An Interview with Heidi Schreck

 

Written by Victoria Myers

September 10th, 2014

Heidi Schreck is a hyphen person, as in: writer hyphen actress. That’s right—she has two successful careers in theatre. And if you guessed that we think that is awesome, you’d be right again (you’re two for two, get it?). As a playwright, Heidi’s latest work to hit the New York stage is Grand Concourse, which begins performances at Playwrights Horizons on October 17th. Her other plays include CreatureThere Are No More Big Secrets, and The Consultant. As an actor, you may have caught her in her Obie and Drama Desk-winning performance in Circle Mirror Transformation. And, sticking with our theme of twos, she has a second Obie Award for her performance in Drum of the Waves of Horikawa. She’s also a writer for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie where, fittingly, she’s appeared as an actress. She’s a wonderful person to speak to about all things theatre and much more. Heidi spent a couple of years living in Russia and told us about how it’s common there to stay up all night talking about literature and life—we totally could have talked all night with her (and we interviewed her at 2pm).

(i.) Present

Grand Concourse sounds really interesting. Would you mind telling us a little about it?
The play is set in a small church soup kitchen in the Bronx and it’s run by this woman, Shelley, who is played by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. She’s a nun in the tradition of Dorothy Day—a sister of social service, dedicated her life to the poor—and she’s having a kind of mid-life crisis. She’s questioning the efficacy of what she’s been doing for twenty years and wonders if it’s doing anyone any good. She’s having a little spiritual and career crisis. And this girl shows up to the soup kitchen to volunteer and ends up both kind of reigniting her sense of idealism and also kind of upending her life. Shelley is about forty and this girl is about nineteen, and they form this incredibly intense friendship that really changes the direction of Shelley’s life.

That’s a really interesting age gap to be dealing with in terms of female friendships. It’s not quite maternal and not quite older sister. It’s an interesting space for characters to be in.
That’s what I felt like too. She absolutely is old enough, technically, to be her mother, but I’m no one’s mother. I have close friendships with women in their twenties where I feel like, “Am I an older sister? Am I…?” And it also brings up that I don’t have children, which is true for Shelley too, and wanting to put that maternal instinct somewhere.

It deals with religion and spirituality as well. That seems like something we don’t see all that much in contemporary plays. 
I’m an agnostic, but religion was a really big part of my growing-up. We were Presbyterian, but there was a lot of flip-flopping—people would be Atheists and then they’d decide to go back to church again. There was a lot of conflict. My dad was a philosophy major and wrote his thesis on Kierkegaard, so he had this shelf full of books. I remember at ten reading Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and being like, “Oh, I can’t go to church anymore!” and then kind of flip-flopping later. So it was a big part of my childhood. And then, when I was in college, I got really into female mystics, Medieval Catholic saints, and writers. The Catholic Church has a lot of issues with women, but it’s allowed women to take control of their own destinies and at a much earlier time in history than one might think. So I feel like I was always interested in those thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth century women who used the Church as a way to create their own lives—to write, to compose, to have political power, to create music and plays. So I’ve had this fascination since I was like twenty with the Catholic women.

Does religion feel like a scary thing to write about?
Yes. Terrifying. I feel like sometimes I work a little too hard to frame the play in a way that people won’t be scared off by it. So I’m like, “The main character is a nun and that’s not exactly what the play is about.” I’m sometimes afraid of scaring people away.

It’s interesting to put different aspects of New York on stage.
I’ve lived here almost twelve years now, and I think this play was the first time I felt like I’d lived here long enough to write about New York. When I first moved here I worked for a lot of non-profits. I worked teaching ESL and for a lot of social justice organizations that help immigrants find housing and get jobs and things like that. So the social justice world in New York is really familiar to me and, I think, a really interesting environment, and I wanted to write about that.

(ii.) Influences

You’ve been writing for Nurse Jackie. We’re always interested in the conversation between different mediums. Do you think working in TV affected your playwriting?
I’m finding it out right now. I’m actually working on Nurse Jackie at the same time I’m working on the play, which is going to be a little bit stressful. What I’ve learned from working for Nurse Jackie is that structure can be your friend, which I think I resisted when I was younger. I started out acting downtown in very experimental plays, and I didn’t want linear narrative, and I was grumpy about structure and hostile towards it. And I got a job in TV and learned that story can be a beautiful thing. I feel like the writers at Nurse Jackie have helped me use structure in a way that helps me rather than gets in my way.

You’re an actor as well. That, no doubt, affects your playwriting. 
Yes, absolutely. I would never write a character who was like Character Number One or Character A or just brings in the samovar—not to diss Chekhov. I’m very conscious of writing parts that actors would want to play. I don’t want to write utility parts because, as an actor, I never want to play those parts. I also feel like, for better or worse, I’m very conscious of what plays [well on stage]—like wanting to give actors juicy things to do and say on stage. When I’m writing a play, I get excited about the things that I would want to do and/or say on stage.

As an actor you have all that time in rehearsal rooms and doing productions. It gives you a lot more experience in the room than a lot of playwrights have. 
I do think I skip ahead very easily to, that will be more interesting in front of an audience if I do this. Or that will never work in front of an audience, which is where maybe it gets in my way sometimes because sometimes it’s good to just let the director solve that. I also very much like once I have an actor in mind—like I had Quincy in mind for the part of Shelley very early on—I feel like I start writing for them, in a way. I’m not writing in a Platonic space; I’m writing thinking of the living person. It just helps you find the specificity of a character so much more quickly if you have someone in mind. Also, I think, the whole thing about making a play is that everybody kind of falls in love with each other. I think, as a writer, you fall in love with an actor and then you want to make something beautiful for that person. So I think the act of falling in love with an actor is great for inspiration.

(iii.) Female Roles

Does being an actress make you more cognizant of the female roles in your plays?
Yes, absolutely. There are all kinds of terrific female roles out there. There are also terrible female roles. And, when I was acting more often, I went and auditioned for some of those terrible female roles, and it definitely ignited a fire in me to write only the most interesting female roles I possibly could. I like to write complicated, weird women because those are the kind of parts I would want to play. That’s always very important to me. Especially since there’s a surplus of incredible actresses in their 30s to early 40s. There are so many brilliant women, and I just felt like there needed to be more parts for these women because there’s not enough work for the amount of talent.

And you’re combining the acting and writing soon? 
In January I’m doing this solo play that I wrote called What the Constitution Means to Me. It’s an evening of me talking about the Constitution. I hope it’s funny.

There’s a lot of comedy to be mined in the Constitution.
There’s a lot of comedy.

(iv.) Themes

Do you see any themes in your writing?
Yes. Maybe it’s because of my upbringing that this kind of thirst for something bigger—that I hesitate to call God because I realize that shuts some people down—but this thirst for something beyond the material in our lives is a driving force in my life, and I think in all the plays. The idea that people are grappling with what it means to be alive beyond the sort of survival mode and are, in fact, seeking some sort of transcendence. It’s not always religious, but they are looking for a way to find meaning that doesn’t have to do with just the everyday material existence.

You’re not the first to bring up a spiritual theme in the work. We’ve noticed people seem to shy away from talking about it since they worry people will be judgmental.
There’s this great book called Quest for the Living God, which is by this nun Elizabeth Johnson who has been censored by the Catholic bishops. The book has been censored for not being Orthodox enough. She basically makes a point in the book that we’ve come to a new time in history when our old way of understanding God no longer works. Like, if we want a version of God—and I think many people do, in fact, search for that—it has to be updated. We can’t rely on the old form anymore. I feel like the new thing she’s talking about has some similarities to Buddhism and other types of spirituality that I think are flowering right now. But I’m interested in this idea that the old-fashioned God just doesn’t cut it anymore. But I don’t think our need for something bigger has disappeared with the Enlightenment and with scientific advances. It’s a weird time, and I think that’s why people don’t know how to talk about it.

Do you see any themes in your acting work? 
I did for a while. I don’t know if I do anymore. But when I was in my late twenties… So I played Nina in The Seagull and then I did a play by David Adjmi called Strange Attractors, which was an updated version of A Doll’s House. So there was this period of time where I felt like I was playing girls who were trying to figure out what it meant to become a woman or an artist or a person with authority in the world. I felt like for a long time I was really hammering out, how do you move into your own sense of power in the world? That was a theme that kept me acting for a really long time.

How did playing those parts affect you as you were going through that same transition in life that happens when you’re in your mid and late-twenties? 
When I did David Adjmi’s play, I had a lot of emotional upheaval. That part was very difficult for me. I just had a really hard time going to the places that I needed to go to in the play. I think it was out of some fear of connecting with a sense of power in myself, which is also what the character, who’s based on Nora in A Doll’s House, was trying to do. And that the chasm between being someone who is taken care of and cherished for being kind and lovely and nice to other people, and becoming a person who takes responsibility for their own life and actions and dreams, and in the process maybe loses friendships, loses the love of people. That was a very scary thing for me.

(v.) Process

What is your process like as an actress?
You know, every time I start a new play I feel like I’ve absolutely forgotten how to act and I have no idea what I’m doing. So, it feels like every time I’m starting from scratch, which I know is not true. And the thing that I try to go to first is sort of the, “Why this play? Why now?” Because I’m doing this play because there’s something going on with me that corresponds with this part, so that’s the thing that I start with. I try to look for the thing that scares me the most about the part. Look for the way the part might be reflective of some turmoil in my life at that point. I guess I do everything I can to start from the most vulnerable place possible and then start to build the rest of it.

What’s your process like as a writer?
I had terrible case of writer’s block with Grand Concourse. Tanya Barfield teaches a weekend [workshop]. You go in, basically eight hours a day, and she just gives you writing exercises all day. So I had a terrible block and I was like, “I’m just going to go and see what this block is about.” I went on a Saturday morning, and by Sunday night I had the sort of origin of this play. So I’m very grateful to her. I feel like it’s another version of the acting process. Obviously, I was blocked because there was something I was scared of and in denial about and didn’t want to look at. So I feel like, particularly with writing, starting with the thing I’m scared of or the thing I’m in denial about is a fertile place to start.

(vi.) Culture

What other areas of culture affect your work?
I’m a voracious reader. I have been since I was a little kid. I would walk down the street reading books. I have a particular interest in Russian literature. I lived in Russia for almost three years and I speak Russian. Poetry in particular. I’m a huge poetry fan. I always wish that I could write plays that have the impact of poems, but it’s such a completely different form. But, my dream would be to either write poems, or write plays that somehow are poetry. I love TV. I love movies. I like art. I had a fascination with the abstract expressionists for a long time—I was into all of those painters and artists.

Who are your top five female poets?
1. Anna Akhmatova
2. Marie Howe
3. Anne Carson
4. Alice Notley
5. Anne Sexton

(vii.) Past

What is the first piece of storytelling that had a major impact on you?
Macbeth. My mom took me to see Macbeth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was seven. Which, in retrospect, seems like maybe a bad idea. It horrified me. That was my experience of true terror in the theatre and I loved it. It brought up a lot of fear in me. I remember very vividly actually identifying with the character of Macbeth—like what if I’m a murderer? He’s such an ordinary person, and I think that’s what’s so brilliant about the play. I feel like anybody could feel like, “It could happen to me.” Like my ambition—even if I’m seven—could lead me to kill someone else for the things I want. I actually think it probably makes sense that children identify with it, because that id is so active in you at that point and you’re like, “Yes, I would kill other people to get what I want!” So I remember having a lot of terrible thoughts and not being able to sleep.

Who were your heroes growing up?
My heroes growing up were almost all dancers. Gelsey Kirkland. Natalia Makarova. Baryshnikov. I really wanted to be a dancer. I loved ballet more than anything. I’m not saying this just to be cheesy, but my parents. They were both high school teachers and both really devoted their lives to service. They met while running a group home for young homeless kids. When I was young, I’m not sure I thought they were my heroes, but now looking back, I feel like their dedication to service and their lack of interest in money and material things, I’m really grateful that they passed me that strength.

The physicality and how dancers look is so important to ballet. Do you find any relation between that and what you were saying about girls growing into women?
A ballerina is an interesting person because she’s an object that we regard and contemplate and get great delight from, but also, in order to be that, she has to have this ferocious sense of will and strength and flexibility and, in the greatest dancers, spirituality. So I feel the contradiction is very much alive in the ballerina.

It’s insanely physical. 
Yes. Insanely physical and an object of beauty, but one that can only be such if she has a tremendous sense of authority. So I feel like it probably captures the dilemma of being a woman in this culture.

Was there a fictional character that had a big influence on you? 
I was a big fan of Nancy Drew mysteries. I really wanted to be a detective. I grew up with so much theatre. I grew up acting—my mom had a Shakespeare company for kids called Short Shakespeareans. So I grew up with all of those characters and I was in love with all of them. Like I got to play Rosalind [in As You Like It] when I was like ten. I feel like all of those women—Rosalind, Viola, Kate—were very vivid figures to me. I’m actually really grateful because I feel like they gave me a sense of how large a woman’s consciousness could be. Shakespeare writes really terrific women. So those women, and I loved and Nancy Drew.

(viii.) Places

Let’s talk about when you lived in Russia.
So, I moved to Siberia to teach English because I did not know what to do with my life. I was twenty-two and completely confused and somebody offered me a job in Siberia, and I thought that sounded very romantic. And so I went there and taught English. Then I fell in love with someone there and we moved to St. Petersburg and I got a job at the St. Petersburg Times as a reporter. It was very interesting. It was the late 90s, so Russia was in the middle of—well, now it’s in the middle of upheaval again—but it was a time of enormous change. It was a fascinating place to work, and because it was a small English language newspaper I got to cover everything. I got to cover politics, art, I got to review plays, I covered the Russian Olympic trials, I got to write about basically everything and anything.

What led you back to theatre?
I loved my job at the paper. It was great. I was like twenty-four and I got promoted at the paper and I thought, “Well, if I take this promotion this is going to be my life and I’m going to be a journalist.” It made me realize that wasn’t the precise thing I wanted to do. And I was like, I can either settle for something close to what I want to do, or do the thing that I want to do, which is have a life in the theatre even though that seems crazy. And I just made the decision to do what I really wanted to do.

How do you think starting in Seattle affected your creative development? 
I lived in Seattle for ten years with my husband, [director] Kip Fagan. We had a theatre company, and I was a playwright and actor there. And, first of all, we had to do everything in the company. So we did all the marketing, we wrote all the grants, we sewed the curtains for the set. We were twelve people making all of the plays together by scratch. I learned how to do everything in the theatre, which I think is a great place to come from if you’re going to have a life in the theatre. I mean, I’m not good at many things. I’m terrible at sewing curtains, and I ran the sound once for my own play and the actress asked me to please never run the sound again. But I understand how valuable everyone is in the theatre. I also worked for ten years in Seattle for no money, basically. I was doing theatre as a vocation, not a career, and I had a day job, and I did it because I loved it. I feel like that sense of it as a thing you devote your life to that’s not for profit is something that is still very important to me. I don’t want to be broke my whole life, which is partially why I moved into writing for television and all that, but I feel like the initial impulse to do it because I loved it was homed and cultivated and made really strong by those ten years in Seattle.

When did you first feel like a grownup?
Oh my god. Like two years ago? Honestly, in the last two or three years I’ve started to feel like a grownup. It’s only because I have a great therapist. That’s the only reason. If I had not met her I think I’d probably still feel like a child and act like a child.

(ix.) Representation

There’s so much discussion around female characters that it seems we live in a world where writing a female character is a sort of political act. How do you feel about that? Does it seem like more pressure?
Yes, it feels like extra pressure. It’s also exciting. I’m happy to be writing now because I feel like there’s more and more room for female characters to be just as large and fucked up as male characters. I feel very lucky to write for a television show in which the lead character is a kind of an anti-hero. She’s this incredible nurse and drug addict who does all sorts of shitty things to people because she’s a drug addict. And I feel like that’s something that’s becoming more and more possible—not to have to depict women in ways that are reductive. You know, there’s always that hard thing where I think people want female characters to be relatable. There’s just much more of a burden on female characters to be warm than there is on male characters, in particular in television I think. And I feel a great sense of relief in that I think we’re starting to move out of that.

Do you ever feel like your work gets talked about differently than a male playwright’s work does? 
Maybe. It’s hard to know. For example, occasionally I will be criticized for my plays not having a traditional ending where we understand what it was all for. And I’m at the point, as a writer, where I’m struggling to know if that is a flaw in the work or if that has to do with—often these reviewers are male who say this—it’s just a different way of looking at the world.

There have been articles about how traditional criticism and structure is based on a male view of the world. 
I’m sure that’s true. And I also think the other thing could be true too. It’s an interesting problem. I’m trying to figure out if that’s just how I want the story to be told, and I want to stick to that because that’s how the world feels to me, or if there is something, and it may have to do with the fact that I am a woman in this culture, that is hiding a little bit. It may be true that sometimes I’m not saying exactly what I want to say because I am afraid. Sometimes I don’t know. Like, “No, no, that’s the narrative structure I want and you just don’t understand it because it’s from a female perspective,” or, “That’s the narrative structure I want because I’m holding something back because I’m afraid I’m going to be attacked.”

It’s like that thing of girls being socialized to go for the right answer and boys go for their answer. 
Yes, exactly. And I feel like that’s the thing I’m struggling with.

You’ve taught playwriting too. Do you see a difference in confidence in your male and female students?
The only difference that I’ve seen is that the male students are more comfortable asking for things. They’re more comfortable saying, “Can I have your email address to send you my play and will you give me feedback?” Whereas I find the women will sometimes shrink from that. The men feel more comfortable demanding that their work be taken seriously.

Those socialization issues again. Speaking of, there’s the whole process of learning how to present oneself in a room, and standing up for your work.
As an actor, it’s a little bit easier, because you walk into a room and you’re somebody else. You have the freedom of going in and inhabiting another character to put yourself forward. As a writer, I’ve definitely struggled with it. It’s a struggle not so much to get the work out there but then, when people question the work, to really stand behind what I think. I find myself sometimes very easily swayed by the opinions of smart people and it’s been really an effort to stay in touch with what I think, believe, and feel.

It’s learned behavior. And do women get those opportunities to see other women—who aren’t their moms—act that way? Like how do you go into a room and be authoritative and not be in that “mom” role? 
On Nurse Jackie the best example of a role model for me is this playwright Liz Flahive. She’s been on Nurse Jackie since the beginning, and I’m trying to learn from her how to have a sense of authority in a room full of people and speak without embarrassment. She’s brilliant at it, and at work I’m always like, “I just want to grow up to be Liz,” but she’s, in fact, younger than I am. I’ve found it very interesting, because I think I’ve learned from women younger than I am how to do some of this stuff. I think there are ways in which women younger than I am are better at it and have been able, in part because we’re moving forward, to learn how to do this stuff. I find myself very impressed—sometimes jealous—of the attitudes of women in their twenties right now, and I feel very happy to steal everything I can from them.

(x.) Future

What’s something you think people can do to improve gender parity in theatre?
They can write plays and make them happen. And do these activist things like you’re doing or like The Kilroy’s are doing. And decide to stand up for themselves and their work and for the work of other women. I’ve been very lucky to have other female playwrights who have really championed my work and passed it onto artistic directors and other people—people like Anne Washburn, Annie Baker, Susan Bernfield, and Liz Jones at Page 73. A simple way to help is to advocate for other female writers– particularly if you find yourself in the position of having some power to be a champion of other women writers. I’m going to take my own advice now—there’s this great playwright Clare Barron, who is also from my hometown of Wenatchee and was in Short Shakespeareans, and she’s having her play at Page 73 this fall.

You can follow Heidi on Twitter: @hbrikin and Instagram: @heidischreck.