Heidi Schreck is a busy woman. She alternates regularly between the roles of actor and writer in two mediums: theatre and TV. Right now, she’s doing both at the same time—she’s just finished writing and producing Amazon’s new series I Love Dick, and is starring in her own play, What the Constitution Means to Me. Her newest work is debuting as part of Clubbed Thumb’s acclaimed Summerworks Festival and is inspired by Schreck’s real-life story—of giving speeches on the American Constitution as a teenager to pay for her college education. The play traces the effects of a single sentence of the Ninth Amendment on generations of women in her family—starting with her great-great-grandmother, a mail-order bride from Germany who died of melancholia.
You had a roundabout path to playwriting and acting. What’s the short version?
After college, it was a choice between acting school and going to Russia, and I decided that moving to Siberia seemed easier. I was in love with the language and literature. After teaching, I moved to St. Petersburg and got a job as a reporter, but during that time I was also writing plays and short stories. Part of moving to Russia was me wanting to explore the world, but I was also unsure about dedicating my life to the theatre at that point—it took me a while to commit to it. When I moved to Seattle in my 20s, I started a theatre company with my husband [Kip Fagan].
Have you always balanced writing and acting?
Pretty much. When I was in college I was looking for a monologue to perform for a scholarship contest but had trouble finding one that I liked, so I wrote one myself under an alias. I ended up winning and performing at the Kennedy Center, and from that early age, I thought that writing my own material was a good way to control what I was doing onstage. That inspired my early writing, and was a way to avoid waiting around to be cast—I wanted to constantly have an artistic life.
Now that you do both professionally, how do they inform one another?
Writing, for me, is a visceral experience because of acting. My colleagues on I Love Dick always make fun of me because they see me acting everything out as I write. I use my body and imagine myself playing all the characters. With What the Constitution Means to Me, I’m acting a part that I wrote and that can be a little overwhelming. I short circuit sometimes because I want to stop myself and fix something in the writing.
How do you pick your projects or do they choose you?
I’ve always chosen my projects. When I started my theatre company, we were invested in doing new plays. I met all of these fantastic writers like Sheila Callaghan, Naomi Iizuka, and Anne Washburn. I wanted to perform in their plays, and they also inspired me to write. Now, about 95 percent of the roles I’ve taken on have been in plays written by women. I don’t think that was an accident. I believe it was a choice.
How do you find the time to write plays on top of everything else?
My days have become very long. I often wake up at 4 or 5 AM and write before I come to rehearsal. I was doing the same when I was writing for I Love Dick. The hours of 4 AM–9 AM are a beautiful time for creativity. Your brain is in a dreamlike state and comes up with unexpected things.
Have you come across a lot of TV writers who are also playwrights?
In my experience it’s been common to have a lot of playwrights in the writers’ room for a show. For I Love Dick, we had four playwrights: the co-creator Sarah Gubbins, Annie Baker, and Carla Ching. It was similar when I worked on Nurse Jackie.
How have you found it empowering to take on so many roles professionally?
I think most people can do many things. The division between acting and writing is a bit of a false one—historically, our greatest writers have also been actors. I would encourage anyone to try both.
Why do you continue return to Clubbed Thumb as an incubator of your work?
I love their ethos and it’s a place that I constantly return to as an artistic home—they’ve nurtured me these 12 years I’ve been in the city. Artistic Director Maria Striar chooses plays that are weird in the best way and push the boundaries of what plays can be.
What the Constitution Means to Me is running June 21–July 1 at The Wild Project, located at 193 E. 3rd St., New York. For tickets and more information visit ClubbedThumb.org/.