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Howard Sherman: The more specific a story is, the more universal it can be

Heidi Schreck in What the Constitution Means to Me. Photo: Joan Marcus
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As if calling a play What the Constitution Means to Me wasn’t didactic enough, audience members leave the Greenwich House Theater production with a pocket-sized copy of the United States Constitution itself, in an edition printed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

I’m sure many readers would leap to the conclusion that the largely one-woman play, performed by its author Heidi Schreck, is a piece of rapid-response agitprop theatre prompted by the current US political climate.

But they would be wrong. This isn’t a show hastily thrown together to capitalise on current events. Schreck has been developing it for 10 years.

This isn’t even the first time the show acclaimed by audiences and critics has been seen in New York: it played a brief stint in the summer of 2017 under the auspices of the company Clubbed Thumb.

That the title evokes a school essay is no accident. Schreck’s starting point is the true-life story of how she amassed money to pay for college by travelling to high school essay competitions – these required her to speak on the Constitution, in both memorised and extemporaneous fashion, for cash prizes.

But from there she expands far beyond the topic into a fuller consideration of the foundational governmental document as well as her matrilineal history of illness and abuse, before looping back to recreating yet more of the competitions from her youth.

If Constitution wasn’t specifically conceived for today, it has certainly arrived at the right moment. With only the slightest tip of Schreck’s hand to current events, it manages to both entertain and provoke, while prompting audiences to consider a seemingly abstract document more deeply than it may have ever done before.

It would be fascinating to learn what non-US audiences might make of it, since it doesn’t seem to require any deep knowledge of the document in advance.

While there is no question that the play is Schreck’s personal story, the show could well be performed by other actors in her role. Of course, they will be enacting her personal and family history without the true-life link, but the piece is not a stream-of-consciousness, ad-libbed confessional. Indeed, at one point, Schreck, seemingly careening out of control in her storytelling, breaks the moment to note that we are watching a carefully constructed narrative.

Might there be multiple Heidis across the country in the next year or two? That seems a distinct possibility, given the show’s popular reception and exceptionally timely message – though it has probably been timely at every moment of its decade-long theatrical journey. Constitution proves the adage – at least for Americans – that the more specific a story is, the more universal it can be. So, Schreck’s very personal story has the power to speak to audiences everywhere, even if she cannot possibly be everywhere to tell it.

It seems the appropriate subject to tackle at the end of 2018. Ultimately, it affirms the power of our political system, however flawed, to move us in the right direction, whatever challenges we may be facing right now. But once again, theatre manages to illuminate our collective lives, and make everything just a bit more bearable.

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