Game of Thrones fans might be disappointed when they meet Oliver Butler. Recently, he was asked about working on the HBO series but he had to confess that he was not, in fact, linked to the popular show. Instead, he shares the same name as one of its associate producers.
Still, Butler is making major waves in the theatre industry with the sleeper hit, What the Constitution Means To Me. Playwright and star Heidi Schreck‘s eye-opening piece deconstructs the United States Constitution, a document once cherished by her 15-year-old self. Butler, who is making his Broadway debut, directed the Tony-nominated piece. Recently, he spoke with Manhattan Digest about the show, the young adults who share the stage with Schreck, and his goal of changing hearts and minds.
MD: How did you arrive to this project?
OB: Heidi and I come from this downtown theater community. Heidi is well known for being in many amazing plays and has really made a name for herself as both an actor and playwright. We knew each other and we ended up on the same bus to go to the women’s march in 2017 with our mutual friend,Bash Doran. A combo of those things overlapping led Heidi to ask me to work on the project. She told me about the show. At the time, around 80-90% was written, but it wasn’t structured the way we have it now. She told me the story of her great-great-grandmother coming from Germany as a mail-order bride and how she was the first woman on the maternal side of her family to grow up free from domestic violence and how the constitution affected the generation of different women in terms of providing or not providing critical rights to them. I was blown away. I’m a formalist and love playing with physical and dramaturgical form. The fact that this play was doing something practical, modeling the way someone can interact with sort of this dry document to me felt like something that was really needed. For Heidi and I, that meant creating a set of values that we held each other accountable to. Our goal was to attempt maximum humanity for all involved. We had to create a process that made Heidi feel as safe as possible, and also make sure that the young debaters also felt confident and comfortable.
MD: Heidi has stated that she’s had different reactions to this play at each performance. As a director, how do you handle the framework of unexpected outcomes?
OB: Largely by embracing it. There are a few explicit rules that we’ve instated, but the play is way more scripted than it seems. However, Heidi has free rein to say whatever she wants, whenever she wants. If the moment strikes her that something new needs to be said, she says it. It is important to change things sometimes, but you don’t have to change it to have the same agency and the same effect.
MD: Have there been outlandish or memorable reactions from the audience either during or after the performance?
OB: There have been a lot of people I know personally who have shared stories of trauma and those who have told me that they were also on debate teams. There are many who want to reflect their own experience back to me.
Audience reactions have varied. At the end, we leave it to an audience member to determine whether to keep or abolish the constitution. One time, we chose a woman who decided to select a quorum of 5 other audience members to help her decide, and then asked those 5 to select yet another person. We were like, 1) This is exactly what democracy is and 2) This is possibly watching a crash in slow motion because we’ve just handed a microphone to this random person. It was this amazing moment that played out in front of us–including a lack of efficiency regarding the process. Another time, when Heidi says, “Do you feel the violence underneath everything?” a man in the audience yelled, “no!” I don’t hope for pushback by people, but our team is prepared for things to push against. Sometimes, a dissenting voice is helpful. People feel welcome to say things in this show.
MD: I’m ashamed to admit, but the US Constitution is not something I’ve read from start to finish. How versed were you on it when you started directing this play and do you think most audiences are educated on the document?
OB: I think most people are like you and me-not very well versed. We don’t really know what’s in it and we assume that we need someone smarter than us to decode it. We treat it the same way the ancient Catholic church treated the Bible. You’re not supposed to know what’s in it because there are people smarter than you who will explain it. That works to the advantage of the people in power. For me, I hope that this show releases people from that fear. Heidi is a brilliant actor, but she’s also just a normal person without legal training. She–and every person–have every right to read these words and think how they should be defined. When I listened to some of these supreme court cases, I realized that I’m not blown away by everyone’s intelligence. You can tell that there are distinct partisan lines. They are not just calling balls and strikes, they are pushing personal values. These are self-interested people who are trying to shape the world in the way they think is best for humanity. So when I listen to it, I’m allowed to have an opinion on it because it is not cut and dried. I can read it now not as a dead text, but rather question why they wrote the things they did. What were they afraid of that they had to write it in such a specific way? What was going on at the time? It’s a document more about the founding father’s fears than it is a dream for our future. It’s built to protect us from a government. Part of what Heidi is saying is that it was created to protect us from a monarchy, but we live in a different world now where that is not our monster.
MD: There are a lot of men glooming down on Heidi in Rachel Hauck’s set and much talk in the show about male oppression. I’m curious to know her rationale for choosing you–a male director?
OB: I can’t speak on Heidi’s behalf or her thought process. However, when I looked at this opportunity and what my role needed to be in the play, I saw myself as an important member of the world that needed to be moved by it. I can understand how people would walk away thinking ‘Oh great! Here’s another example of how men are terrible!’, but I see massive possibilities. I’m someone who was raised in a world that wanted me to be a patriarch, who was shaped by parents, society, movies, music, and experience. Consequently, I’ve become someone who enforces the patriarchy and–in its most devilish style–not know it. I’m not someone who wants to be a patriarch or inhabit that role. I don’t think that my life is better when the people around me don’t have full access to their own humanity. I am better off when the people around me have equal access. I want to fight for a world who allows that. That requires me to acknowledge the things I’ve learned and help walk the rest of us into a new role that leaves more room for more people. She chose me for a certain reason at the right moment. I assume that my role was to be a core person who needed to be transformed and also help a transformation happen.
MD: How did you find the young debaters? Was there an open call or did you actively look for young adults in debate clubs?
OB: We went specifically to students who were debaters. We wanted students who might have some interest in acting, but who were first and foremost debaters.
MD: This is a piece that I imagine–and hope–will play throughout the country. How do you envision that?
OB: We’re still working out the details of that since we’re still deep in the Broadway world, but I hope that this is a story that we can bring to as many communities as possible.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through August 24th at the Helen Hayes Theater 240 West 44th Street between 8th and Broadway. NYC. For tickets and information, click here.