Let’s talk Constitution! In conversation with Helen Young and Beth Lacke

Right before the start of performances for Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, director Helen Young (HY) sat down with Beth Lacke (BL) to chat the rehearsal process, amendments, and the document that continues to spark conversation and controversy, hundreds of years after it was created.

This interview has been edited for length.

                    From left: Beth Lacke and Helen Young

Helen Young: Hi, I’m Helen Young, and I’m the director of What The Constitution Means To Me. And with me today is Beth Lacke who is playing Heidi. Hi, Beth.

Beth Lacke: Hi! And I wanted to qualify—the amazing, incredible director, Helen Young. Continue. [they both laugh]

HY: And the beautiful and brilliant Beth Lacke. Let us continue.

BL: Ok. Now it’s official. Let us continue.

HY: Beth, What is What The Constitution Means To Me to you?

BL: Oh. Well, when I first read the play, I was pretty emotionally moved at a time where I was feeling that everything I was witnessing in the political landscape and happening in beloved America, was outside of my control. I felt just like kind of watching a car accident and not knowing CPR. And so when I read the play, first I felt a kinship with Heidi’s perspective of both loving it, loving America and loving the Constitution and the potential of it, and really, truly the start of it, but also understanding how it’s failed so many communities and women. So, both things are true. [HELEN hums agreement] And then Heidi brings so much of her personal story and her family story, which is another thing that’s very important to me is understanding where we come from and who we come from and their stories and how it affects our own. So, that’s what the play means to me.

The Constitution itself is, you know, there’s a line [in the play] of, “it’s collective faith in this document that holds our country together.” And I feel like as long as we have faith in the document and people interpreting it, it’s a beautiful thing. But when we lose faith in the document or the people who are interpreting the laws and the rules, that’s where we can suffer. What does it mean to you?

HY: When I read this play, it reminded me that I, really—my heart was beating fast for being an American. And I think that’s what I appreciate so much about the story and about TimeLine, having chosen me to direct this play that I’m an American. We can’t talk about our Constitution and our government without feeling a huge love and then a huge frustration because of that love.

Speaking of how personal stories come into this, you shared how the story impacted your family and bringing you together. Can you share a little bit about that?

BL: It brought us together in a really surprising way. My dad, who’s 86, has been helping me run lines. And my family is very Catholic and very pro-life. I’ve known it my whole life. They feel very passionate. So their minds were very set. My dad’s been listening to it for the past couple of months and at the start of running lines, he was like, “You’re just playing a character.” You’re just playing a character. Because Heidi’s character does talk about Roe v. Wade and her personal experiences with it in a very honest way. And my dad was, “just playing a character, just doing your job.” That’s how he can make peace with that. But then last weekend, my mom listened to it the first time and it started this whole conversation with all three of us. We got to discussing abortion and that the play talks about our different communities and different life experiences, that it’s not a black and white issue. It’s a very complicated issue that affects a lot of different men and women for different reasons. And for the first time, my dad said, “It’s a very complicated issue.”

HY: Wow.

BL: And my mom as well. So, that’s the power of this play. I think there’s hesitation at first, you know? We all are pretty entrenched in our belief systems, whether we’re pro-choice, pro-life, whatever it is. We know who we are. We know what we believe. We’re not going to move from that. I think we as a society have our opinions and our politics have come to define who we are, when it really should just be one aspect of who we are. It is dividing us. And I think the power of this play, if people can put their shoulders down and really listen, has a potential just to offer a different perspective. You might not change your mind, but you might learn a little bit more about someone who has an opposing viewpoint and look at people differently.

HY: That’s right. And I think that is one of the things that you share through the play is the Constitution and our laws is one way for us as a country to work together, to struggle together, to figure out who we are. And to me, that’s pretty powerful to work together, to struggle. The example of your family is so mind blowing to me, that’s so—

BL: I know! It was mind blowing to me to, too!

HY: That’s so touching. Heart blowing? [she laughs] Heart blowing and mind blowing!

BY: Exactly.

HY: You did a lot of study on the Constitution and its processes, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment and potentially the Ninth Amendment. What are some things you learned about the Constitution as you worked on this?

So, that’s what I learned about the Constitution, that it really is—I don’t mean to sound like an ad for America—but it really is a tool for the people. And I think if we don’t really study it, we think it’s for other people or that it’s inflexible and not meant to move us forward as a nation. — Beth Lacke

BL: Well, first off, in the play, there are a lot of people who are mentioned from history; a couple of Supreme Court justices [William O. Douglas, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg], a woman named Estelle Griswold, and obviously civil rights leaders. So, not only did I learn about the basics, the start of the Constitution, I learned how through time, different activists and leaders worked within the framework of the Constitution to effect change. So, to put faces to a generalized idea of progress, to actually see the situations that these people lived in, the times— sometimes their motivations may or may not have been for their own purposes and benefit. Heidi talks about it that it’s a living, breathing document. I think before studying this, it was definitive; black and white, piece of paper. We all know what it is. But to really see within the framework of the Constitution how people, I mean brilliant minds and constitutional scholars and lawyers, how everyone has used it? It’s fascinating. And now, I find myself watching the news and I’m like, “Hmm. Yeah. Well, they used the due process clause, obviously.” [HELEN begins to laugh] I mean, every time someone brings up the due process clause on MSNBC right now, I’m like, [she winks] “I know what you’re talking about.” [HELEN laughs]

What’s interesting is that if you study it all, you really do feel like, “I know what to do with this. I know what people are using and how people are using it for their own gains in a way that negatively impacts the rest of us.” Actually understanding how it’s being misused then inspires me to want to get involved. And to not assume that I wouldn’t possibly know because “I’m not a constitutional scholar, because I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a politician. I’m going to leave it to them.” But the truth is, in many cases, the people that Heidi talks about, were just regular Americans. Just regular Americans who felt passionately about the civil rights, who felt passionately about birth control, and/or their freedoms. [People like] Dred Scott, who fought and took things to the Supreme Court in the hopes of change.

So, that’s what I learned about the Constitution, that it really is—I don’t mean to sound like an ad for America—but it really is a tool for the people. And I think if we don’t really study it, we think it’s for other people or that it’s inflexible and not meant to move us forward as a nation.

HY: Speaking of which, there was a New York Times op ed piece written [recently] about the Constitution and amendments. I think a lot of times people think the Constitution is just this document that’s done. [It was created] 200 and some years ago and that’s it. We interpret what those words are like we interpret holy texts thousands of years ago, but that is not the case. There are amendments that are being added continuously. And the piece in The New York Times was about amendments and how they are passed by Congress and written through Congress. So, we have a lot of influence in who we choose to be our congresspeople, what they stand for, what they’re going to make as part of what they’re going to do when they’re in service to the Senate or the House of Representatives. And I find that really hopeful.

You talk a lot about amendments in the play. For example, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, the ending of slavery and the Reconstruction Amendments, and how all of that changed a lot of our country. And the most recent amendment was, I don’t remember, in the 1970s? It was changing the voting age down to 18. So, it was a long time ago, the last time. It’s time for a new one.

BL: Yes, and they’re trying to bring the Equal Rights Amendment back. It’s been 100 years and they’re trying to put it back. It didn’t successfully make it through Congress. But the fact that they’re trying to again, to push something through that they started 100 years ago talks about the relentlessness and the pursuit of justice. It’s like a baton being passed by generation to generation. And Heidi does talk about that, about the young people in our country. Because when you’re watching, like, the Tennessee Three, whose community was impacted and continues to be impacted by violence and what they did to draw attention and national spotlight to their belief that it’s time to amend, to add some regulations and to work on gun legislation, [you see] the two Justins, how young they are, how long they’ve been training for this moment. And the thousand young people who marched on the Capitol, that’s what gives me hope. They feel very strongly. About reproductive health rights, gun legislation, and very strongly about climate change. And all three of those things can be amendments. We can put it into law in the Constitution to protect all those rights and to move us forward as a country.

So, it does feel like a relay race when one generation or one group of people feels weary, it’s up to another, whether it’s a [younger] generation or it’s the older generation saying, “This isn’t all on your shoulders, young people.” You look to the middle-aged white woman down in Tennessee. You know, she’s like, “I got your back, fellas. I’m here, too.” So it isn’t just on the young people. But if we allow their passion and their belief that change is not only possible but necessary, they’ll become an immovable force.

Heidi also talks about how the framers put in the tools, not knowing what the future held. Kind of guessing at it. But based on their experience with tyranny and their desire to not have Americans or the people of this land suffer from tyranny that they built from that knowledge.

HY: There is an emotional journey that Heidi goes through herself when she was performing this each night on stage, and that’s written into this play. That requires or asks of you that you go through an emotional journey each night. How has that been in our rehearsal process? What are some thoughts about doing that in front of an audience each night of people you don’t know?

BL: Well, I’m fortunate enough that this is my third play with TimeLine. I’ve always known the content of the character of the artistic team behind this Company, what it stood for and continues to stand for what it continues to grow into.

HY: I agree.

BL: But this rehearsal process has been one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever been a part of, and it does start— just look away if you can’t take the compliment, just look at something shiny over there. [Helen laughs] But it starts with Helen. You’ve expressed that one of the things that’s so important to you is being a leader, showing what a leader looks like who is a female and how that might be different than work experience that we’ve all experienced. So, you’ve brought that to the rehearsal space and created this space for every person, everyone in the room at any given time to talk about their personal experiences and their ancestors and their lives. It’s felt safer for me to take this emotional journey. Which is also what’s so fascinating because this play for all of us in the room has brought up a lot of our own families and our own personal stories. Whether it’s immigrants, whether it’s abuse, whatever it is, just play kind of broad strokes of the American experience. And so, no matter who’s in the room, someone’s had an experience with something that’s brought up in this play. And you’ve created an environment where it’s safe for us to all really explore that and talk about that.

As an actor, it feels—not exciting, because it’s painful, but it’s such a gift. I’m allowed to bring my own story, my own experience, I get to bring that and add it to Heidi’s story. My goal wasn’t to channel Heidi. My goal was to be a vessel for her story. But I think with every vessel, there’s already water in it. You know, I’m not an empty vessel. We come [to this] as fully formed humans. So, to kind of blend her experiences with my own has been very powerful and rewarding and we haven’t even had an audience yet. So, my hope is that everything we’ve experienced in the rehearsal room will be multiplied by this 99 seat house so that it will feel like a shared experience. It’s something I feel we’ve really missed the past couple of years. Theatre itself really brings you together as a community to have a communal experience. We haven’t been talking to people with opposing viewpoints in a real way recently. And that’s the beauty about Heidi’s stories, everything is heightened, but we’re sharing it together. It’s a gift and I look forward to keep exploring it every night.

HY: This play was written before [the reversal of] Roe v. Wade. How does it feel to be performing this play post that? Or even post COVID?

BL: Well, we all had the question when we first got the play of “what do we do now?” On the surface, the play reads as if it’s still law. And so to explore that in rehearsal of how to communicate with the audience the kind of the elephant in the room without changing the text has been uniquely challenging but also interesting from an artistic standpoint. Because I think there’s a lot that we don’t speak to as people, as humans, that we don’t just say out loud. We do tend to speak between the lines. We don’t always feel comfortable and safe just saying things. So to read between someone’s lines, with the play itself, and to explore those blurry lines and where we are now has been so interesting.

The play talks about a lot of themes about how different communities, including women, are not protected by the Constitution. So, it’s been an emotional journey. [The play] talks about progress going back and forth, how it can seem we’re not moving forward. And to now be using ROE as an example of feeling like progress is going backwards? It has different intent than originally but it’s all still there.

HY: Going back a little bit to your topic about young people… TimeLine is all about past, present, and future. How do the [two] young debaters [featured in the play] fold into this future part of things?

BL: Part one of the play really explores Heidi’s journey and part two brings it to the present day. And the debaters in the present move it into the future. So, it’s taking the themes from the topics that we’re talking about and then accessing them in the current moment to try to understand how to best move forward.

HY: And that actually fits into something I love about this play, which is the penumbra, you know. It’s a word that nobody understands. But I love the penumbra word that’s brought up in this play, because to me, that explains the connection between past, present, and future as it relates to the Constitution. There is Amendment nine, which allows for the fact that we don’t know the future of this country. We don’t know what the 300 plus million people 15, 20, 30 years from now may want for how this country will operate. And so there’s room for that through time and it doesn’t have to be locked like an ancient holy text where that’s it. We have the hope of next generation coming together and saying, “Hey, here’s what I want and this is the amendment I want to have.” So to me, that penumbra part of the Constitution and a part of our lives, part of our experience as a country is super hopeful for me. We’re not stuck with what we think or see in the moment. There’s so much we don’t know. And the future could be really bright.

BL: Even more like a foundation on which we’re building a building. Right? The foundation is a little cracked. You got to fill in some you know. But hopefully keep building and see what happens.

And when we talk about laws, like we do in the play, it’s about truly seeing one another as human beings. That if we do that, it’s much harder to not come together as a country. And find a way to progress together. There is the framework to let it reflect what the people now feel, and to have it continue to move us forward, to have all the voices heard. But we need to speak up. There’s whole communities that have felt silenced. We need to speak up and then we need to listen as well.

HY: Why do people need to see What The Constitution Means To Me?

BL: Well, [she gestures to them both] duh. [they both laugh]. Ok. Well, first up, it’s a fun play. I mean, there’s a lot of tough subjects but when it’s wrapped up in a personal story, a personal story written by a woman who is very funny, it’s a wonderful way to explore those topics we don’t talk about. It’s just a fun and beautiful and poignant and inspirational way to explore our Constitution and our government and doing it in a way that hopefully you leave to run for Congress.

HY: That’s the goal. [they both laugh] If every audience member that comes through this House walks away going, “I want to be a congressperson,” we’ve done it.

BL: Yes! Or find out who your alderman is! We definitely want everyone to be congresspeople. Just run. Your local government, school board, state law—it’s not just Presidential elections that matter. Whatever!

HY: We want to lift up voices, including your own.

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