Schreck talks and debates amendments in her show ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ at Berkeley Rep

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Writer and performer Heidi Schreck digs deeper into the history of women in her family in her world premiere of “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Photo by Christian Peacock)

That pesky 14th Amendment.

It’s an amendment that states, in its second section, that only the rights of voting males are protected. Even more problematic, when addressing citizenship, it never clearly states who actually has the right to become a citizen. So basically, that critical detail is up for interpretation.

For Heidi Schreck, based on the way it is written and who it was written by, it unfortunately makes sense. As a result, this amendment along with others like it, creates one huge chasm.

“I’m very interested in that idea of what does it mean to fight for rights using a document that was never meant to include you in the first place,” said Schreck. “For people of color, women and indigenous persons, we are not in the original document. I think fighting for these rights gets so confusing because many of us are an addendum to the document.

“It’s a document that left out more than half of the people in the country in the phrase, ‘We, the people.’ White men owned property, and the document wasn’t intended for everybody, but was given to give equal rights to an elite group of people.”

Schreck’s world premiere of her new play takes a fresh look at the document with seriousness and hilarity, but with some familiar nuance that speaks to her past. “What the Constitution Means to Me” now in previews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and officially opening on May 8th, is Schreck’s continuance of her life’s work, a thorough examination of how the document has affected the lives of four generations of women in her family, which begins with her great-great grandmother.

Schreck has a very special relationship with the Constitution. As a young girl of 15, she had a really cool job that depended on two things – getting up in front of folks and speaking about the document.

There was no burger-flipping or lifeguarding for her. Schreck’s employment saw her hitting the American Legion Hall circuit in her native Washington, where her Constitution speech was shared in order to pay for college, participating in a competition she won multiple times. At that time, Schreck had a precocious knowledge of the document and its functions. But as she got older and began to apply its lessons as an adult, she realized that the document didn’t just shape her, but shaped the previous three generations of women in her family.

“That is the heart of the show in a sense, because I won this contest many times and got to know the Constitution very well,” said Schreck. “It’s fascinating to visit the Constitution decades later and see how my understanding has changed.”

The Constitution as a living document is under constant scrutiny, under attack from everyone, from those who may be able to speak about a few of the amendments to Supreme Court justices and others who make their entire careers on its contents. And when Schreck’s great-great grandmother arrived as a mail-order bride in 1879 from Germany to the small logging town Wenatchee, Washington, it was a town where men outnumbered women by a nine-to-one ratio.

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“It made me question her story, which led to the arc of the whole piece – what if I were to get back and look at all the women in my family and learn my own story? How did I get here and why am I a woman who gets to have a full-on career and enjoy a kind of freedom that wasn’t enjoyed by women in my own family?” – Heidi Schreck (Photo by Christian Peacock)

“She was fascinating, died of melancholia at 33-years-old, I believe,” said Schreck. “At the time, there was all this kind of horrifying male violence against women, and it made me research the ways women over centuries have gotten out of violent situations with their husbands.

“It made me question her story, which led to the arc of the whole piece – what if I were to get back and look at all the women in my family and learn my own story? How did I get here and why am I a woman who gets to have a full-on career and enjoy a kind of freedom that wasn’t enjoyed by women in my own family?”

Schreck’s play is built from the pages of the Constitution in the form of legal cases and challenges which set precedents for women in the United States, cases which shaped issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence policy and civil rights.

“I wanted to trace that connection between the law and those cases that sort of contribute to me having the life that I have.”

The life Schreck speaks of is filled with creativity. The gregarious Schreck, who does not hesitate to share a laugh or a story, has carved out a wildly successful career as a writer and performer. A graduate of the University of Oregon, Schreck is an Obie award-winning performer and acclaimed playwright who has seen her work produced nationwide. She has also has written for television, with credits on shows such as “Billions,” “I Love Dick” and “Nurse Jackie.”

“What the Constitution Means to Me” was in a workshop production this past summer in New York, and is now ready for its world premiere. It also has another touch, where Schreck debates an actual high school student extemporaneously. The genesis of this came from the show’s director Oliver Butler, himself an Obie award winner of the Brooklyn-based company The Debate Society and a person who has been with the show since day one.

“He’s the person who first encouraged me to allow the show to be partly extemporaneous – ‘a living breathing show’ – and his sense of theatrical daring inspired many of my choices about the structure of the piece,” said Schreck. “The show is a living act of questioning my relationship to this document, and so it has to keep changing as both I and the country change. It is never the same twice.”

Schreck has not made the debate portion of the show easy on herself. The roles of the debaters are performed in a nightly rotation between a member of James Logan High School’s legendary speech and debate program, Wisdom Kunitz and St. Mary’s College High School debater Anaya Matthews.

“Content wise, the easiest part of the show is the debate because I get to be on stage with some really brilliant girls,” said Schreck. “It is the most fun and really thrilling.”

It is certainly a thrill for Schreck to be at the dawn of her world premiere, ready to share a show she has been working on for the past 10 years. Yet one of her challenges is having to showcase such a raw vulnerability, because she admits to being a somewhat private person. But at the end of the day, at a time where women’s rights are under constant scrutiny, speaking out about what it means to be a woman is of the utmost importance.

“It’s scary to me, it’s not my natural mode,” said Schreck. “But with what we’ve seen in the last year in our country, it is vital to share these stories and not feel shame around them. We need to talk about what’s going on in women’s lives.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “What the Constitution Means to Me”
Written by and starring Heidi Schreck
Directed by Oliver Butler
May 3rd – June 17th
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets and information, call (510) 657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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