Acclaimed play ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ strikes a cultural chord

by Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mar 30, 2023

Occasionally, a work of art connects so strikingly with the cultural moment that it takes on an unexpected resonance. Such is the case with playwright and performer Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me,” the topical comedy-drama that begins performances next week at the Marcelle in Grand Center.

The play’s inspiration is autobiographical: As a teenager, Schreck gave speeches on the Constitution across the country to win prize money for college. Presented successfully both on and off-Broadway with Schreck portraying herself, “What the Constitution Means to Me” was a 2019 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama. Michelle Hand stars in the Max & Louie production directed by Nancy Bell.

Recently, Schreck, whose plays also include “Grand Concourse” and “There Are No More Big Secrets,” spoke with Go! Magazine about the play and its conception. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q • How did you get the idea of turning your fundraising experience into a play?

A • It was really just a little bit of intuition. I was thinking about wanting to write about being a teenage girl, and I remembered how formative that (America Legion) contest was and how much pleasure I got out of it. And how funny and weird it was. I thought it would be a fun setting for a play — a fun way to explore being a teenage girl in the 1980s. But I pictured something very different from what it became — something much lighter in tone.

Q • Does “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which explores themes from immigration to women’s rights, closely reflect the actual speeches that you gave? And how did the American Legion members react?

A • The speech was much like the play, very focused on how the Constitution protects our civil rights. Most of the Legionnaires that I performed for were conservative-leaning, but they were very receptive and warm, and they really cared about the students expressing their real opinions. So I always felt very welcomed by them, even when my views were different than theirs.

Q • In the play, the speech is followed by a debate with a high school orator about whether the Constitution should be abolished or replaced. Why did you decide on that structure?

A • I wanted there to be something that actually felt alive and a little dangerous and like it might have some places for actual improvisation to happen. I wanted it to feel like a living thing, the way that I talk about (the Constitution) being a living thing.

And I thought it would be aesthetically satisfying and also just important, to see a teenager come onstage and express their views at this moment in time. I wanted (the play) to end with a sense of possibility.

Q • Was your original plan for other performers to portray you in the play?

A • Not originally. I honestly didn’t imagine that the play would be as popular as it is.