In Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” she stands onstage in a yellow blazer as sunny as her disposition and delves into 250 years of national pain and a weighty dose of personal agony too. The almost-solo show premiered on Broadway in 2019, netting Schreck Tony nominations for best play and best actress, and it was a finalist for the drama Pulitzer Prize.
“What the Constitution Means to Me” opens at Seattle Rep Oct. 5 (previews begin Sept. 30), with Cassie Beck playing the role of Heidi.
Before her Broadway star turn, before Obie-winning performances in off-Broadway plays and before a successful television career writing for “I Love Dick” and “Billions,” Schreck cut her teeth on and behind the stages of an adventurous Seattle fringe theater company, the experience shaping her art even today.
In 1998, Schreck stood onstage at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson and performed “Backwards into China,” about her time living in Russia. It was her first time performing a solo show she’d written.
“It was autobiographical, I performed it, and then I never did that again until I did ‘Constitution,’” Shreck said. “Connecting the very personal with larger historical political questions — I was trying to do that with the first play and maybe [wasn’t] quite as successful. [But] for me as a performer, feeling like I could be onstage sort of as myself telling my own stories — I learned how to do that by doing that play in Seattle.”
“Backwards into China” was produced by Printer’s Devil Theater, a stalwart of Seattle’s fringe scene in the late ’90s and early 2000s, alongside more venerable institutions Annex Theatre and Empty Space Theatre.
Founded by co-artistic directors Kip Fagan, now Schreck’s husband, and Paul Willis, Printer’s Devil debuted in 1995 with the goal of telling stories that were relevant to their experiences as 20-somethings, with an attitude that reflected the post-grunge music flourishing in the city, Willis said.
Schreck, who grew up in Wenatchee, where her prowess as a teen debater laid the foundation for “Constitution,” was not an original member of the company. But she knew Willis and company member Tricia Rodley from making theater at the University of Oregon together.
“When you put somebody like Heidi on a stage, whether or not you shine a light on it, people will certainly pay attention,” Willis said. “It’s always been that way since we were 18 years old.”
After a post-college sojourn to Russia, where she worked as a journalist, Schreck moved to Seattle and joined Printer’s Devil.
“It was an incredible training ground for me because I learned about every aspect of making theater,” Shreck said. “We were definitely doing it for the love of it, and wanted to make theater that was wild and unexpected and surprising and try to bring it out of the rarefied world of institutional theater and into more raw spaces.
“I feel like ‘Constitution’ was made that way too. I made a kind of play that you could put up on a shoestring if you wanted. I feel like every play I write, you could do with no budget, because that’s how I learned to make theater.”
Fagan and Willis recall Printer’s Devil as a scrappy company that could thrive in a pre-tech-boom Seattle where rents were cheap and arts grants were plentiful.
“People would tell us that things were impossible to do, and that never stopped us,” said Jennifer Creegan, the company’s managing director. “We just tried everything we wanted to do.”
That try-everything attitude extended to Schreck’s theater-making. She acted, wrote, directed, performed music, helped with marketing and grant writing and sewed curtains — once. (“I wasn’t particularly good at that,” she says.) All the while, she was making connections with New York-based playwrights like Anne Washburn, Sheila Callaghan and Melissa James Gibson, thanks to the theater’s commitment to staging new work, including a yearly 12-play festival.
For Schreck, a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” staged on the decommissioned Kalakala ferry in Lake Union, was particularly meaningful. Schreck, who speaks Russian, and Fagan adapted the play together. And fell in love.
“The romance of the play, combined with it being about people making art, was a really heady situation for us as young people,” she said. “We did in fact then go on to have a life where we made art together. We’ve worked together pretty much our whole lives.”
In 2001, Fagan and Willis stepped down from artistic leadership at Printer’s Devil. Schreck and Fagan had been deliberating about relocating to New York and made the move shortly thereafter. Printer’s Devil continued to produce under new leadership through 2015.
“In some ways, I’m like, ‘Oh, we missed our chance to be another Annex or another Empty Space’ — a lasting institution,” Fagan said. “But we hit on a really interesting [period] in the timeline of Seattle theater where there was a lot of energy and a lot of excitement and not a lot of rules.”
For Schreck, a move away from Seattle didn’t put an end to her multidisciplinary approach. She starred off-Broadway in Washburn’s “The Internationalist” in 2004 and Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2009. She kicked off an increasingly prolific television-writing career working on “Nurse Jackie.” She wrote plays, including “Creature,” about 15th-century mystic Margery Kempe, and “Grand Concourse,” about tensions at a Bronx soup kitchen.
But of course, the big breakout was still to come.
In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” directed by Oliver Butler, Schreck establishes the conceit that she is going to re-create a speech she gave on the U.S. Constitution when she was 15 in Wenatchee. Sure, she was competing in the event to earn prize money for college, but her enthusiasm is hardly transactional as she exults over the Constitution’s “warm-blooded, steamy” nature.
But the show’s tone changes and its structure fractures as the realities of family trauma and pervasive inequality invade on the document’s high-minded language. As Fagan says, she plays her 15-year-old self effortlessly, then suddenly accesses a reservoir of pain and darkness.
“I wanted it to have that feeling of being really alive and raw and unexpected, and not what you think a play is supposed to be like,” Schreck said. “I definitely learned that working with Printer’s Devil.”
As the play evolved, the connection to Schreck’s work at Printer’s Devil became clearer, Fagan said.
“I didn’t think a lot about ‘Backwards into China’ as being a steppingstone for [‘Constitution’] until she brought her personal family stories into it,” he said. “And that was tectonic for the play. It turned it from a kind of charming set piece that Heidi could do into something that was talking to some larger ideas. Unfortunately, it just keeps getting more and more relevant.”
Since its premiere in 2017 from New York’s Clubbed Thumb, “Constitution” has been performed on many nights after consequential real-life events, from the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
“It’s in conversation with whatever is happening,” Schreck said. “I’ve performed it while so many kinds of things were happening. It’s always felt like, ‘Tonight the play is really about those abortion laws that they’re passing in these states,’ or ‘Tonight is really about family separation.’
“[But] I think it changes more in terms of what the audience is bringing to it. It’s kind of like a prism: What stands out most to them sort of changes night-to-night based on whatever’s happening.”
Though Schreck still occasionally performs the piece, including at a benefit reading in June to raise funds for abortion rights, the national tour was launched with another performer in the role after Schreck learned she was pregnant with twins. Beck, who’ll play the role in Seattle, is a friend of Schreck’s whom she entrusted to play the constructed version of herself, Schreck said.
Schreck and Fagan are taking the opportunity to return to Seattle to see old friends and cheer on Beck. It’ll be the first time in many years they’ll spend significant time here.
“Being there for those several years, I really do believe formed who I became as an artist,” Schreck said. “I’m grateful for that time.”