If it weren’t for her twin daughters, Heidi Schreck says she wouldn’t have wanted to get out of bed for a few days after news broke that the Supreme Court was poised to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
“I felt so depressed and sad,” she says of that day in early May when a leaked draft opinion made it clear that the constitutional right to an abortion was under immediate threat.
Schreck will be the first to say that she is no constitutional scholar, but as a playwright she has distinguished herself as a person with valuable thoughts on the document with her Tony Award-nominated play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The production was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed and talked-about pieces of theater in 2019.
Three years later, Schreck (who also starred in the production) and the original Broadway cast are returning to the stage for a one-night-only reading to benefit the National Network of Abortion Funds, which provides financial and logistical support to women seeking abortions. The event takes place June 9 inside the Great Hall at Cooper Union college in New York City — where she will stand behind a lectern where great orators of the past, including President Abraham Lincoln, have spoken before audiences. The hall was also the site of rallies supporting the NAACP and women’s suffrage.
That this particular play will be staged in support of women’s access to safe and legal abortions — or that Schreck takes this subject extremely seriously — will come as no surprise to fans of her work.
Via sometimes painful, always illuminating personal stories and family history, “What the Constitution Means to Me” examines the country’s founding document — and the ways it has neglected, and failed to protect, women and other marginalized groups throughout history.
The subject of abortion and a woman’s right to control her own body is of prime importance throughout the play. In it, Schreck recalls growing up in a “abortion-free zone” in Washington state and eventually obtaining her own abortion after getting pregnant while starring in a small theatrical production in Seattle.
Schreck spoke with The Times about taking to the stage again — and what she hopes to accomplish by it — a week after 21 people, including 19 children, were killed in a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas. If her emotions about this moment in American history were raw after the leaked Supreme Court decision a month ago, they are doubly so now.
She expressed feelings of grief, rage and despondency but maintained a resiliency of spirit in the face of those emotions. She hewed firm to a belief that it is necessary to continue working for change — that activists she admires do it every day and that small actions by many can build into a movement larger than the sum of its parts.
“I have these two kids for whom I have to keep trying,” says Schreck, adding that in looking for a way to contribute to positive forward motion, she landed on returning to her play. “I have this show that makes a personal case for why bodily autonomy is one of our fundamental freedoms, why it matters, why it can crush someone’s life if they don’t have it.”
Plus, repeatedly performing the personal and provocative play in 2018 and 2019 ultimately galvanized her, Schreck says.
“Going through that journey every night made me feel hope,” she says, and feeling hope made her feel better, which she now believes will help her her take more action. “I’ll be able to go out and protest, I’ll be able to keep calling my reps, I’ll be able to keep trying to donate money to state races and to local races where I think a lot of fundamental change actually can be made.”
As for the Constitution itself, Schreck feels deeply ambivalent. She says the document has been used to rectify great wrongs, although she says that has mostly been accomplished through the 13th and 19th Amendments — and also through the 14th, which she believes is one of the greatest additions to the document. But at this moment in time, she says, she feels like the Constitution is being invoked by those who want to roll back crucial human rights.
“The extent to which the document is treated like a holy document, by people on both sides, I think, is a problem,” she says. “Because it can be interpreted, and it does become like a Rorschach test. You can see whatever you want.”
This makes Schreck long for a modern Constitution — one written in the 20th rather than the 18th century.
“What if we had to write it today? What would we want this document to say?” she asks. “What do we care about as a society, as a culture, as a country?”
Schreck does not believe America is as hopelessly broken as it may seem to those regularly consuming news of a great, unscalable partisan divide. She says polls show time and again that a majority of Americans are in favor of legal abortion and common-sense gun control.
She cites structural problems baked into politics, including rampant voter suppression and gerrymandering that has resulted in “a minority of people with very conservative views” dictating policy for the country.
“That’s what’s really happening,” she says. “I think there’s more agreement in America than we like to acknowledge.”
Much has changed in the few years since Schreck last performed “What the Constitution Means to Me.” She gave birth to twins at the beginning of the pandemic, so her life radically transformed in tandem with the world’s own radical transformation. In that context, her play has taken on layers of added meaning.
Schreck admits to feeling some trepidation revisiting the stage and the autobiographical material. But when those feelings wash over her, she thinks of the women in her life who showed bravery, compassion and kindness in the face of difficulty, including those who helped her at the clinic where she got her abortion many years ago.
“They were so kind to me, and they told me that I have the right to make a decision about my body and my future in a really loving supportive way,” she says. “They made what could have been a horrific experience for me into a positive one, and I think about that a lot because that’s where I think the small actions matter.”
'What the Constitution Means to Me'
Where: The Great Hall, Cooper Union, Foundation Building, 7 E. 7th St., New York, N.Y.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, June 9
Tickets: $29-$1004 (including $4 service charge), to benefit the National Network of Abortion Funds
Info: (212) 460-5475 or www.nytw.org/show/constitution-benefit/tickets/
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
COVID Protocol: All attendees will be required to show proof of vaccination. In addition, a mask must be worn over the nose and mouth at all times inside the building and theatre. Attendees also must wear a surgical or KN95 (or similar) level mask.
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