Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante

The constitution of Heidi Schreck’s Oregon roots

Seeds for the career of the acclaimed playwright, whose "What the Constitution Means To Me" opens this week at Portland Center Stage, were planted and nurtured in Oregon.

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Rebecca Lingafelter stars in Heidi Schreck's "What the Constitution Means to Me" at Portland Center Stage, in a role the plawright originally performed. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.
Rebecca Lingafelter stars in Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” at Portland Center Stage, in a role the plawright originally performed. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/ courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Heidi Schreck may be “Broadway’s biggest success story,” as Backstage Magazine declared in 2019. And the toast of Hollywood for her work on the popular series I Love Dick and other TV shows. Thanks in part to her much-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, which opens Friday, Jan. 26, at Portland Center Stage after several preview performances, she’s certainly one of America’s leading playwrights.

But before that, Schreck was a drama student at the University of Oregon, treading the boards in Eugene with running buddies like Avenue Q playwright and Oregon Coast native Jeff Whitty and current UO theater department chair John Schmor. 

And before that, she was a Northwest kid growing up in Wenatchee Washington, contracting the theater bug in the seats at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and planting the seeds for the story told in Constitution.

Northwest Wellsprings

Schreck inherited the theater virus, and other lifelong interests, from her parents, both public school teachers (debate and history, which no doubt sparked interests that would emerge in What the Constitution Means to Me), who met while running a group home for homeless kids in Wenatchee. They dedicated their lives to serving others, and passed their devotion for social justice to young Heidi, who worked in a soup kitchen for the poor. That experience helped inform her breakthrough play, Grand Concourse, which takes place in a similar setting.

Her parents also ignited another passion. “There were so many books in our home,” she told ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks in 2016. “I did so much reading from when I was young.” That spawned obsessions ranging from Nancy Drew mysteries to religious philosophy — Bertrand Russell, C.S. Lewis and more. Those concerns, Hicks wrote, “work their way into the deep background of her plays, along with Dostoevsky and the other Russians.” She’s still a voracious reader, of poetry, Russian literature, and more.

Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Repertory Theatre during the company's 2016 run of Schreck's play "Grand Concourse." Photo: Nicole Lane
Heidi Schreck (right) with actor Ayanna Berkshire at Artists Repertory Theatre during the company’s 2016 run of Schreck’s play “Grand Concourse.” Photo: Nicole Lane

Participation in high school debate programs and American Legion speaking competitions — the setting for Constitution — also came naturally to the child of a debate coach. She also considered a career in law, the frequent landing spot for high school debaters. 

The debate over abortion rights plays a major role in What the Constitution Means to Me, and that, too originates in Schreck’s childhood. For all its attractions, Wenatchee was also a conservative, “abortion-free zone,” Schreck has said, which made abortion rights more than a theoretical concern for a blossoming teenager who was, as she told an interviewer, “terrifyingly turned on all the time.”

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But Schreck’s most salient childhood influence came from participating, starting at age six, in the free children’s theater company her mother ran. The company, Short Shakespeareans, not only gave Schreck first-hand experience onstage, but also the opportunity to perform with the company each fall at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She was traumatized yet tantalized by seeing bloody Macbeth at age seven — the same year she played Hermia in a childrenʼs production of A Midsummer Nightʼs Dream. The intoxicating brew of magic and passion cast its spell: Schreck fell in love with theater. 

Duck Tales

But that’s not what she intended to focus on when Schreck arrived at the University of Oregon in 1989. She wanted to be an environmental lawyer. But temptation struck. “The first week I landed in Eugene, I saw a call for auditions for a play called Red Noses, directed by Jack Watson,” she told me in an interview a few years ago. “I fell in love with acting and the theater department. I stopped being pre-law 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.”

Fellow disciples in the UO theater included Ty Burrell (who gained fame on Broadway and Emmy Awards on TV’s Modern Family), Prof. Bob Barton, Rob Urbinati (now a New York-based playwright, author, educator and director) and John Schmor, then a graduate student, now a professor who heads the UO theater program.

I remember [Schreck] being unusually mature and vibrant,” Schmor says. In Chekov’s Three Sisters, “she was playing the oldest sister even though she was a freshman.” Russian writers beguiled her, including novelists Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Gogol, as did poets from Dickinson to Akhmatova, and playwrights from Caryl Churchill to Maria Irene Fornes and more. A class in medieval women’s history turned her onto medieval female mystics. The autobiography of one of them, The Book of Margery Kempe, later inspired her first New York play.

The university also provided her first taste of writing plays. When a regional acting competition required her to perform a monologue, “I couldn’t find a monologue I liked,” Schreck remembered, “so I wrote my own and put a fake name on it. So that’s maybe where I did become a writer.” The resulting monologue and performance won her a trip to Washington, D.C.

A bit of Eugene also made its way into Grand Concourse: a bearded character named Frog who hands out little mimeographed joke books. The tie-dyed character with his signature line (“Have you seen the world’s funniest joke book?”) and box of mimeographed pamphlets was a familiar sight to me and many other Ducks on the campus main drag during that period.

Beyond offering her intellectual inspiration and roles in many productions, UO theater also gave Schreck a community.

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“She had a posse,” recalled Schmor. “They all lived in a house on Charnelton together, and they were always doing activist things together, not just theater — always a good sign.” One posse member, Tricia Rodley, now teaches in the UO theater department. Another, Jeff Whitty, went on to win a Tony Award for writing the book for the smash Avenue Q

“That group of students that Heidi came up with all had an adventurous spirit,” Schmor says. “Tricia founded a theater company in Seattle, Jeff got on a Green Tortoise bus and went to New York, she went to Russia. They certainly picked up a willingness to take risks and jump into life from each other. They all had that same gusto.”

Siberia to Seattle

For all her gusto, as graduation approached, Schreck still wasn’t sure what to do next. A chance opportunity took her to Russia to work as a journalist, where she mostly covered politics, but also found herself haunting theaters in Siberia and St. Petersburg. When she was offered a promotion, Schreck realized she was at a crossroads: stay in journalism, which she liked — or take a chance on theater, which she loved.

Providentially, a pair of her UO friends, Rodley and Paul Willis, had just founded Printer’s Devil Theatre company in Seattle — and they wanted their 24-year-old fellow traveler to join a dozen 20-somethings who wanted to revolutionize theater. Lacking a dedicated space, they produced shows in everything from restaurant kitchens to disused ferries. While working day jobs to pay the rent in a city that, in the late 1990s was still relatively affordable, Schreck and her dozen compatriots did it all — acting, directing, sewing costumes, writing grant proposals, building sets, marketing.

And writing. When the artistic directors kept choosing male-oriented shows, Schreck pushed for slots for  plays by women, and decided to contribute one of her own, Stray, featuring the company’s five female actors. Printer’s Devil also produced an annual new plays festival, which attracted rising young New York playwrights who’d fly west for readings and stay with company members. One was Reed College alumna Anne Washburn, who became a friend. 

In Schreck’s decade there, Printer’s Devil produced her first three plays. And it introduced her to her husband, director Kip Fagan, who later directed several of her plays. In 2003, when he received a fellowship offer in New York City, Schreck, then in her early 30s, decided that if she was ever going to take a shot at the center of American theater, this was it.

New York State of Play

Heidi Schreck at the 2019 Tony Awards. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Heidi Schreck at the 2019 Tony Awards. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Schreck joined a couple of playwriting groups, and was quickly cast in a New York production of one of Washburn’s plays. More roles — and raves, including Obie Awards — followed. Day jobs (teaching English as a second language, coaching business presentations, copyediting, working for various nonprofit social justice organizations) helped pay the Brooklyn bills till she was 37, by which time she was appearing frequently in Off-Broadway acting roles.

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Still, finances proved persistently precarious. Then, after appearing in a play starring Sopranos star Edie Falco and written by her friend Liz Flahive, the writer helped Schreck, by then 40, land a writing gig on Falco’s Showtime series Nurse Jackie — while she was simultaneously appearing onstage at Shakespeare in the Park and many other prestigious stages.

“I entered TV at the moment when everyone was looking to hire playwrights,” Schreck told me in a 2017 interview. “This explosion of great cable TV shows meant a huge explosion of content,” and with hundreds of new shows airing, producers needed writers. That and TV acting, including recurring roles in Nurse Jackie (where she was also a story editor), The Good Wife, and Billions (which she co-produced), at last brought some financial stability. One of the episodes she wrote for I Love Dick garnered national praise for its honest depiction of the complexity of female desire. 

Doing television has helped Schreck as a writer, she told Hicks: “I learned lots of things about structure writing for television, because the format is so much tighter.” But when she writes a play, the characters come first. And because sheʼs also an actor, she tries to make sure all of her roles have meat: “I hear the charactersʼ voices in my ear as Iʼm writing.” 

Somehow, Schreck also crafted a simultaneous career writing plays as well as acting in them. She turned the story of medieval nun Margery Kempe, which she discovered at UO, into her 2009 play Creature, which captured the pathos and humor of a woman who wants to be a saint but just isn’t cut out for the job. More originals followed, to increasing critical acclaim: The Consultant, There Are No More Big Secrets, and, in 2014, Grand Concourse, which drew on her experience working at social justice organizations. 

“The plays Iʼve written have all been wildly different in content,” Schreck told Hicks. “Iʼm always fascinated with the gap between what people want to be and what they are. Theyʼre searching to be ethical people, and donʼt know how to do that.”

Then, in 2017, after a decade of incubation, workshops and development at many small theaters, came What the Constitution Means to Me, which was “the first time I’ve married the two identities” of writer and actor, she told me in 2017. “I was both scared and thought it would be indulgent in some way,” to act in something she wrote, she continued. “This has been eye-opening; that I can do that, apparently, and people will pay to come see it.”

See it they did: Constitution recouped its $2.5 million capitalization, reached Broadway, toured nationally, won the Obie Award for Best New American Play, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Schreck scored Tony Award nominations for both leading actress in a play and best play.  (Esteemed Portland actor Rebecca Lingafelter plays the Schreck role in Portland Center Stage’s current production.)

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The issues dramatized in that show, rooted in her Northwest childhood, reveal a crucial element of Schreck’s playwriting, what Schmor called her “historical/political intelligence. She’s not just writing a good story or interested in psychological characters. She’s interested in the weirdness of history and what arguments come from” those elements.

In that 2017 interview, Schmor also offered notes for actors portraying Schreck, since she retired from the role herself, advice that provides insights into both the play and its author. “Don’t be afraid of bold strokes,” he said. “She never comes off as some falsely grandiose person, but she’s not afraid of clear statements and broad, wicked humor. You couldn’t play Heidi Schreck shyly.”

***

“What the Constitution Means to Me” runs through Feb. 18 at Portland Center Stage. Read more about it in Marty Hughley’s DramaWatch column this week, and stay tuned for Darleen Ortega’s OAW review. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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