Artist Interview with Heidi Schreck
Adam Greenfield: This is funny, because I know a lot about you already. So, I’m going to start by asking questions about things I already know: “So, you’re from Wenatchee?”
Heidi Schreck: I am.
“What’s Wenatchee’s like?”
Wenatchee’s a small town in the center of Washington State. It’s the apple capital of the world. Seattle was the closest big city and it’s three hours away.
What was your first access to theater?
My mom had this incredible Shakespeare company for kids, called The Short Shakespeareans. When I was six years old, I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then I played all the great Shakespearean heroines between the ages of 6 and 12! And we got to perform at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every fall, so I got to see all the plays there, all throughout my childhood. The first play I saw there was Macbeth, when I was six, which was very traumatizing. It’s a horrible, thrilling play to watch as a six-year-old.
And when did your curiosity about playwriting start? What were some of your first adventures in writing?
I started writing a bit in college, and then after college, I moved to Siberia for a year, and then to St. Petersburg. In St. Petersburg I got a job as a journalist, so that was when I began to consider myself a “real writer.”
Who were some of your early inspirations?
Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Anna Akhmatova, and Anne Carson - all the Annes. Plus Alice Notley and Marie Howe. I was a big fan of female poets. And then of course I loved plays. Maria Irene Fornes, Chekhov, Caryl Churchhill, Sam Shephard. When I was in college I also got really into medieval women writers. St. Giuliana and Margery Kempe, whom I wrote a play about called Creature.
What sparked your interest in religious and spiritual figures?
I was always interested in religion because I grew up in a household where it was a hot topic. My dad wrote his thesis on Kierkegaard, and we went back and forth in our family between going to church and not, and sometimes people were atheists, and sometimes they weren’t, and there was a lot of discussion around it. In fact, sitting right next to each other on my dad’s bookshelf was C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, and I read both at a very early age. We also had books on Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, well all the major worlld religions. So I think that questions of faith, and God, and what the contemporary person’s relationship to those things can be very alive in our house.
Were you and your parents churchgoers?
It was always a divided house in terms of church. There are four of us (I have a younger brother, who’s a journalist now). Sometimes all of us would go, or some of us depending on how people were feeling. There was no pressure. It was really up to you to decide what you believed. We went to a Presbyterian church.
And where did you stand, in the divided household? Or were you toggling back and forth?
I kind of toggled back and forth. I went to church a lot, when I was very young, and I was in a youth group and all that stuff. But then I read the Bertrand Russell and that made me feel like there was no God. [Laughter] …So I had a complicated relationship to it, and then when I became a teenager I decided that I didn’t believe in God and stopped going.
Did your parents have opinions about that?
I think sometimes my dad wished we would go with him. Out of all of us, my dad had the deepest relationship to churchgoing and, you know, because he studied it, I think was able to take what was good in it and kind of dismiss the rest.
Okay, so skipping forward to Russia! You’ve read more Russian novels than anyone I know, and also you lived there for a while – but also your brother lived there, right? For kind of a long time.
Yeah, for ten years.
And he was also a journalist.
Yes, he still is. He works in DC and is a great writer.
So what was the connection between the Schreck family and Russia?
I don’t know! Growing up I was fascinated by the Soviet Union because it was still the Soviet Union, and it was mysterious. Also, I loved ballet, and I got excited when the ballet dancers would defect. Then, when I got to college I fell in love with Chekhov, and then I got into Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Bulgakov and Gogol, all the great Russian novelists. But yes, my brother and I always wonder why we were so intensely interested in Russian things. We’re half-Swedish, and the Swedes used to live in Russia. So maybe we’re genetically tied in some way...?
What kind of things did you write about in the newspaper?
It was a small newspaper, so I got sent everywhere to write about everything, whether I was qualified or not. My first assignment was covering the Russian Olympic trials. [Laughter] I also got to write about politics. There was a big human rights story when I was there. A submarine captain, Alexander Nikitin, was arrested for allegedly giving nuclear secrets to the Norwegians and I covered his trial. He was acquitted and became a famous environmental activitist. I also did some theater reviewing, so I got to see a lot of free plays.
And you taught, too, right?
Yes. In Siberia. I taught English.
Um, what was that like? I know you wrote a play about it – because, actually, I think the first time I ever saw you was when you were acting in the play you wrote about it, called Backwards Into China. What was your experience like in Siberia, and what were you dealing with in the play?
Well, I lived in a town called Tynda, which is smack in the middle of Siberia. It was the mid-90s, so it was an interesting time. Russia was transitioning into capitalism, and not like until now, it was a confusing and often disturbing place to be. Tynda was a tiny town so I got to see all these big conflicts - people seizing public property to create their own private business - play out on a local level. I witnessed the gap between rich and poor widen instantaneously and saw first hand how difficult it was for some people to survive in this new paradigm. Plus, I was 22 when I was there; so the play was about being a 22-year-old woman in this completely new culture and the shock of that.
Did you know you’d come back to the states and have a life in theater? Or not so much?
When I moved to St. Petersburg and started working for the newspaper, I thought I would be a journalist. That sounded like an exciting thing to become, and as crazy as it sounds now, I believed it would be a more stable life than trying to forge a career in the theater. Then I realized, in part because I was seeing so many wonderful plays in St. Petersburg, that what I really wanted was a life in the theater - and I didn’t care if I could survive or not.
So then you moved to Seattle…?
…and you got mixed up with Printer’s Devil Theater?
Yes. When I got back to Seattle, a bunch of friends of mine from college (I went to the University of Oregon) had started a theater company called Printer’s Devil with Kip Fagan (my now-husband, who directed Grand Concourse). Kip moved to Seattle after leaving college. We dreamed of becoming like Steppenwolf. We didn’t have a theater, so we performed in weird spaces all over Seattle. We did a musical of El Cid in an empty restaurant kitchen (I played the bass, and Kip directed and played guitar); we performed The Seagull on an old ferry boat; and we did Hedda Gabler in airplane hangar on a Navy base.
The first show I saw in Seattle, I think, was your production of Hurricane [by Erin Cressida Wilson]. So this is where I enter the picture! [Laughter] But I remember you directed a play that you wrote called Stray, and that Kip, who had been directing Printer’s Devil plays, designed sound?
Well, we were in a fight. [Laughter] He was supposed to direct it, but we got in a big argument and broke up, and so then I had to direct my own play, which was really not a good idea. But we sort of made up by the time that we got into production, so he ran the sound, which was very nice of him.
So, were you thinking at the time, like, “I’m an actor, but I’m starting to write?” Or did you think, “I’m a writer, but I can also secretly act?”
Well, because I acted all throughout college, I thought of myself more as an actor. But I had always wanted to write plays, and having the company gave me an opportunity to do that.
I think a lot of us who were in Seattle at the time, none of us had gone to grad school or anything, and in a lot of ways the environment there made it very easy to wear a lot of different hats in theater. So, in retrospect, I’ve started thinking that time period was our grad school.
Absolutely, yeah. In Printer’s Devil, there were twelve of us, and we made all the plays together, which meant we did everything. We built the sets, we made and found the costumes, did all the marketing, and wrote grants… I mean, people specialized, but everyone was responsible. The set wouldn’t get built unless all twelve of us were there. Some of us contributed more than others and some of us were there, I think, to entertain the other people… [Laughter] But I learned, yeah, I learned how to make productions from the bottom up. And also we had this new play festival,
…the Play Bonanza…
Yeah, every summer, and that’s how I met Anne Washburn, and Melissa James Gibson, and Naomi Iizuka, Sheila Callaghan… So I had got to meet all the new, young writers.
And your own tastes, were they changing? Can you remember an encounter you had with a play or a person that was a particular influence?
Definitely, being exposed to these incredible female writers was a turning point. I remember Anne Washburn’s play Refreshment of the Spirit, which is an amazing play, blew my mind and made me see that other kinds of things were possible onstage. It’s a very mysterious, strange play. And Sheila [Callaghan’s] plays, Melissa [James Gibson’s] plays…I mean, they’re all very different kinds of writers, but I learned from being around all of them that there are all sorts of different ways to make plays. They shared a certain kind of, you know, a way of playing with narrative structure and they were writing great female characters. Those women definitely inspired me to write.
What I remember most about that time is that it just felt so— and maybe this is just what everyone experiences when in their twenties— but it just felt like people were making stuff all the time.
Yes! And it was a cheap city to live in. I was always a temp somewhere, so I could live on very little money, and I had a lot of time to write. Everyone around me was doing the same thing, and we were all very supportive of one another, so it was easy to just be an artist.
What kind of plays were you writing then? What were some of the struggles, or surprises?
I wrote Stray in part because the two artistic directors of our company were men (Kip and my friend Paul Willis), and there was a period where I felt like they were choosing very male-oriented plays, and I just wanted there to be better parts for all the terrific women in our company. So I wrote a play with five women and one man, and cast every female actor in our company. And that play was called Stray. My favorite writer at the time, was María Irene Fornés, and so I think Stray was a total Fornés a rip-off! And the thing I struggled with at the time...Well I had no training whatsoever, so everything I wrote was just right from my subconscious, without much, you know, structure. I was very free, I felt very free to just let things bubble up from the depths, but once it was there I didn’t know how to shape it. I’ll always remember a review that said that the play was filled with beautiful images and characters, but that “poetic murk does not a play make.” [Laughter] And I was very hurt at the time. But I think she was right, in that I just didn’t know how to marry structure with the content. I’m still learning that I suppose.
And not long after that, you and Kip moved to New York.
What made it feel like it was time to move here?
We had been trying to move to New York for, like, ten years. It was very much our Moscow. We’d be like, “Oh, we’ll move next week. Next month. Next year.” And then, we’d be about to move, and some great new project would come up: we were about to leave and I ended up doing David Adjmi’s Strange Attractors with you at The Empty Space Theater. We were finally like, “We’re getting old, and if we don’t do it it’s never going to happen.” Then Kip got an NEA fellowship [for upcoming directors] and so we thought that was a good excuse to pick up and go.
Right. It’s so funny, because I remember, from my perspective, at that point I mostly thought of you as a writer. And I had this idea that you’d be right for Strange Attractors but then I thought, “Well, I don’t know if she’d want to act, but let’s call her in and see if she’ll read for us.” But when you moved to New York, you were suddenly acting all over the place. I’d open the New York Times and there was a picture of Heidi, the actor.
When I first moved here I thought I would concentrate on playwriting. I took a workshop with Mac Wellman and Chuck Mee, but then because I knew Anne Washburn and I had been in readings of hers in Seattle, she cast me in her play Apparition. Oh and then Kip cast me too, in Kristen Kosmas’ play Palomino, and through that I met Erin Courtney and was in her play, Demon Baby at Cubbed Thumb. And then I did another one of Anne’s plays, The Internationalist. I was acting all the time, so I just kind of ran with it.
Right. And at the same time, you were writing your play Creature?
Yes. I wanted to write Creature from the time I was in college and read the Margery Kempe book. Margery was a bourgeois, well-to-do woman in the middle ages who had a kind of crazy vision of God and decided she wanted to become a saint. And so the book, which she wrote it’s credited as the first autobiography in English is a chronicle of her attempt to overcome all of her bad qualities. She was vain, gluttonous, lustful, selfish, etc. Her book is unintentionally funny, and you love her, because she’s a mess, she feels like such a contemporary character. So in 2006 I applied to the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. I was very lucky to have people constantly trying to push me back into writing, including Anne Washburn and Daniel Aukin. And so I applied to the Soho Rep Lab with the idea that I would make the Margery Kempe play. And then New Georges and Page 73 produced it in 2009.
Margery is such an unlikely candidate for sainthood…
…and she’s trying really hard to live a spiritual life, but she’s fighting her less godly, or less pure, impulses the whole time. And that figure, the person struggling to be good— that was the first time I recognized this as a theme in your writing. Which is then echoed in some of your more recent plays. Tell me a little bit about The Consultant.
It’s set during the most recent recession. It takes place in a pharmaceutical company. A young woman is hired to tutor a guy who is about to lose his job. He’s a graphic designer, and he has terrible stage fright, so he can’t give presentations without melting down. This was based on a job I had when I first moved to New York, presentation coaching. So, the play is about a young woman who’s trying to help this middle-aged man, become a better public speaker, but she discovers that his life of falling apart and then she tries to help him fix that too. Rather unsuccessfully.
So in both of those plays there’s a person who is trying to be better, and do good in the world, but then finding that the world just doesn’t really work that way. Is that how you feel? (I mean, I was hoping I’d talk my way to a better way of asking that, but-- ) [Laughter]
(No, no!) Yes, I think that is how I feel. Growing up, I remember my dad always— Well, for example, when I moved to Siberia to teach English, I told him, “I don’t actually know how to teach. What am I going to do?” He said, “You’re going to be fine, they’re going to love you. Your heart is in the right place and that’s what matters,” and I remember thinking, “YEAH!” But that’s not totally true. [Laughter] One’s heart being in the right place is not all that matters, but it’s taken me a very long time to learn that. I also grew up in a family that was devoted to helping other people. My parents were wonderful public school teachers who put in way more time than they needed to, and when they were young they ran a group home for homeless kids. My mom’s Shakespeare program was free, and we were always taking people into our house who didn’t have families. There was a real commitment to helping others, which was great. However, as I got older that idea became more complicated for me. Helping another person is tricky because you don’t always know what that person needs, and also sometimes maybe you’re ignoring your own life because you think other people are supposed to come first. So as I got older, I realized that the idea of service is complex, it can be murkier than it seems.
Which seems like a great segue into Grand Concourse. I mean, the more I watch the play the more I start to essentialize the story into, like Shelley’s been giving and giving all her life, and taking care of other people, and now she’s broken down by it. So in Emma, she has this opportunity to refresh her wanting to help a person. Which almost works, but in the end kind of collapses on her.
So I guess there’s not really a question there except, “Did I get it right?”
But what I was startled by as someone who’s known you and your plays for a long time is the conclusion that Shelley comes to in the end. The decision to preserve herself. That that impulse to help Emma is causing damage to her. So I think what I’m trying to ask is: does the decision Shelley comes to echo some part of your own life? And how you go about the world, and the responsibility you have to yourself?
Um, yes. I mean, I think—yeah. The story feels very personal to me. Because of my upbringing, and because of the— I use this word carefully but—because of the saintliness of my parents, it was very much ingrained in us that we were always to forgive. “Turn the other cheek” and “70 x 7” were very much a part of our ethos as a family. That’s what you learned to do. And I realized as I got older that it didn’t always take into account the damage that could happen to oneself - or others - if you forgive people sort of autaomatically or out of obligation. As I got older I realized I also wasn’t sure what forgiveness meant. I was doing it as a kind of habit, just going, “Okay, I forgive you.” I would allow someone to hurt me over and over again, in part because that was what I had been taught to do and in part because sometimes it’s easier to focus your attention on other people than it is to deal with your own shit. So it was also convenient for me. [Laughter] To be the person who was always there for other people, so I didn’t have to step up to the plate myself, or figure out what I really needed or cared about. So I think that question is very much in the play and in my own life.
And what about Emma? You know, every once in a while when I’m watching the show, I think which I don’t think I’ve said this to you before, but there are moments, especially in the final scene, where I feel like I’m watching a part of Heidi talking to another part of Heidi. And I wonder if you feel that way when you’re watching it? I mean, you wrote it. [Laughter]
I definitely feel a kinship to Emma. Because, as a nineteen-year-old the other side of me was that I could also be thoughtless and neglectful and not, like, someone you would want to housesit for you. I mean, I probably wouldn’t kill your cat, but I might not leave your house in very good shape either. [Laughter] I was a bit of a mess. I remember when I started writing Emma, I thought, “I want to write the worst version of myself.” I’m a person people perceive as kind, and generous, and open, and loving. And I think that’s partially true, but I think I’m very good at hiding the other part of myself. [Laughter] So I was like, “I’d like to write the other part of myself that is really, like, completely self-obsessed and doesn’t give a shit about other people, and won’t feed your cat if you’re out of town.” So yeah, I think I’m very much in Emma. And I think that both Emma and Shelley have a similar problem, which is that there’s something— they have different ways of manifesting, but— I feel like when Shelley says, “Give her more time here to know herself”-- I feel like there’s a lack of self-knowledge there on both of their parts. Neither one of them has come to an integrated self, or a sense of wholeness. I think it’s Shelley’s problem too; it just comes out in a way that feels less damaging. But at their root, I think they’re both kind of fractured human beings when the play starts.
When Emma walks away in the end, what do you think she’s going to walk away with?
My hope is that the fact that Shelley did not forgive her will help Emma become a more conscious person in the future. Somebody at one of the talkbacks said they thought she would, like, grow up to be either an extraordinary person, or a terrible person. But they didn’t see something in-between for her. And I think that might be true. But I definitely have hope for Emma.
Do you feel an itch to act in a play now, since you’ve been focusing more on writing for the past year? How do acting and writing balance each other out these days?
I learned so much doing this play that I want to move forward and just keep writing for a while. If a great part came up, I would grab it. But at this point it would have to be something I really couldn’t say no to.
Do you have another play on the horizon?
I have a commission from True Love Productions to write a play about the constitution. [Laughter] When I was in high school, I earned most of my college tuition by giving speeches about the constitution at American Legion halls. I’ve been performing at Little Theater and Dixon Place, a few places around town, a kind of recreation of my speech as a sixteen-year-old girl about the constitution and what it means to me. So the play is called What the Constitution Means to Me. And it’s from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl from a small town.
You’ve been writing a lot about spiritual longing in various forms in your recent plays.
Do you feel like, with Grand Concourse, that itch has been scratched? Like you’ve come to the other side of something? Or is it still active for you? Something you’ll continue to write about?
Well, Grand Concourse and Creature, are at their core mostly about my relationship with becoming a whole person, a fully conscious person. If they are about spiritual longing, it’s because I believe spirit is an essential part of what we are. And I don’t think we need the character of God in a play to address that question.
Also it’s a really hard character to write. [Laughter]
Yeah! So I don’t know if there’ll be religious content in future plays. But the constitution play is at least as it’s developing it’s also a metaphysical play. What does it mean to write a constitution for one’s country and for oneself? And what is it as a set of precepts that we put in place in order to try to be good, and in fact to legislate ourselves to be good? And one of the questions of the play is, what if we don’t put these things in place? I think of the constitution as a way of thinking through every possible situation ahead of time, so that when you get to that situation, you know how to act in an ethical, thoughtful way. I feel like those questions: How to be in the world, How to be an ethical human being, how to be true to yourself and also kind to other people, are big questions that I’ll probably keep writing about.