The American Voice: Writing About Thinking About God

Noticing an upswing of plays on and off Broadway that were written by actors, the New York Times offered that “there are lots of reasons why actors might want to flex new muscles, trying their hand at creating their own characters instead of interpreting ones created by others,” in an editorial that manages to belittle actors, playwrights, and actor-playwrights. “Appearing in plays both good and bad can be a fine apprenticeship in how to write and how not to write a play, at least for actors who can see beyond the limits of their own lines. (And, to be sure, there are many actors who probably never do.)” I can understand how the crossover between acting and writing might seem unusual to someone unfamiliar with making plays; in most fields, one necessarily narrows one’s focus toward a niche. But theater is intensely collaborative, and the best artists have a handle on the entire storytelling mechanism. So it's no surprise that Heidi Schreck’s playwriting reflects the same self-searching, self-deprecating, open-hearted elegance we've seen from her in performance on stages all over New York; Heidi the playwright is the same artist as Heidi the actor.

…I admit it feels especially meaningful to get this introduction right because Heidi’s been in my life for the better part of two decades; I officiated her wedding to Kip Fagan, and they performed E.M. Forster and David Byrne at mine. I met these guys in Seattle in the ’90s, when they were members of Printer's Devil, the ambitious, madly talented ensemble famous for attracting playwrights to Seattle to crash on sofas, drink Olympia beer, and receive excellent productions and development of their work. My first introduction to Heidi was in a Printer's Devil show that she also wrote. Backwards Into China (1998) chronicled her time teaching English in Siberia, grappling with a foreign landscape where appearances are deceptive, perceptions get scrambled and her stymied attempts to grow into her life there were as heartbreaking as they were funny. A few years later, she directed her play Stray (2001), a tense fable in which two sisters flee a vicious past to begin again, only to find their new home no less damaging.  

The residents of Heidi's plays are driven by an ache to expand into a new life, to get life right. They're adrift, temporary, in flux, longing to live more fully, as if on a journey to become the version of themselves they know they're destined to become, but not knowing what that might look like. “I have a recurring dream,” she said in a 2009 Brooklyn Rail interview, “in which I'm in my apartment and then I discover that the apartment has a secret room. And when I open the door to the secret room I'm so happy because I realize it's been here the whole time. I've always had this extra room.” Her characters are restless, yearning to be good and to do good—to find grace—but they're stuck contending with a world that obscures the path. And she adores them for it, writing the contours of each bump in the road with evident love for their human failings. Her plays suggest a deep faith in our capacity for revelation, but a loving skepticism about our ability to make good on this: a deficiency she manages to make hilarious. “I have great fondness for people who attempt things they can't possibly succeed at,” she told Adam Szymkowicz in a 2009 interview.

Heidi's play Creature (2009) is the chronicle of a medieval Englishwoman who aspires to become a saint, but whose insatiable appetites and spiritual vanity make her possibly history's most unlikely candidate. Loosely based on the life of 15th-century baroness Margery Kempe, who after surviving a treacherous childbirth saw visions of the Devil and Jesus, this funny, thorny and deeply human play follows her desperate, stumbling, lovingly-told spiritual odyssey. And in There Are No More Big Secrets (2010), Gabe, an American expat from Putin’s Russia, returns with his new wife Nina, a hard-bitten journalist-provocateur with a stubborn spiritual resolve. As he struggles to reconnect with friends, Nina introduces an unexpected paranormal event that breaks open the limited, familiar lives they inhabit—inspiring a hunger for self-change which ultimately proves more confounding than anything else.  In both of these plays, transcendence is just out of reach. “I’m interested in this idea that somebody can have an authentic experience and still not be able to live authentically,” Heidi told the Brooklyn Rail, and her plays suggest that human failure is not only funny and deeply forgivable, but also inevitable.  Her most recent play, The Consultant (2014), zeroes in on a rapidly sinking New York pharmaceutical ad company, where Amelia, an awkward, young grad student enthusiastically coaches Jun Suk, a brilliant designer with crippling anxiety, on his presentations. But when Jun Suk collapses in an alcohol-induced coma, Amelia learns that the help she’s been so committed to giving isn’t the same as the help he needs.  Though Amelia feels the call, it’s not always clear how to be good.

“Very few writers are writing about thinking about God,” Anne Washburn wrote in an introduction to the publication of Creature. “Schreck is not writing about God—always a difficult character to incorporate directly into a play—and she is not writing about belief or dogma, per se… She’s writing here as she often does, directly or indirectly, about religious feeling which is, more than anything else, the yearning for transfiguration, for certainty, for cleanliness, for mystery, for enormity, for union, for distinction.” Insightful as ever, Washburn articulates the core of Heidi’s characters.  What Margery Kempe shares with Amelia and Nina and Jun Suk is a surge of “religious feeling,” as opposed to religion—a messy, private, deeply idiosyncratic yearning for goodness that comes without a roadmap. And her characters’ failure to locate themselves within it is her bittersweet point. In the same piece, Washburn points to Flannery O’Connor’s introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann (1961), a piece of writing so damn apt that I have to indent it: 

Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.

Grand Concourse strikes me as an apotheosis, a play that is quintessentially Schreck, locating our struggle with grace among volunteers in a Bronx soup kitchen. The characters we meet are in pursuit of the good within them; they’re trying to scrub themselves clean. Again and again, I find myself astonished, caught off guard by the searing honesty and overwhelming compassion this play ultimately leads us toward—not just considering the trajectory of Heidi’s writing to date, but also knowing her as a terrific actor and a longtime pal. As Shelley, our protagonist, confronts the limits of her goodness, the obligation she feels to herself is equally as strong as the obligation she feels to her faith. The mystery continues to loom large, and darkly, but we can only be humans.