A year and a half after she said "no fricking way" to the gig, Cassie Beck begins performing "What the Constitution Means to Me" this week at the Guthrie Theater.
"I've had the entire pandemic to wrap my head around this show," said the actor about Heidi Schreck's unusual autobiographical play, which begins preview performances Thursday at the Guthrie and opens Oct. 6.
Like most theater actors, Beck hit "pause" when the pandemic arrived last year. At the time, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Broadway hit was gearing up for rehearsals for a national tour. Unlike a lot of actors, Beck is now rehearsing a show that has changed significantly since she started preparing it.
"It's a political show and a personal story but obviously a lot has changed in the country, in the world. It's great to come back to something that was already super-relevant but we're using rehearsal time to fold in the reality we're in now," said Beck by phone, on a break from rehearsals in New York.
Many of the updates occur at the end of the show, when she and a young debate opponent take questions from the audience and engage in spirited conversation about what the Constitution means to them.
Even before the updates, which address social justice issues, threats to abortion rights and the January siege on the U.S. Capitol, it was difficult to describe how "Constitution" captured Schreck's funny and moving play.
Originally performed by the playwright, it reveals how she earned college money by giving speeches about a subject she loved: the Constitution. Mostly a monologue, "Constitution" (which was filmed for Amazon) featured Schreck talking about the document and its protections, particularly of women and immigrants. It also addressed her relationship to the Constitution now, when she's angered by promises it has not kept.
Beck, a longtime friend of Schreck, will play the playwright. Initially, it would be fair to say Beck was ambivalent about how that might work.
"When [the opportunity] first came around, I was like, 'No fricking way. I'm not touching that. I like it exactly as it is,'" said Beck of "Constitution," which earned Schreck Tony Award nominations for writing and acting.
Like a lot of people who fell in love with "Constitution" when Schreck was doing it, Beck couldn't wrap her head around the idea of anyone else enacting the intimate and personal tale.
"I said, 'Let me read it,' and I did and I thought, 'Oh, it's a play.' It is a personal story to her but she's such a talented writer. She wrote a structure that other people can step into. It's specific but universal," Beck said.
Beck has acted in other plays by her friend, so she knows what it feels like to step into a Schreck-created world. But the playwright encouraged Beck to make Schreck's life story her own.
"She so beautifully draws her mother and grandmother and great-grandmother, it really gives me permission to bring in my own mother and grandmother," said Beck. "Even though the stories I'm telling are Heidi's, I feel deeply connected spiritually and emotionally." Beck's mom, who died in 2019, will be on her mind during performances. "I'm not pretending that Heidi's mother is my mother. I'm bringing the ghosts of my family on stage with me."
Even so, Beck wasn't prepared for the first time she performed Schreck's life story for her in person.
The playwright had twins right after the pandemic began, so she participated in rewriting and rehearsing remotely. When she arranged to attend a rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, no one told Beck ahead of time that "Constitution's" VIP-iest VIP would be there in the flesh.
"They set up her chair dead center, right in front of me. So she started sitting down and said, 'Actually, Cassie, you probably don't want me right in the center. I think I need to be on the side,'" recalled Beck. "I was like, that's so generous and it takes an actor to know that you don't put yourself right in the middle. In lots of ways, she's like an actor taking care of another actor."
Beck is aware that she's been fortunate during the pandemic. While theater was locked down, she spent six months in Hawaii, shooting Amazon's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" series, playing the "trashy mom" of one of the horror spoof's nubile, hunted-by-a-maniac teenagers. Now, she's ready to get back in front of audiences — even if she won't be able to see mask-covered mouths laugh at "Constitution's" many hilarious moments.
"I'm thrilled to be in your beautiful city," said Beck, who has never been to Minneapolis. "I think everybody has a role to play in equality and I hope people will come to the show open to that."
'What the Constitution Means to Me'
Who: Written by Heidi Schreck. Directed by Oliver Butler.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 and 7:30 p.m. Sat., 7 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 24.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Protocol: COVID vaccine or negative test required, along with masks (no bandanas or neck gaiters).
Tickets: $15-$80, 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.