Heidi Schreck's play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is based on a prize-winning speech she gave as a 15-year-old at American Legion halls across America. Since its 2019 Broadway debut, it's been attended by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A taping of the performance is now available on Amazon, directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood).
Schreck grew up in Wenatchee, Wisconsin, "The Apple Capital of the World." She tells NPR's Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg that her early interest in theater was fueled by VHS tapes and records of shows like Sweeney Todd and The Glass Menagerie.
In 1986, Schreck's mother encouraged her to enter the American Legion Oratorical Contest, where contestants give an 8-10 minute speech on how the Constitution connects to their own life.
Schreck later attended the University of Oregon, where she was on a pre-law track briefly before she got wrapped up in theatre. She moved to Siberia to teach English, then worked as a journalist in St. Petersburg, before she returned to America to join a small theatre company called Printer's Devil where she met her now-husband Kip Fagan. She acted in some Off-Broadway plays, and wrote for shows like Billions, Nurse Jackie, and Amazon's I Love Dick.
Her idea for What the Constitution Means to Me came about two decades ago. It grew from a 10-minute act into an Obie-winning Off-Broadway performance, then debuted on Broadway in early 2019.
Since the play is based on her connection with the Constitution when she was a kid, for her Ask Me Another challenge, Schreck was played quotes from the Constitution read by children, and Schreck has to guess where in the Constitution each quote is from. It sounds easy for someone who considers the Constitution "her first crush," but there are some curveballs thrown in there.
Why she considers the Constitution her first (unrequited) crush:
It's definitely a hindsight thing. My mom encouraged me to do the contest so I could earn scholarship money. And I, there were two things. One, I got to spend a lot of time with my dad while I was doing the contest. And my dad is a history teacher and he would explain the Amendments to me and then tell me all of the wild stories behind them. I think I found that part really exciting. And I think I liked spending time with my dad. It's funny, because I was just a teenager, but I remember at the time being really captivated by it.
How her mom saved the show, by losing the original copy of her speech:
So, it doesn't exist. It didn't exist. I wrote this whole play because I'd asked her for the copy and she said she'd thrown it away. And then, when the play was moving to Broadway, I was doing some press, and someone was interviewing me, and they were like, "Are you sure? Have you looked yourself?" And I was like, "I haven't." I called my mom and I was like, "Would you look again, just to see?" And then she ended up finding it. It's really boring. [...] I thought it would be really fun. It's very serious, and I think it's, you know, it hits all the important points, but I think it's not a very interesting speech.
What notes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on her play:
We were so honoured to have her there. It was really the greatest night of our lives. She came backstage, she was incredibly generous to all of us. And then, she sent a letter, a follow-up letter thanking all of us for the performance and requesting a copy of the script. So, I sent her the script and a thank you card and then a few days later I got this FedEx package in the mail from her office, and there was a copy of a case that I talk about, Gonzalez v. Castle Rock, and there were a few pages flagged for me to review, and there was a letter that said, "I have two things I'd like you think about, in your play." [laughs] And one of them was simply, she wanted me to change the phrasing, she wanted me to change, at one point I said, "The outcome of a case would have been, blah blah blah," and she wanted me to change it to, "might have been, blah blah blah," Wanted me to be more precise. And the second one had to do with the Equal Rights Amendment, which she so passionately supported, and just wanting me to talk with precision about that, to make sure that I acknowledged there was a time limit on the Equal Rights Amendment. So we ended up incorporating that note into our debate at the end.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thanks, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. Heidi Schreck is an actor and writer for shows like "Nurse Jackie." Her Broadway play, "What The Constitution Means To Me," was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In this play, she recreates the prize-winning speech she gave as a kid about the Constitution, and the show ends with a live debate against a high school student. The film version is now streaming on Amazon. Heidi Schreck, welcome, and hello.
HEIDI SCHRECK: Hi. Thank you so much for having me on.
EISENBERG: Congratulations on your show now - first, it was successful, as it was a Broadway show. But now that it's streaming on Amazon, I mean, it is infinite the amount of people that are going to be able to enjoy it.
SCHRECK: Yeah. Infinite is the precise number, I think.
EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: Were you - did you have any hesitation about turning a live event like this into something that was going to live in basically a non-immersive environment?
SCHRECK: Yes, I did. There's something sort of heartbreaking about freezing the show, particularly this show, because it has, you know, a live element at the end. It has a sort of living, breathing ending. And so it felt a little sad to freeze it in time. But, you know, I grew up really far from New York City. I grew up in a tiny town in Washington state. And so my exposure to theater really came through, like, VHS tapes and actually records. My mom had a record of "The Glass Menagerie" that I played over and over on her record player and...
SCHRECK: And then the - "Sweeney Todd." I had an old, beat-up VHS of "Sweeney Todd" that I watched over and over again. So I don't think this version can replace what it's like to watch the show in the live theater. But having grown up far from Broadway, I also know the power of having a recording of something like this.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And, oh, by the way, you grew up in what I found out is the apple capital of the world, right?
SCHRECK: Yes, it is.
SCHRECK: It absolutely is the apple capital, yeah. And the buckle of the power belt of the Great Northwest.
SCHRECK: There's two titles (laughter).
COULTON: I'm sorry, the buckle of the power belt of the Great Northwest.
SCHRECK: Of the - yes.
SCHRECK: That's a lesser-known title, but I think because there's a great dam there, the Rocky Reach Dam, it's also known as the buckle.
EISENBERG: I think that one's just harder to fit on a T-shirt, so maybe it just didn't catch on.
SCHRECK: I think so, too (laughter).
COULTON: Now I know what a power belt is. I was imagining something that Batman would wear, but that's not correct.
SCHRECK: No, no. It's a - yes.
EISENBERG: There you go.
EISENBERG: Flip to Broadway last year, you star in your show, "What The Constitution Means To Me." I was one of the lucky people that saw it. And in this play, you recreate the prize-winning speech at the beginning that you gave as a 15-year-old debater at the American Legion halls all over the country. And you said that as a kid, that the Constitution, in a way, was your very first crush.
EISENBERG: But what did you mean, like, as your first crush? Is this a hindsight thing, or was this...
SCHRECK: It's definitely a hindsight thing. But I - you know, my mom made me do the contest so that I could earn scholarship money. And I - I'm not - well, there are two things. One, I got to spend a lot of time with my dad while I was doing the contest. And my dad is a history teacher, and he would kind of explain the amendments to me and then tell me all of the kind of wild stories behind them, I think. I found that part really exciting. And I think I liked spending time with my dad. Yeah, I don't know. It's funny because I was just a teenager, but I remember at the time being really captivated by it.
EISENBERG: So that prize-winning speech, because you were saying you originally...
EISENBERG: ...Were introduced to it to win scholarship money, which you did.
SCHRECK: Yes, I did - so much.
EISENBERG: And the original copy of that prize-winning speech...
EISENBERG: ...Does not exist.
SCHRECK: So it doesn't exist. Well, it didn't exist. I wrote this whole play because I had asked her for the copy, and she said she'd thrown it away. And then when the play was moving to Broadway, I was doing some press. And somebody's interviewing me, and they were like, are you sure? Like, have you looked yourself? And I was like, I haven't. And I called my mom, and I was like, would you look again just to see? And then she ended up finding it.
COULTON: Oh no.
SCHRECK: Yeah. It's really boring.
EISENBERG: Like, your rewrite and how you reimagined it is like...
EISENBERG: ...Infinitely better? Aww.
COULTON: So in a way, your mom saved your show.
SCHRECK: (Laughter) She did. She really did.
EISENBERG: That's amazing. Now, I mean, the - your show did - you offered lots of people opportunities to give you feedback. And the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended a performance of "What The Constitution Means To Me." And she gave you a note about your show.
SCHRECK: She did. We were - (laughter) she gave me two notes. We were so honored to have her there. It was really the greatest night of our lives. She came backstage. She was incredibly generous to all of us. And then she sent a letter, a follow-up letter thanking all of us for the performance and requesting a copy of the script. So I sent her the script in a thank you card. And then a few days later, I got this FedEx package in the mail from her office. And there was a copy of a case that I talk about, that I discuss, Gonzales v. Castle Rock, and there were a few pages flagged for me to review. And then...
SCHRECK: ...There was a letter that said, I have two things I'd like you to think about in your play.
SCHRECK: And one of them was simply she wanted me to change the phrasing. She wanted me to change - at one point, I said the outcome of a case would have been blah, blah, blah. And she wanted me to change it to might have been blah blah.
SCHRECK: Wanted me to be - yeah, more precise.
EISENBERG: So good.
SCHRECK: And the second one had to do with the Equal Rights Amendment, which she so passionately supported - and just wanting me to talk with precision about that to make sure that I acknowledge there was a time limit on the Equal Rights Amendment. So we ended up incorporating that note into our debate at the end.
EISENBERG: So are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
SCHRECK: I don't know if I'm ready.
SCHRECK: But I will do it anyway.
EISENBERG: Sure you are.
COULTON: That's the spirit.
EISENBERG: That's all we ask. So, obviously, your show was inspired by a speech about the Constitution that you gave when you were a kid. So we have had some kids read parts of the Constitution.
SCHRECK: (Laughter) Oh, my God.
EISENBERG: And then we're just going to ask you questions about what they read.
SCHRECK: All right.
SCHRECK: All right.
EISENBERG: Let's kick things off with Michael.
MICHAEL: Hi, my name is Michael (ph), and I'm 8 years old. (Reading) We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity to ordain the establishment this constitution for the United States of America.
SCHRECK: Oh, my God.
COULTON: That kind of made me cry a little bit.
SCHRECK: I got teary. I got teary.
EISENBERG: Geez, I'm going to cry through a trivia game. Where would you find that in the Constitution - is your question.
SCHRECK: You would find those words in the preamble of the Constitution.
EISENBERG: That's right. That's right. The preamble, the beginning. So much better read this way. Usually...
SCHRECK: It's really beautiful read by a young person.
EISENBERG: Yeah, it's so much more adorable.
SCHRECK: I have a lot more faith in it when I hear it read that way.
COULTON: All right. Here's another one.
COULTON: What amendment is this?
JANE: My name is Jane (ph). And I am 9. (Reading) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
SCHRECK: That is located in the First Amendment, in the protections of the First Amendment.
COULTON: That is correct.
SCHRECK: Religion, press, speech, petition, assembly.
EISENBERG: Although a 9-year-old might make the First Amendment, like, stay up past 8.
EISENBERG: Just go ahead and move that one further down. Ice cream for breakfast. Wait a second.
EISENBERG: All right. Here's the 14th Amendment.
MOLLY: My name is Molly (ph), and I'm 10 years old. (Reading) All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States.
EISENBERG: Molly has a lot of confidence. I love it.
COULTON: That she does.
EISENBERG: Well done. So the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were adopted after what war?
SCHRECK: They were adopted after the Civil War. They are the Reconstruction amendments.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
SCHRECK: They were meant to do a tremendous amount of good, and they did but not enough.
COULTON: All right. Here is the 18th Amendment.
EMERSON: Hi. My name is Emerson (ph), And I'm 11. (Reading) The manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territories subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
COULTON: This ban on alcohol from 1920 to 1933 is commonly known as what?
COULTON: That is correct. Emerson sounds like a young Eliot Ness.
COULTON: It's very funny. Every time I hear this language come out of a kid's mouth, I feel like I'm listening to a kid lawyer.
SCHRECK: It kind of makes me want a show, like a kid lawyer show...
COULTON: A kid lawyer show is not a bad idea.
SCHRECK: ...Where everyone - like little lawyers. Everyone's, like, under 12. I would watch that.
EISENBERG: I would totally watch that.
COULTON: (Laughter) Under 12 law firm. Yeah. That's a great idea.
EISENBERG: OK, here's the 27th Amendment, the most recent amendment, added to the Constitution in 1992.
LILY: My name is Lily (ph). And I'm 8 years old. (Reading) No law varying the compensation for the services of senators and representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.
EISENBERG: True or false - this amendment wouldn't have been adopted if it weren't for a college student who got a C grade on a paper.
SCHRECK: This is true. And this story infuriates me.
COULTON: Oh, boy.
EISENBERG: (Laughter) OK, please tell me.
SCHRECK: It makes me so angry because this kid was, like, just - he wrote a paper about that. So that amendment took 202 years to to pass, right?
SCHRECK: And so he wrote this paper saying it wasn't too late to pass this amendment. And this teacher was like, you're wrong. I'm giving you a C. And he was like, I can't stand getting a C, so I'm going to go out and prove my teacher wrong. And he got this amendment ratified. He started a movement to get this amendment ratified. The fact that this guy could do this, and we can't get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified is just outrageous.
SCHRECK: It's so outrageous.
EISENBERG: Right. Well, you know, they were like, oh, I get it. Gregory does need a better grade.
SCHRECK: Exactly. He needs an A.
SCHRECK: His mom came in and was like, Gregory's never gotten a C before.
SCHRECK: You have to fix this. Let's change the constitution.
EISENBERG: So we have as a nation (laughter)...
COULTON: Poor Gregory. We're going to get angry letters from Gregory's family.
EISENBERG: Sorry, Gregory.
COULTON: I'm sure Gregory is...
SCHRECK: No, I mean, good job, Gregory.
COULTON: No, I'm sure Gregory's great.
EISENBERG: Persuasive. Very persuasive.
COULTON: Yeah. All right. This amendment jumped out at us for some reason.
WES: My name is Wes (ph). I'm 3. The term of the president and the vice president should end at noon on the 20 day of January.
COULTON: Oh, my goodness. That's adorable and amazing.
EISENBERG: Talk about a ring tone.
COULTON: So what amendment is that?
SCHRECK: OK, so this is - I'm trying to remember when they did this. I know they did it because there was too long of a period where we had a lame duck president. Like, it used to be in March or something, and then the president was just sitting in there and couldn't get anything done. I want - I'm just going to take a guess.
COULTON: I can give you a hint if you want.
SCHRECK: Oh, you can? OK. All right.
COULTON: Yeah, I can.
COULTON: The answer is in the amendment itself.
SCHRECK: Oh, in the amendment itself.
COULTON: OK, let's hear that amendment again. This time 8-year-old Rozzi (ph) is going to read it.
SCHRECK: Yes, OK.
ROZZI: The terms of the president and vice president shall end at noon on the 20 day of January.
SCHRECK: Amendment 20.
COULTON: Yeah, that is correct.
COULTON: It is the 20th Amendment. That's right.
SCHRECK: I felt that time, like, I was getting the clue.
SCHRECK: Like, it was - I was - thank you.
COULTON: (Laughter) You're welcome.
SCHRECK: That was very exciting.
EISENBERG: OK, here's your next one.
DEA: My name is Dea (ph), and I am 4. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
EISENBERG: All right. I know - right?
EISENBERG: Dea at 4 gets...
COULTON: Why is it so moving? It's killing me. It's killing me.
SCHRECK: It really is. That would be the 19th Amendment.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
COULTON: This is the last one, and it is completely unfair.
MAGGIE: Hi. My name is Maggie (ph), and I just turned 10. (Reading) The word the being interlined between the seventh and eighth lines of the first page, the word 30 being partly written on an erazure (ph) in the 15th line of the first page, the words is tried being interlined between the 32nd and the 33rd lines of the first page, and the word the being interlined between the 43rd and the 44th lines of the second page.
COULTON: So the question is where...
COULTON: Where on the original copy of the Constitution does this appear?
SCHRECK: Oh, my God.
COULTON: I will be amazed if you know the answer to this question because I have never even heard of it.
SCHRECK: This is a terrible question.
SCHRECK: I have no idea.
COULTON: So it's basically the bottom...
COULTON: ...Of the Constitution because, of course, they didn't have Wite-Out. And this is an important document, so they needed to fix all the mistakes that they had made.
COULTON: Isn't that amazing?
SCHRECK: That's - I had no idea. I'm embarrassed that I didn't know that. But...
EISENBERG: They probably, like, misspelled constitution once, right?
COULTON: At least - I'm sure.
SCHRECK: I'm sure. I'm sure.
EISENBERG: All right. You did amazing. Who knew this would be so emotional?
COULTON: You know, it is remarkable. I mean, your show - and I would also venture to say "Hamilton" - I think for a lot of Americans, we have really - a really deep connection to these documents and this history. And it is a much more emotional connection than...
SCHRECK: Yes. It's...
COULTON: ...You might think.
SCHRECK: It's - you know, the values and beliefs and history we grow up with. We believe that all of that is somehow in the document. And it's not really. So I think our emotional relationship to the Constitution is much more vivid than the sort of real relationship to it.
COULTON: Because it extends to all the things outside the Constitution - the amendments, the stuff that we're fighting for, the meaning that we put into it all.
SCHRECK: Yes, exactly.
EISENBERG: Right. A lot of people should just start with all the corrections page.
SCHRECK: Yeah, exactly.
EISENBERG: I think that would be a good place to start.
SCHRECK: Spending a decade on that, and then tell me.
EISENBERG: Realize, like, even the people writing it made mistakes. Do you understand?
EISENBERG: Just get that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: What an absolute joy. Thank you so much, Heidi, for, yeah, just joining us, especially at this particular moment to talk about this and doing amazing in that game.
SCHRECK: Thank you for having me.
EISENBERG: Heidi Schreck wrote and stars in "What The Constitution Means To Me," streaming now on Amazon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EISENBERG: ASK ME ANOTHER's house musician is Jonathan Coulton.
COULTON: Hey, my name anagrams to thou jolt a cannon.
EISENBERG: Our puzzles were written by our staff, along with Camilla Franklin, Jack Lechner (ph), Cara Weinberger and senior writer Karen Lurie, with additional material by Emily Winter. ASK ME ANOTHER is produced by Travis Larchuk, Nancy Saechao, James Farber, Rommel Wood and our intern, Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our senior supervising producer is Rachel Neel. And our boss's bosses are Steve Nelson and Anya Grundmann. Thanks to our production partner, WNYC. And thanks again to Dea, Emerson, Jane, Lily, Maggie (ph), Michael, Molly, Rozzi and Wes and their parents for helping us with our Constitution game.
I'm her ripe begonias.
COULTON: Ophira Eisenberg.
EISENBERG: And this was ASK ME ANOTHER from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.