How Heidi Schreck Became Broadway’s Biggest Success Story

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Photo Source: Matt Doyle

In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck plays Heidi Schreck telling the story of Heidi Schreck. Yet despite its apparent lack of traditional theatricality, the 100-minute play, which arrived at the Helen Hayes Theater in March after sold-out runs Off-Broadway last fall, features one of this (or any other) Broadway season’s most powerful performances. Having sold more than 97 percent of its seats since it began—unprecedented for a straight play with no big name—the show now qualifies as more than an unmitigated success; it’s a sensation.

That’s in part because, not in spite, of its autobiographical nature. A native of small-town Washington, Schreck paid her way through college with funds won from Constitutional debate competitions. Her play resurrects that seminal experience while exploring the many macro and micro, personal and profound ways in which the nation’s founding document has failed to protect anyone other than white men.

It’s also a success because Schreck has been honing her craft as an actor for 30 years, work that has been informed by her playwriting (“Grand Concourse”) and, later, television writing (“Billions,” “I Love Dick”). 

That “Constitution” has made its way to the Main Stem at all—one of three plays by women this season and the only by a woman on Broadway at this moment—is awe-inspiring. Confronting, evocative, and very funny, it’s deliberate in the punch it packs. With “Constitution,” Schreck has become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the winner of the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and, now, a two-time Tony Award nominee for both leading actress in a play and best play. Were she to win the latter, she’d be the first American woman to do so since 1989.

Having worked both as writer and actor Off-Broadway for the better part of two decades, it’s with “Constitution” that Schreck has made both those who make theater and those who see it sit upright and ask: What does a “Broadway show” look like?

In her dressing room between matinee and evening performances on a recent Wednesday, with a Patrick Swayze poster peering over her shoulder, she displays an apparent resolve: What “What the Constitution Means to Me” means to her, ideally, is reckoning with that staid concept; more room for more voices; and, sooner rather than later, a Broadway that looks less like the men who wrote that eponymous document and more like the country whose lives it has shaped.

Take me back to the University of Oregon—looking ahead, were you wanting to act, write, or do something else entirely?

I grew up doing theater because my mom had this theater company for kids, the Short Shakespeareans; I’ve been acting since I was 6 years old. She took me to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every summer and I loved theater, but maybe because I’d done it my whole life, I didn’t want to do it with my [career]. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, so I registered pre-law [at university] when I was 17. I remember you had to go to the gym and pick your electives, and I was like, “Well, I’ll just take acting as my elective”—and then I immediately got cast in the fall play. Then I just acted. I dropped pre-law; I moved to English, Russian, and theater. It was just in my blood and, obviously, my mom really indoctrinated me.

So, I knew, but I was really resisting theater for a long time. When I graduated from college, I was like, “I’ll look into journalism, teaching, other things.” I moved to Russia to figure out what I wanted to do, and then I moved from Siberia to St. Petersburg and worked as a journalist for a couple years. And while I was writing for this newspaper, mostly about politics, I was just going to the theater all the time.

At what point did you make your way to New York?

I didn’t move to New York until I was 32. I went back to Seattle [after Russia] when I was 24. My friends, including my now-husband, Kip Fagan, had started this theater company called Printer’s Devil and we for seven years just did plays—by Anne Washburn, Naomi Iizuka, Sheila Callaghan. I did a translation of “The Seagull” that we performed on an old ferry that was docked in Lake Union. And we did everything ourselves. There were 12 of us. We wanted to be like Steppenwolf—weird, less macho Steppenwolf. I wrote my first plays and got them produced there.

I’m fascinated by the disparity between you as a writer and actor, and how one has continued to inform the other.

[“Constitution”] has been so exciting because it’s the first time I’ve married the two identities. I was scared to do that. I was both scared and thought it would be indulgent in some way [to act in something I wrote]. This has been eye-opening; that I can do that, apparently, and people will pay to come see it.

Can you tell me more about when you were first getting your bearings as a writer?

I had been writing for a newspaper, but I decided when I joined the theater company to start writing plays. I wrote probably four plays while I was with the theater company, and we produced two of them. When I moved to New York at 32, I thought, I’ll focus on writing, because it seemed absurd to move to New York at 32 and think you were going to get acting jobs. I wrote to my friend Anne Washburn and was like, “I want to write when I’m in New York,” and she got me into Mac Wellman’s writing workshop. I studied with Mac, and then with Chuck Mee. But also, when Anne found out I was coming to town, she cast me in her play “Apparition,” so then I just started acting again.

That anecdote pretty perfectly epitomizes the fact that, in this industry, you can’t map out the ways in which opportunity will arise.

Yeah; especially on the writing front, you just have to start. But that’s why I think going to that workshop with Mac was incredibly helpful, because I was forced to write so much material. Classes and workshops are so helpful because somebody else is making sure you write, and, in fact, I’ve done that my whole life. I had writer’s block about seven years ago, so I went and took a workshop from Tanya Barfield, and I was able to generate all the material that became my play “Grand Concourse.” That’s the way I would do it.

I will say there’s probably only one guiding principle for my career, which has been just always seeking out theaters and people and plays and work that I’m passionate about. That’s all I did when I moved to New York: go to the places I loved, contact the theater companies I loved like Clubbed Thumb [the 70-seat theater where “Constitution” premiered], and make relationships with those people. Maybe because I’m Gen X or it’s the way I was raised, but I didn’t have a particularly career-oriented mindset.

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That sounds very healthy, actually.

Who knows? It could have gone any way. I feel like, “Oh, it worked out for me!” But I know it doesn’t work out for everyone. I also had day jobs until I was 37. I taught ESL during the day while I was performing at night; I did copy editing.

You didn’t come to New York with the intent to act, but you did end up acting a ton.

Yes, and all downtown for free, basically—which I loved, but it’s also frustrating because this incredible work happens downtown and Off-Broadway but it’s almost impossible to make a living. I remember the first year I worked as an actor nonstop Off-Broadway, I made less money than I had been making as an ESL teacher. I couldn’t survive. That was when I decided to try TV writing.

What was the transition from playwriting to television writing like?

There was a big learning curve. I decided to write a pilot because I was so broke. In fact, I decided to write a pilot the year that I borrowed money from the Actors Fund to pay my rent. They don’t loan it to you, they give it to you. You, once in your life, can ask for money, and they paid my rent one month, [for] which I’m forever grateful, and I now donate money to them. I took a year to write a pilot, and then I gave the pilot to my friend Liz Flahive, because I was in her play at Manhattan Theatre Club. There happened to be a staff writer job that opened up on “Nurse Jackie,” so she put me forward for it. People are kind of willing to take a chance on that baby staff writer job.

That job changed my life in many ways, mostly financially. But it was overwhelming because I was 41 and I was the most inexperienced person on the staff. I had these incredible, genius women who are younger than me, who were great to me, and [who] really taught me how to write for TV, because I didn’t know how to do it. I had to swallow a lot of ego to be like, “Here I am at 41. I’m bad at this compared to everyone else in the room and I have to learn how to do it.”

Did writing for television teach you anything new about writing for theater?

I learned two things: First, I have the tools now to write a very well-structured play. You learn things working in TV that are very much about plot and action and how to create something that’s gripping in that way. The biggest lesson I took from it, though, is that when I was getting ready to bring this show to Clubbed Thumb and I didn’t know what the ending was going to be yet—I was burned out on writing for TV by that point—I decided, I want to do something in the theater that you can only do in the theater. Working in TV made me fall in love with theater even more. It made me think, My goal right now is to write plays that you couldn’t do better on TV.

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I am so pleasantly impressed by the Tony Awards’ acknowledgment of the play, of course, but even more so your acting nomination. Because the role you’re playing is yourself, is there a notion that you aren’t “acting” in the proper sense?

I was surprised I was nominated [as an actor], and also really happy that the fact I am performing—that I am acting, that I am bringing all those skills I’ve been developing for the past 30 years—was acknowledged. Obviously, I’m also just really starstruck to be in this group of women, I mean, holy shit. But yes, I’m performing a character. That character is a version of myself—it’s several versions of myself, actually, over the course of many years. In order to do it night after night, I have to use all the tools and tricks I have as an actor to create an art that makes sense and also to be emotionally present when I need to be and also navigate how personal the material is. In some ways, I have to invest in the idea that this character is not quite me, because that allows me to go through the more emotional parts of the play every night without it completely knocking me on my ass.

Is your acting process for the character Heidi Schreck different than your process for any other role?

My process for this doesn’t feel any different than when I’m playing any other character. People coming to the show ask me sometimes about the fact that I’ll get emotional in different parts, or some nights I’m more angry—some nights I’m really angry, especially lately. But I’ve told those people that that’s true when I’m playing any part. I know the general architecture of the play, I know the actions I’m playing, I know the places where I feel like I need to be most open to whatever I’m feeling, but that can change on any given night. That’s true of any play I’ve ever performed in.

So are you in fact approaching Heidi Schreck on the page the way you’d approach any character on the page?

I am. Arabella, our great stage manager, gave me a really good note the other night, because I was so angry last week with the [recent] abortion laws. She told me to remind myself that the 15-year-old is not filled with rage yet. I just need to keep the shape and arc of the play, to remember part of the story is about a girl growing up, a girl finally getting in touch with her grief and her rage. And it was a really important note to go back and do my 15-year-old work and remember how she feels, and not bring the end of the play into the beginning of the play—very common actor notes.

People are having very profound and intense experiences seeing this play. Are you tired of hearing about them?

No. I need people to tell me those things. Sometimes I go out there and I’m like, Why am I doing this again? It’s helpful to know people are having experiences with it, because that was the hardest thing in the beginning. I’m actually not a person who is prone to a lot of self-exposure. But I did feel compelled in many ways. I thought, This is where the piece is leading me, and if I’m really going to take the task I gave myself seriously, which is to connect my life to the Constitution, then I have to talk about these things.

I didn’t like doing it at first; I felt sick to my stomach and could feel in my body the taboo. I could feel all the voices that said, “We don’t want to hear about that,” or “She’s being indulgent,” or “Don’t talk about that stuff, it’s icky,” or judgment about my abortion. I started it when Obama was president, but it kept developing, more and more kept happening in the world, and the mandate to actually talk about these things openly started to feel stronger.

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Despite its seemingly extemporaneous nature, this play is pretty traditional in some ways. To that extent, how would you feel about another actor playing the role of Heidi Schreck?

I actually know that’s going to happen. [Director] Oliver Butler and I have a general sense of how to do it. What I think needs to happen is that we cast someone and then I’m there as the playwright for the whole span of rehearsal, and I do with that actor what I’ve done with [cast member] Mike Iveson or what I did with [cast members and teen debaters] Thursday Williams and Rosdely Ciprian: We essentially do an adaptation of the play that suits them. I will probably rewrite the intro to frame it a little differently. Then, that person would essentially play me, but at some point before the debate, they would step out of the character and share something of their own that I’ll write with them.

I feel like there’s an even more radical version, which I’m interested in if an actress were interested. Every woman-identifying person in this country, you could take the 14th Amendment and they’ll have stories that relate to reproductive rights, to violence, to sexual assault, to equal protection of the law, citizenship, voting. They’ll either have them in their own life or in their ancestors’ lives. And if an actress were willing and wanting to do it, that, in some ways, is the version I may be most excited about.

This play and your performance have both knocked down so many ideas of what Broadway is. Do you hope it paves the way for more?

I do. Just [for] anyone who, traditionally, people think stories by that type of human being don’t make money—hopefully, we can just keep fighting back against that. It’s clearly not true. First of all, fairness and justice and all of that, obviously, I care about [those] deeply, but also, it just makes for better art when more kinds of people are making art. We know it’s a lie that there’s not an audience for [those voices]. There’s an audience for so much more.

Here you are, Tony-nominated for writing and acting—your Broadway debuts on both fronts. But you’ve spent your life in the theater; was this ever in the cards?

I’m sure this was a secret dream, but I didn’t think the kind of work I was interested in or the kind of work I made would ever translate easily to Broadway. I just spent my whole life making work that didn’t seem to be welcomed here. So, it’s entirely unexpected—and a total dream come true. 

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