This Might Be the Most Scarily Relevant Thing on TV Right Now

Photo: Left; Rick Polk, Right: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for NYCLU

Heidi Schreck’s critically acclaimed, award-winning play What the Constitution Means to Me could not feel more relevant than right now, and it felt pretty damn relevant when it was on Broadway last year, and Off Broadway in 2018, and far off Broadway before that.

A (mostly) one-woman play about Schreck’s family history, the show encounters the U.S. Constitution as a document that can have real-life consequences on people’s lives. When nominated for a Pulitzer last year, the committee called it, “a charming and incisive analysis of gender and racial biases inherent to the U.S. Constitution that examines how this living document could evolve to fit modern America.” Put less staidly, it’s a surprisingly fun history lesson on the document that governs American life, and the way it’s been utilized by white men for their own good at the expense of women, people of color, and queer people, since the country’s founding.

On October 16, the show will be brought to the screen by Amazon Prime Video, shot by Marielle Heller, the director of Oscar-nominated films A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Can You Ever Forgive Me? Hearing former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speak in the middle of the play (“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] … I say, ‘When there are nine’”) is a stark reminder of the current predicament our country faces, as another right-wing ideologue is nominated to our highest court. Yet, Schreck’s play unearths a note of optimism out of depressing circumstances — suggesting that the country’s shitty history holds the possibility of a better future.

Schreck and Heller spoke to the Cut about filming the play for Amazon, editing it as new mothers in quarantine, and their own sense of strained optimism. Read more below.

Brock Colyar: You’re both new mothers! Congratulations! Tell me what it was like to edit the show in quarantine, with new babies, during a pandemic, and maybe the crumbling of our democracy. 

Heidi Schreck: I would say it was … challenging. My twins were born at the end of April. Mari was working the whole time while pregnant, creating this beautiful edit. And then I came in in June, really tired with some postpartum depression, trying to nurse and watch the play with a clear eye. Everything that’s been happening in combination with some hormonal depression just sometimes made me feel like — What is this for? Will it matter to anybody? Why am I working so hard on this when there’s so much chaos happening, and also so much pain everyone is dealing with? I felt a bit overwhelmed.

Marielle Heller: I’ll play devil’s advocate and take the other side, which is: I felt grateful to have a focus during this period of time. Both Heidi and I, because we were pregnant, felt like we couldn’t be out protesting. It was nice to feel like I was actively working on something that could change hearts and minds. I believe that in Heidi’s work. I believe in its power and its political power. It felt to me like a saving grace.

BC: I’m wondering, Heidi, how it would feel to perform this show right now, with a super-spreading White House and a SCOTUS nomination well underway. I suppose in some ways this streaming release is you performing it right now. Do you think it’s the most divisive moment the show will live in? 

HS: A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. A majority of Americans don’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned. A majority of Americans support either universal health care or some form of automatic health care. I don’t know if we’re divided, but there are powerful media and political forces that want us to feel divided. It feels like an interesting time for the play to be coming out because of that.

BC: Is there a moment in the show that you feel would be particularly hard to get through right now? When I watch this version, there’s a part where you’re discussing the Constitution’s due-process clause and say that, in this country, we can’t have anyone unfairly taken from us. Watching you deliver that line, I knew what was in the news that week and what you were thinking about in that second. 

HS: The moment where I talk about the 14th Amendment and the equal-protection clause being a miracle — the touchstone of the civil-rights movement, the reason marriage equality was possible. Just talking about that amendment and all it’s achieved, right now, I feel very emotional about it. Particularly with the statements that Thomas and Alito just made about Obergefell v. Hodges. This clause that has done so much for human rights and equality in this country is actually … in more peril than I ever thought was possible. [Supreme Court Justices Alito and Thomas recently questioned the case that established same-sex marriage as constitutional.]

BC: Marielle, throughout quarantine there have been several examples of theater brought to the screen, to varying levels of success. I want to know how you thought about the project going into it. What were your goals? I’m particularly curious about your decision to include shots of the audience reacting to Heidi. 

MH: For me, the goal was trying to capture the intimacy she had in smaller theaters, where you felt almost that she was telling the story directly to you, which is why we decided to include the audience. I wanted it to feel even more intimate onscreen and give us the chance to feel like we were up close with her, getting to see her thinking and processing.

HS: When I’m performing it, something cathartic can happen in my body. I go through the journey of the show, going from teenage hopefulness and optimism to the most painful places in my own history and the country’s history, and then I get to come back out with a ferocity at the end. It’s funny to have the show go out sort of divorced from my body, in a way.

BC: Speaking of the audience: Toward the end of the play, after Heidi has debated a young woman about the Constitution, a member of the audience takes a vote on whether or not to abolish it. Out of 183 Broadway performances, 57 members of the audiences voted to abolish. We learn that in this onscreen format. Did you expect that outcome? 

HS: For about the first 50 performances, nobody ever voted to abolish the Constitution. I never thought anybody would, actually. And then that kind of started to shift, and I’m not sure why. I don’t know if people started to feel like the project of reimagining some of the fundamentals of how we operate as a country is important.

MH: It would have been sort of interesting to track what the news cycle was on the days that people decided to abolish.

HS: I will say that we got a lot of abolishes the week of the Kavanaugh hearings.

BC: A lot more people are going to see the show now. What do you hope they take away? 

HS: Maybe since so many of us are trapped together, people will watch it generationally. I know the play has prompted me to have conversations with my own mother I never could have had before. Now that it can reach more people, people who maybe don’t have access to the theater, maybe it will start conversations within families.

MH: I love theater. I don’t think all theater should be seen on the screen … part of what’s beautiful about it is it’s gone when it’s over. But in the case of this show, it needs to be seen by as many people as possible, especially in this moment. I would hope that people across the political spectrum can have an open mind about the questions that it raises. I don’t think the play necessarily answers all the questions. It asks questions of us in a really nonjudgmental way that is really beautiful. To have something that’s actually asking us to think beyond what we already believe is a challenge, and hopefully a challenge that audiences rise to.

BC: The play itself, and the way it’s been translated to the screen, induces a bit of optimism in the viewer. Perhaps it might even be a sort of patriotism? How do you both maintain that right now? What does it look like to believe in our country, or the Constitution, when it feels so broken? 

MH: I think there is a patriotism to wanting to preserve our belief in our voting system, our belief in how we elect our leaders, our belief in the larger systems that have been put in place and why they matter. [Because] it feels like currently they’re being thrown out and discarded.

BC: Part of the reason the play is touching to me is how it mixes the personal and memoiristic parts with the political ones. It’s not pandering, and takes on a topic like inherited trauma in a really meaningful way. The country right now feels like it’s in a kind of trauma stage. Do you have any advice or thoughts on how you work through that?

HS: There are many days when I feel … pretty hopeless. But then you have to keep living, right? As scary as it is, that as a nation we are being forced to reckon with an original trauma — which is the trauma and crime of slavery, of racism, of genocide, of the crimes that this country committed in order to come into being. I don’t think there’s a hope for the future of this country without reckoning with those crimes. The fact that it’s a conversation being had in a mainstream way right now gives me some hope.

MH: There seems to be a shift in thinking that is happening collectively where people are recognizing that this inherited trauma, that these horrific sins of the past are present. People are starting to say, ‘Here are all the ways this has not changed, and here are all the ways we are directly linked, directly affected in everyday life today right now.’ You’re affected. I’m affected. Every single person is affected.

This Might Be the Most Scarily Relevant Thing on TV