UO grad up for multiple Tony awards for play ‘Constitution’

Heidi Schreck performing in What the Constitution Means to Me (Photo by Joan Marcus)

As a teenager, Heidi Schreck had a thing for the U.S. Constitution.

“I was excited by it," she said during a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, "like kind of horny for it. I was into Justice William O. Douglas. I love the Ninth Amendment.”

Schreck, a 2009 graduate of the University of Oregon, turned that obsession into the critically acclaimed play, “What the Constitution Means to Me." She wrote and stars in the play, which is based on her experience as a teenager delivering speeches about the Constitution at American Legion halls and how her relationship with the document evolved into “a bad romance.”

“Constitution” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and recently won an Obie Award, given for off-Broadway productions, for best new American play. And Shreck has been nominated for Tony awards for best play and best actress for “Constitution.” The Tonys will be announced June 9, with the local broadcast at 5 p.m. on CBS.

In recent months, even as she performs the play at the Helen Hays Theater on Broadway eight times a week, Schreck has been everywhere. In addition to her appearance on The Late Show and on the Today Show, she’s been featured in The New York Times, New Yorker and Atlantic magazines, and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and This American Life.

Schreck grew up in Wenatchee, Washington, and as a teenager she entered speech contests sponsored by the American Legion. Traveling with her mother, she delivered speeches about the Constitution and answered questions for prize money. She did this all through high school, and was so successful she earned enough money to pay for her college education at the University of Oregon, she said.

She enrolled at the UO in 1989 intending on becoming an environmental lawyer, but soon fell in with the theater crowd. She finished her studies at the UO in 1994, but her degree in English and theater arts was conferred in 2009.

“I fell in love with acting and the theater department,” she told Oregon Quarterly last year. “I stopped being prelaw after my first term and did a play every term after that. I might not have gone into theater at all if they hadn’t converted me.”

Her time at the UO overlapped with Ty Burrell, best known for “Modern Family,” and Rob Urbinati, now a playwright and director in New York. She lived in a house on Charnelton Street with other theater majors, including Tricia Rodley, who now teaches in the UO theater department, and Jeff Whitty, a playwright who won a Tony for the musical comedy “Avenue Q” and was nominated last year for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

The students that Schreck came up with all had an adventurous spirit, said John Schmor, who was a graduate student at the time and is now an associate professor in the theater arts department.

“They certainly picked up a willingness to take risks and jump into life from each other,” Schmor told Oregon Quarterly. “They all had that that same gusto.”

After stints working as a journalist, teaching English in Siberia and doing theater in Seattle, Schreck moved to New York with her husband, Kip Fagan, a theater director, in 2003. There, she acted in the theater but also started writing plays to growing acclaim.

After co-starring in a 2013 play with Edie Falco, best known as the mobster’s wife on “The Sopranos,” she started writing for and acting in “Nurse Jackie,” a series on Showtime starring Falco as a drug-addicted nurse. That led to other television writing jobs, including episodes of “Billions” and “I Love Dick,” as well as acting roles on those shows and others, including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “The Good Wife.”

The idea of writing a play about her experience as a teenager giving speeches about the Constitution percolated for years as her feelings about the founding document evolved.

“Female bodies were left completely out of the Constitution,” she told Colbert. “Couldn’t vote, were not considered people or citizens, could not hold property. They were the property of their husbands.”

Which is why Schreck loves the Ninth Amendment.

“The Ninth Amendment says that just because a certain right is not listed in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean the right doesn’t exist,” she said. “It’s like a little escape hatch that says we understand we don’t know everything, and in the future there might be things we cannot imagine. And we’re going to put this amendment here that says don’t assume because it’s not in the Constitution you don’t have that right. It’s wonderful.

“The Ninth Amendment is what they had to use when they started making laws about our bodies — for example, the right to choice, the right to birth control,” she continued. “They had to use this amendment that says there are other things we forgot about. They had to use the Ninth Amendment to make decision about our bodies.

“Because when they made the Constitution, they were like” — and here Schreck breaks into a deep, confused man’s voice and gestures to her body — “we don’t know what this is.’”

She wrote “Constitution” to reflect her changing views, and it ended up being a much more personal play than she thought it would.

“The play became about the stories of the women in my family, the way their lives have been shaped by the Constitution, and the ways the Constitution has failed them over generations.”

—By Tim Christie, University Communications