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What Pulitzer-finalist Heidi Schreck wishes people knew about the Constitution

Broadway playwright Heidi Schreck wants Americans to examine how the U.S. Constitution affects their daily lives.
“I do think if people understood more deeply how their human rights were affected by Supreme Court cases that maybe there would be a bigger movement to pass amendments."
“I do think if people understood more deeply how their human rights were affected by Supreme Court cases that maybe there would be a bigger movement to pass amendments."TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Caitlin McNaney for
/ Source: TMRW

Heidi Schreck spent her teenage years touring the country and debating the United States Constitution for college money, but it wasn't until she began to develop a play based off those experiences that she realized just how much the historic document impacted her life.

She turned those experiences into the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, "What the Constitution Means to Me." Schreck hopes that the show, now available for viewing on Amazon Prime, will inspire more people to think closely about how the country's founding document affects them.

"This really was a piece of art I made that I sort of didn't know where I was going when I started," Schreck told TMRW. "I just wanted to kind of revisit this time I spent as a teenage girl doing this contest because I loved it so much and it was such a formative experience for me."

During the 100-minute show, Schreck starts with the prompt that kicked off her teenage debate contests: "Can you find a personal connection between your life and the document?" She finds many, grappling with her family's history of domestic violence and clinical depression and candidly talking about an abortion she had when she was younger, tying those stories into various amendments and Supreme Court decisions.

The Pulitzer Prize finalist discusses just who and what is protected by the Constitution — and who gets left out. Joan Marcus

"Creating the show was a way for me to understand how the Constitution affected my life, the lives of people I love and my family," she said. "I realized that in order to take the prompt seriously, I would need to talk about things that were difficult for me. It got a little bit scary when I realized that I would have to explore those things."

Schreck says that as a teenager she considered the Constitution to be a "beautiful" document, made all the more impressive by its status as a "living, warm-blooded" document that takes "many different ingredient and (boils) them together until they transform into something else, something that is sometimes magic." As an adult, she holds the same respect for the country's founding document, but acknowledges that it might be time to make some major changes.

"It's obviously been amended many times, although it hasn't been since (1992)," Schreck said. "It's difficult to get an amendment passed, but I do think if people understood more deeply how their human rights were affected by Supreme Court cases that maybe there would be a bigger movement to pass amendments."

That question, whether the Constitution should stay untouched, be amended or perhaps even be abolished altogether, is addressed at the very end of the play, when Schreck reenacts the debate hall that she was so familiar with in her younger years. She and a teenage debater — either Rosdely Ciprian, 14 at the time of filming, or Thursday Williams, 19 at the time — flip a coin to determine if they'll debate to keep or abolish the document. During the unscripted debate, the dueling sides make their best arguments; when the debate closes, an audience member is selected to decide whether the Constitution should stay or go.

Over 180 performances on Broadway, the Constitution was abolished 57 times and kept 123 times. The filmed version of the show ends with an audience member voting to abolish the document, something that Schreck said was unplanned.

Rosdely Ciprian, Heidi Schreck, Thursday Williams and Mike Iveson during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call of "What The Constitution Means To Me" at the Hayes Theatre on March 31, 2019 in New York City.Walter McBride / Getty Images

"We didn't have a choice about what we featured, because we filmed the show twice in front of a live audience and for some reason that day both judges voted to abolish," she said. "We just don't actually have any footage of anyone voting to keep, which is odd because usually people voted to keep. When (director Marielle Heller) and I were in the editing room, we said 'I guess this film ends with someone abolishing the Constitution!'"

Schreck said that even as she wrote and performed the play, she frequently changes her mind on whether the country's founding document should stay or go.

"When we first created a debate, I was firmly in the camp of 'Keep the Constitution.' I saw it as a fun theatrical way to end the play," Schreck explained. "I thought 'What if you could put out this argument and argue it as well as you could and see what the audience decided,' but I was firmly in the camp of 'Of course we can't get rid of it, it's a document that's a work of genius.'"

In the final moments of the play, Heidi Schreck debates whether or not the Constitution should be rewritten. In the filmed version, she debates Rosdely Ciprian, 14 at the time of filming. Joan Marcus

However, as she worked with Williams and Ciprian, she said that her opinion began to change.

"We had these debate camps, and our arguments got much better and more sophisticated and once that happened I really on any given night might leave the stage thinking 'Yeah, I think we need a Constitutional convention and we need to remake this document," she said, laughing.

While Schreck doesn't think any sweeping changes should be made at this moment in time — "I don't know, practically, how you would do it without endangering some very fundamental rights," she explained — she does hope the country can take inspiration from other constitutions around the world and maybe add some new amendments.

"I feel like this moment is showing us how important the Equal Rights Amendment is, and I think that's a no-brainer," said Schreck, referencing an amendment proposed in 1972 that would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens, regardless of sex. According to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, roughly 3 in 4 Americans support the amendment, while 72% of the surveyed population incorrectly believe that the Constitution already guarantees men and women equal rights under the law.

"A surprising number of people think we ratified the ERA," Schreck continued. "It seems like a really easy thing to say, that there should be no discrimination on the basis of sex."

Beyond ratifying the ERA, Schreck said she'd like to see a climate change amendment.

"I have babies with two X chromosomes," she said. "I really want them to be truly equal in this country when they grow up. I want them to enjoy that right, which they deserve. I want them to have a future ... As a new mother, I am really hoping that we can, as a country, come through this very scary moment to something that looks better for the future."