dick, and we were just working really hard, not sleeping — we were behind. I had bought these new shoes that kind of cut into my leg a little bit, and one day we were in the writers’ room and my friend Dara was like, “You know you have, like, an open, seeping wound on your leg, right?” And I was like, “What?” And I looked down. And I was like, “Yeah, I do, actually.”

T.K.: If you had been Tennessee Williams, you would’ve had the foot amputated. The way he dealt with having this monster hit with Streetcar was to go and have major eye surgery.

H.S.: [Laughs.] Right, yes! But I think maybe because it happened so close to the election, I kept thinking about our ability to just … live with a seeping wound and not notice it. And one of the things for me that kills hope is denial, right? So there’s something about the act of doing my show that feels like, if I can confront all the wounds I’ve been ignoring — in my own life and my own family history and in our country — then I have a reason to hope.

This is maybe too cheesy, but I was telling Tony I was in his play The Illusion in college. I played the magician. I had to wear a giant birdcage on my head.

T.K.: What a concept.

H.S.: But there’s this line at the end, when the magician’s talking to the actor’s father. And he’s upset that his son is an actor, and the magician says, “The art of illusion is the art of love, and the art of love is the bloodred heart of the world. At times I think there’s nothing else.” Sometimes before I go onstage, I actually have that line in my head. Because sometimes I’m just like, What am I doing? Why am I going out there? But I am still capable of feeling great love. I’m lucky enough to have great love in my life. And if there’s some way I can come out and approach all of these questions and all of this grief and all of this difficulty with that spirit, then that’s something.

What the Constitution Means to Me begins previews at the Helen Hayes Theater on March 14 and will open on March 31. Buy tickets here.

*This article appears in the March 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

What the Constitution Means to Tony Kushner & Heidi Schreck