Heidi Schreck will bring her acclaimed play “What the Constitution Means to Me” to Washington after all. The show, about her relationship with one of the country’s founding documents, had pulled out of a local run earlier this year when it was called up to Broadway. Now, it will come to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Sept. 11-22, starring Schreck and the current New York cast, immediately after its engagement at the Hayes Theater ends Aug. 24.
Tickets will go on sale to Kennedy Center members July 9 and to the general public July 16.
Things have moved fast this year for Schreck’s autobiographical civics project. “What the Constitution Means to Me” features Schreck recalling her teenage self in constitutional debating competitions, exploring immigration and Roe v. Wade, and eventually engaging in an intellectual debate with a high school student. The show was an off-Broadway hit at New York Theatre Workshop last fall, and Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company had already planned to present it this spring.
But then buzz around the piece accelerated and spread. “It’s rare that I get so many messages saying, ‘You’ve got to see this now,’ ” says Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of theater producing and programming. The sudden popularity of Schreck’s pointed American reflections swept it straight to Broadway, where Schreck earned Tony Award nominations for her script and for her leading performance; the play also won Obie and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Woolly replaced the vacant slot with another politically themed show, Liza Jessie Peterson’s solo “The Peculiar Patriot.”
“I am thrilled that it’s going to a place like the Kennedy Center,” says Woolly Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes, who has known Schreck since they worked together in 2004 on Anne Washburn’s “The Internationalist” with the playwrights’ collective 13P (Schreck was in the cast). “I want as many people as possible to see it, no question.”
The Kennedy Center stand caps a whirlwind year. “By New Year’s Day I had just learned the show was going to Broadway,” Schreck said Tuesday from New York, before an evening performance. “And I still wasn’t sure it was really going to happen. I never predicted so many people would connect with the show, that it would run this long, that RBG would come.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg generated a stir when she attended last weekend, especially because the performance calls for a judge from the audience at the end — and Ginsburg wasn’t picked. Schreck says Ginsburg visited the actors afterward and “was generous and lovely to all of us. She spoke for a long time about Thurgood Marshall and the Constitution.”
A national tour has been announced to start in January without Schreck, who is revising the highly personal script to suit other performers, but she does not rule out stepping back into the role at certain stops. “I’m getting close to being worn out,” Schreck says. “I had to put a lot of other things in my life on hold.”
The piece has been in development for more than a decade, and it took her in unexpected directions. “I started the project from a place of complete innocence,” Schreck says. “My only idea 10 years ago was, why don’t I revisit that incredible contest I did as a kid?”
By taking seriously the contest’s questions as a grown woman, Schreck found herself confronting complications in the document and buried truths in her own life, and in the lives of family members. To see the project through meant laying bare some difficult personal history. “I wasn’t happy about that,” Schreck says. “I left that out for a long time.”
“It would be hard to identify a work for the theater with its finger more cogently and rewardingly on the pulse of America right now,” Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote of the Broadway opening in March.
“Writer-performer Schreck is herself the quintessence of the happy warrior,” he wrote, “enumerating for us the marvels of the Constitution even as she reveals the ways in which it has been used against some of its own people.”
The performance can be “electric,” Schreck says, depending on what’s in the news. When Alabama passed newly restrictive abortion laws in May, “that week was quite charged,” Schreck recalls. “I had to fight to keep the shape of the play intact. If they [the audience] are going to take a moment and applaud an amendment, I have to find a way to incorporate that.”
As for why it has struck such a chord, Finn says, “Her show makes the Constitution very, very human.”
Goyanes says, “There is so much hope in it, particularly with the young debaters. This is the electorate that’s coming up, and they are so ready to wrestle with the values that go into the governing of this country and those foundational documents.”
Schreck describes people waiting at the stage door after the show, prompted in some cases to share their own experiences.
“I’m telling personal stories about family trauma and how that trauma is related to law,” Schreck says. “People are very moved to have things that are often taboo to talk about — sexual violence, abortion, the reality of what it’s like to grow up as a person left out of the Constitution from the beginning. People seem grateful to have it talked about so openly, and to connect it to what’s going on right now.”
Schreck also thinks the play’s success speaks to an eagerness for a measured brand of public discourse.
“We’re desperate for communion,” she says, “and to have conversations where we’re not all screaming at each other.”