BWW Interview: Oliver Butler Talks WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

BWW Interview: Oliver Butler Talks WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME

New York Theatre Workshop is exploring one of the most basic yet critical documents in American government in the upcoming production of What the Constitution Means to Me beginning previews tonight, September 12th.

Obie Award winner Heidi Schreck put herself through college by giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution. Now, she resurrects her teenage self in order to trace the document's profound impact on women's bodies, starting with her great-great-grandmother, breathing new life into the founding document and imagining how it will shape the next generation of American women.

Award-winning director Oliver Butler helms the project and took a moment to speak with BroadwayWorld about what to expect and what he hopes to achieve.

How did you get involved with this project?

Heidi came to me just over two years ago while I was working on The Light Years at Playwrights Horizons with my theatre company The Debate Society. She sat down and told me about this project she'd been working on for ten years and told me it was very elemental. She said she put herself through college giving speeches on the constitution and tells this story about four generations of women in her family, starting with her great-great-grandmother who was a mail-order bride from Germany, and connects that story with different parts of The Constitution. There were elements of competition in it and memory and history, it was a very messy and exciting description.

I work with new plays at my theatre company where we sometimes start with very elemental stuff that doesn't necessarily make sense and her piece actually made a lot of sense. She pitched it to me saying 'I don't know what it is, I don't know if it's a play, I don't even know if I want to do it', but I could tell both from the content of the piece that she did know and also the deep connection she had with the material that this was gold as far as the process and the kind of material I want to be working on.

From there it had some structure to it, she had done a reading of it and she had been doing it in little pop up events like at open mics. She had been doing it in bits and pieces for ten years. I signed up, and we started doing workshops together. We went to National Theatre Institute for a week and did some work there on it together. We did a bunch of workshops with Clubbed Thumb who was instrumental in helping to develop the piece and and produced the first presentation that we did about a year ago, and we started building it into an actual piece with structure and content.

What is it like directing someone in a story that is so deeply personal to them?

There are great benefits with someone who has automatic deep connections to the material and then there are also great challenges. The benefit is that on any show you're working on, you're trying to help a team of people feel more deeply connected to the material. An actor tries to create the most real connection and then communicate that to the audience no matter what it is. So here I got to go in with that being true. But to some extent some of these stories are so personal and so intense that it can also be a hinderance just to the ability to actually get through doing the piece.

A lot of the work we have to do here involves taking the things a person would be most scared to talk about, family stories and things you wouldn't want to to get up in front of a hundred people and talk about, and we have to find ways for Heidi to feel good and empowered and courageous or at least strong enough to say those kinds of things in front of people. So the personal connection can be a liability, but that's the balance and I wouldn't trade that. The worst thing in the world would be working on a show with a person who doesn't really care and has no trouble saying any of it because it doesn't really matter to them. Instead, the problem I have is that everything really matters to this person, the stories are not just theoretical, they're very real and connected to who she is as a person. I've had to strive to find a way to keep that and create a safe space for Heidi to be as vulnerable but also as protected as possible.

What kind of modern issues do you take on and how does this modern political climate influence the show?

The show does it naturally because, while being a recreation of what Heidi did when she was 15, the actual structure of the piece is she's telling a story about how The Constitution either did or did not provide rights to women throughout time. The way we do it is similar to how lawyers take on interpreting The Constitution now. In some ways one of the messages is that everyone has the right and should have the right to look at The Constitution and interpret it for themselves and try to better understand it. One way we do that is by having very merry and open conversations about the issues at hand. We're not tackling things, it's more of an examination of the issues. There is change that I want to see made, and I have a very activist persona, but the action that I'm taking in working on this show is just trying to understand more deeply who I am, who Heidi is, who we all are in relation to the government structure we have. By understanding it more deeply and getting clear about what my values are, I can at least see the gap between where we are and where we should be. Our way of confronting the issues is about clarifying the way things are and the way we wish things would be and finding the gap. By exposing the void, we hope to do the work of being able to see the path forward.

How is the show structured?

It's formally structured, she is actually recreating speeches she gave at 15 as best as she can remember. She tells the audience what she's done and says 'I'm going to recreate this', and tells everyone as much as they need to know in order for her to do that. She both adheres to the rules of the speech, which involves a prepared speech and four extemporaneous sections, and then how she interacts with the rules and breaks the rules that becomes the story of the piece. Then it evolves into something that the audience will just have to come and experience for themselves!

What do you hope this show will communicate to the audience? What do you and Heidi hope your partnership will put on that stage?

I think it's a really good story and really good theatre. Even though giving speeches on The Constitution doesn't sound like the most theatrical kind of thing, it makes for really good theatre. The stories are great, it's an incredible breakdown of how The Constitution works in very personal ways on one person's family and specifically on women's bodies. Just out of the gate for me, that is amazing.

I think it's also a model of how we can take our civic life more personally. Heidi actually shows you a way in which other people can say, 'Maybe I should read this document and take a look at what my rights are and understand what my rights should be and what I can do to make that a reality.' Even though I don't think Heidi specifically issues a call to action, I think there is an inherent call to action, especially today, that says the people who are telling us who are rights are are not as smart as we think, they're not that much smarter than us, and they certainly have no right to better tell our own story and how that fits into the story of America. I hope that people are moved to tell their own stories and dig into just how this document has affected their lives.

What the Constitution Means to Me runs September 12th through October 21st at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street New York, NY 10003). Tickets can be purchased at www.nytw.org.

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