Jocelyn Shek, a 14-year-old freshman at Marlborough School, was a stagehand for a play once. She has taken acting classes for fun and was part of an improv troupe. She’s a fan of musicals, particularly “Hamilton” and “Be More Chill.” But none of that really explains how she came to spend the last few weeks rehearsing for her debut at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Shek has joined the cast of Heidi Schreck’s hit play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 28. The unconventional piece — which earned two Tony Award nominations and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — has a third-act parliamentary debate about whether the country should keep the Constitution or replace it.
Shek has competed in more than 20 debate tournaments, so even though she goes head-to-head with seasoned actress Maria Dizzia four times a week, the teenager remains firmly in her comfort zone.
“I started doing debate when I was a super shy fifth-grader, and now it’s my favorite activity in the world,” she told an imagined audience during a recent rehearsal, adding that she loves watching YouTube videos of science experiments and makeup tutorials.
“They actually have a lot in common because you never really know how these projects will work out in reality: Will you really be able to extract the DNA of a strawberry? Will the Fenty Gloss Bomb truly look good on everyone’s lips?” she said to the chuckles of those at the rehearsal. “The experiment of democracy is also mysterious, in that there’s so much that we just don’t know yet.”
Shek will appear in Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening performances as well as Sunday matinees in L.A., and she will continue with the national tour to Chicago in the spring. She was cast after a month-long search for a local debater who identifies as a young person of color.
“She has a lightness and a curiosity that overlaps with our show so well,” director Oliver Butler said of Shek, who displayed a mastery of the audition material as well as the text of her own debates, which she brought in and argued voluntarily. “I was just like, this is someone who really knows what she’s doing, who can bring some of her own experience and really teach us.”
The Chinese American teen from Sherman Oaks, who also is a member of her school’s robotics team, enjoys debate because she sees each competition as an opportunity to explore a subject from multiple angles. Thanks to these tournaments, she knows more about uranium, nuclear weapons and ancient philosophy than she ever thought she would.
“I like it because it’s helped me learn a lot about my world, and it’s really shaped the way I think about things,” she said. “And, well, I really like to argue.”
Shek alternates performances with Rosdely Ciprian, the 15-year-old New Yorker who’s been with the show since it debuted at New York’s Clubbed Thumb nearly three years ago. (Ciprian will perform Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings plus Saturday matinees.)
“She matches my energetic personality — which is hard, because I’m like Red Bull and glitter,” Ciprian said with a laugh shortly after an impromptu “debate” with Shek about their respective hometowns.
“How can you get lost on the subway in New York? It’s so easy! Everything here is so spread out, you have to rent a car to get around. It’s a mess!” Ciprian shouted. Shek immediately threw her arms up: “Sorry we have so much spaaaaaaace here!”
“What the Constitution Means to Me” launched its national tour after two sold-out off-Broadway runs and a twice-extended stay on Broadway. In New York, Schreck played herself, first as an optimistic 15-year-old who earned her college tuition by defending the Constitution in debate competitions, and then as a disillusioned fortysomething confronting how the document does not inherently aim to protect women at any age.
On tour Schreck is played by Dizzia, a 2010 Tony nominee for “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)” whose credits also include ABC’s drama “Emergence” and HBO’s upcoming series “The Undoing.” She hadn’t argued in a tournament since she was on her high school’s debate team and Model United Nations team, so she got a refresher in a makeshift “debate camp” with Ciprian and Shek. A coach kicked them off with low-stakes hypotheticals: if Keanu Reeves, Taylor Swift and Chrissy Teigen were facing death on a deserted island, which of them would you save and why?
“Those weren’t as much pressure, and they were pretty fun,” said Dizzia of the exercises. “My favorite was when Rosdely and I debated who was more famous: John Travolta or Nicki Minaj.” (Shek, who didn’t partake in that chat, then asked them both: “Wait, who is John Travolta?”)
So far, “Constitution” has allowed Dizzia to sharpen not only her debate skills but also her acting chops. “Whenever I look at Rosdely or Jocelyn onstage, they’re so present and in their own bodies,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been looked at so clearly onstage. It’s such a great thing to get to experience every day, and makes me want to get up to their level and be as present as they are.”
Shek admitted that she’s somewhat nervous about her theatrical debut and has gotten acting tips from Ciprian about unlocking her emotions and evoking stage presence. And Shreck said she hopes the new addition to the cast is as lauded in L.A. as Ciprian and Thursday Williams (a previous onstage debater, now attending Trinity College with plans to run for office someday) were in New York.
“So many young people are fans of the show, which makes me really happy as a middle-aged woman,” said the playwright with a smile. “To see two brilliant teenagers onstage, it allows them to connect to the show in a completely different way. And if they have dreams of going into politics or debate or theater, this also gives them a role model to look up to. I mean, I really look up to both of these young women so much.”
When: Opens Friday. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 28. (Check for exceptions.)
Tickets: $25-$175 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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