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Heidi Schreck On Her Evolving Play, 'What The Constitution Means To Me'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You may have to wait until next year to catch a live show on Broadway, but guess what? Right now, you can stream a Broadway show online. And one of the latest releases is Heidi Schreck's "What The Constitution Means To Me," which is now on Amazon Prime. And if you're not familiar with it, it is Schreck's award-winning one-woman play about her relationship with the document that created the framework for American democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME")

HEIDI SCHRECK: When I was 15 years old, I would travel the country giving speeches about the United States Constitution for prize money. This was a scheme invented by my mom, a debate coach, to help me pay for college. I would travel to big cities like Denver, Fresno.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHRECK: I would win a whole bunch of money, bring it back to put in my little safety deposit box for later. I was actually able to pay for my entire college education this way.

(APPLAUSE)

SCHRECK: Thank you. Thank you so much. It was 30 years ago, and it was a state school, but thank you.

MARTIN: And Heidi Schreck is with us now to tell us more.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SCHRECK: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: It's so - well, first of all, congratulations on everything - I mean, on the play. The story is true, by the way, right? Just so that people know that this is not a fictionalized account, the fact is, you did travel around the country. This is what you did. This is how you paid for college.

SCHRECK: I did. I absolutely - I had a very ferocious mother who said, you will do this contest, and you will pay for college this way (laughter). And that's what I did. I'm very grateful to her.

MARTIN: Well, one of the reasons we called you - besides the fact that we want to let people know that, you know, even though you can't go to Broadway in person, you can see plays online, which is something that might have been, you know, hard to do before the pandemic - this is a moment when a lot of Americans are maybe especially aware of the Constitution, given the Supreme Court's key role right now, given how much focus there is on the court with the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the battle over her replacement.

I mean, actually, the focus on the court has really been going on sort of for the last couple of years now. And I just wondered, how does it feel to have your work suddenly out there in this new format?

SCHRECK: I'm happy that it's out there right now. You know, I spent over a decade working on the show. I started it at a very different time. And I've been listening to Supreme Court cases over and over again for years now while creating the show. And I ask a lot of kind of complicated questions and deep questions about this document and whether it's still serving us and what our relationship is to it. I look at it through a very personal lens. I look at four generations of women in my family through the lens of the Constitution.

And I think the play asks a lot of questions that people are discussing right now. So I guess I would hope that - given that we're all talking about the Constitution right now, I think the play might offer some ideas and some things to think about in lieu of these hearings right now.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of the things that's so fascinating about it, because on its face, it's kind of a tough sell. Like, I'm just trying to think, like, how can I write the ad for this?

SCHRECK: (Laughter) Totally.

MARTIN: But - you know, but people are - well, obviously, before Broadway shut down, and the fact that people - that there was a willingness to put it on Amazon Prime shows you that people are really hungry for this, and they are interested in figuring out, what is their connection to this document?

And let's just be honest. I mean, one of the pain points of the play is you point out how the Constitution for a long time did not protect the rights of all Americans equally. And you point out, you know, some very specific ways how women were specifically excluded and the point at which they were - how men were specifically included in certain ways and how women were specifically not, and how people of color, as you explained several times in many different ways, have had to fight for their inclusion in this document.

And so I was just kind of - I'm just interested because it just seems to me that other people are kind of catching up to the prompt, if it does - if it feels that way to you.

SCHRECK: Yeah, it does feel that way to me. I mean, I think we're having a very loud national conversation about it right now, which I actually think is hopeful, and sort of reckoning with our past - the sins of slavery, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the institution of racism and the way it still oppresses people today. That's a conversation and a reckoning that I think we're having in a more open way than I can certainly remember as a, you know, 49-year-old woman (laughter).

MARTIN: Well, spoiler alert - toward the end of the play, you welcome to the stage a young woman, 14...

SCHRECK: Yes.

MARTIN: ...To debate the Constitution with you. And I just want to play a clip from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME")

ROSDELY CIPRIAN: Good evening, judges. My name is Rosdely Ciprian, and I'm here to represent the proposition, this house ought to abolish the United States Constitution.

(APPLAUSE)

CIPRIAN: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK, well, so...

SCHRECK: (Laughter).

MARTIN: I know. She's so amazing. How brave of you to let her share the stage with you, by the way.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHRECK: I know. I know.

MARTIN: And - but in this version of - in the version of the play that we see, you become the one who defends keeping the Constitution. But I understand that it was different for each performance.

SCHRECK: Yes, we really flipped a coin. It's a real debate. I mean, we're prepared. We know our points very well. But we actually flipped a coin every night, argued different sides. We also have another debater, brilliant Thursday Williams, who's 17. And they would debate on alternate nights. You can see her debate on Amazon as well if you click on it. You can see her - you can see me debate to abolish the Constitution and her argue to keep.

MARTIN: So - but why did you want to finish each show with a debate?

SCHRECK: You know, I spend the first part of the show really digging into this document and asking whether it's continuing to serve us and what we might - like, how we might want to change it (laughter) to serve us better. And I thought it would be really exciting, first of all, to have someone come out on stage who was my age when I did the contest. And I met with so many brilliant young debaters while I was creating the show, I just thought it would be amazing to feature one of them.

And then I thought, the logical step would be to sort of allow my adult self to argue with my younger self (laughter) in the person of an actual teenage girl. So I felt like I wanted to end the play with a question and not an answer. And I wanted to end it with an adult and a teenager in real dialogue, in rigorous dialogue about what we want the future of the country to look like.

MARTIN: That was Heidi Schreck. Her one-woman play, "What The Constitution Means To Me," is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Heidi Schreck, thank you so much for talking to us.

SCHRECK: Thank you. It was wonderful to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.