Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” Is Coming to Portland Center Stage

Star Rebecca Lingafelter and director Marissa Wolf discuss staging a play that wrestles with whether the vision of the Founding Fathers can be salvaged.

Rebecca Lingafelter (T A M E R A LY N / C O U R T E S Y O F P O R T L A N D C E N T E R S T A G )

“Every time I walk out there, the world has changed,” Heidi Schreck has said of her inventive blend of theater and debate, What the Constitution Means to Me, a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Schreck’s thesis is that the Constitution, and American history in general, is built on the folly of man—specifically the Founding Fathers, plus later lawmakers and judges, adding and interpreting amendments.

“Now, did they get everything right? No,” she says in character as her teenage self, speaking at the American Legion hall in Wenatchee, Wash.

Exactly one year ahead of the next presidential inauguration, Portland Center Stage will open a new production of Schreck’s play, directed by Marissa Wolf and starring Rebecca Lingafelter, an associate professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College (and the artistic co-director of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble).

“We decided to program this play in this season, knowing we would be heading into the election,” Wolf tells WW. “I’m so taken by Heidi Schreck’s gorgeously personal narrative. It’s a welcoming play for all to enter the dialogue.” Referring to the Legion hall setting, Wolf describes the play as “this diorama based on [Schreck’s] memories” (the playwright was born in Wenatchee in 1971).

What the Constitution Means to Me debuted in 2017 at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival in New York City, with Schreck playing the autobiographical lead role, inspired by her own experiences in debate club, as well as her ancestors. Her forebears are survivors of chillingly normalized sex-based violence (her great-grandmother Theresa was a mail-order bride who was sent from Germany to the United States and died at 36).

This, plus judicial precedent—such as Castle Rock v. Gonzales in 2005, in which the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia struck down Jessica Gonzales’s constitutional claim to enforcement of a restraining order against her husband—showed Schreck the Constitution’s failure to protect women and other historically marginalized people.

Though Schreck spent decades planning her play, its debut in 2017 came on the heels of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Hamilton. Schreck’s and Miranda’s plays work as foils to each other. Miranda’s script focuses more on the Founding Fathers as idealists with foibles, while Schreck looks more at flaws in the system itself; Miranda has exuberantly led his cast on Broadway, while Schreck has introduced her play with frantic, often darkly humorous standup-comic energy.

“I’m a pretty physical actor,” Lingafelter says. “I work from the body a lot…[and] the text, and [Schreck’s] enthusiasm for this contest when she was young, impact my voice and how I get into her character.”

Lingafelter hopes the play impacts younger viewers. “Heidi is an extraordinary writer,” she says. “She wrote the play for her voice…[she] talks a lot about the ways younger generations influence her. I learn so much from them as well. [My students] will come see the play, and we’ll discuss it in class.”

That debate experience sets up this play’s unique selling point. Traditionally, each production has had Schreck debate a local high school student whether the U.S. Constitution should be abolished, or upheld, flaws and all.

“There’s a version where I play the proposition, and a version where I play the opposition,” Lingafelter says, “and we flip a coin for it. We’ve been studying debate format, arguments, cross examination. We’ve been watching young debaters; they’re so fast and intelligent and formal.”

“Every other show, one of two young people will perform,” Wolf adds. “For the first round, we invited them to submit a self tape, wrestling with their own relationship to the Constitution. We wanted to work with opinionated, passionate young people.”

Asked whether the recent Portland Public Schools strike affected reaching out to students and staff, Wolf said, “That was tricky timing…but we centered our audition process in December” (Alabaster C.K. Richard, a student at Cleveland High School, and Divine Crane, a student at Aloha High School, were ultimately cast as the play’s young debaters).

Preview shows will include debate sessions as well, which Wolf describes as a “truly a beautiful part of the full play. It’s intrinsically part of the experience.” For audiences, the debates might double as preparation for a likely tumultuous election year.

SEE IT: What the Constitution Means to Me plays at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-445-3700, pcs.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, 2 pm select Thursdays, Jan. 20-Feb. 18. $24-$93.

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