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PREVIEW: ‘What the Constitution Means to Me’ invites Nashville to an interactive, political theater

Updated: Apr 23

The interactive, all-American play “What the Constitution Means to Me” will open at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, hauling its wave-making legacy to Music City for a strictly limited engagement.

Originally starring playwright Heidi Schreck as herself, the production premiered off-Broadway in 2018 at New York Theatre Workshop before making its Broadway debut the following year. The play quickly garnered dazzling accolades for both its craft and cultural significance.

Cassie Beck, who now plays Schreck in the national tour, saw the play in its early stages and felt “blown away” by its emotional and intellectual depth, as well as Schreck’s vulnerable performance.

In “What the Constitution Means to Me,” 45-year-old Schreck recreates her time as a teenage Constitutional debater — a college scholarship tactic that challenged her to meaningfully connect the document to her own life.

The play treks across a broad political landscape, said Beck, but speaks most fervently to the Ninth and 14th Amendments. However, the current political climate always impacts what the audience perceives as prominent, giving the play a timeless, mercurial quality.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” has spanned three presidential administrations, beginning in the Obama administration and traversing to today. As politics shift, the cast notes a corresponding change in the play’s reception.

Previously, immigration laws leaped to the forefront of the show’s subject matter. Now, since Roe v. Wade is “having a moment,” Beck remarked, women’s rights seems to be the topic “shining the brightest.”

“I’m doing the exact same play Heidi did,” she said, “but people are hearing it totally differently.”

Beck herself first saw the show on the same day Christine Blasey Ford testified against a then-nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She carried the heart-wrenching emotions of Ford’s testimony into the theater and found herself deeply moved by Schreck’s pertinent performance.

Beck feels honored to now be on the other side, lending that experience to audiences across the country.

“It feels amazing to carry it on. It kind of just deepens the idea of what I was experiencing as an audience member, which was ‘Oh, my God, this is my story too.’”

Schreck’s character, though nonfictional, is meant to be an “everywoman.”

Beck not only recreates the real-life Schreck, but infuses the role with her own personality and experiences. She even gets a “breakout” moment in which she addresses the audience as her true self.

“It deepens the universality of the character of Heidi. It makes it not just her story but so many women’s stories, so many American women’s stories,” Beck said.

Beck believes intersectionality allows many people to relate to the show, not just women. However, she can’t say who, exactly, it’s for or not for.

“I’m sure there are going to be people who are going to see it and agree with 90% of it and disagree with 10% of it. Or, there’s going to be somebody who disagrees with 90% of it and agrees with 10% of it. Whose experience is more valid? You know? I don’t know.”

“Honestly, the play asks questions. It’s not a TED Talk on the Constitution. It really is asking questions.”

The show functions, in part, as a civic experiment. The second half brings out another cast member — a real teen debater, who leads a live debate in the theater. And yes, the audience gets to participate.

To Beck, what proves the show’s point, and its power, is when she emerges from the stage door post-performance; there’s always a group lingering on the sidewalk, still debating.

“I think they continue the conversation out down the street to the bar or in their cars on the way home, and for several days, even, after,” she said.

Throughout the play, true to the title, Schreck explores what the U.S. Constitution means to her, and she invites the audience to do the same.

“The whole play is an invitation to have a personal connection with the Constitution, and that doesn’t matter who you are,” said Beck.

So, no matter your ideologies, “What the Constitution Means to Me” might just be the perfect play for anyone interested in a civically minded, fourth-wall-defying theater experience.

And, of course, anyone who loves a good debate.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” runs at TPAC’s Polk Theater from March 29 to April 3.

Belmont students can get tickets for $19 by applying the promo code “BRUINS” prior to ticket selection.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” was written by Heidi Schreck and will be directed by Oliver Butler.

PHOTO: Promotional image for “What the Constitution Means to Me,” featuring Cassie Beck as Heidi Schreck. Joan Marcus

This article was written by Meagan Irby.

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