by Jason Forbach
Debate is a process which allows two opposing points of view to present and oppose their ideals in a dynamic, intelligent forum. The award-winning, hit Broadway play What The Constitution Means to Me, from Tony nominated actress and playwright Heidi Schreck, currently at the Helen Hays Theater, is a celebration of that. And next to her, sitting quietly in a chair stage left, is Mike Iveson. We spoke with Iveson about the importance of his supporting role in Constitution and what it means to him.
Schreck is front and center to wittingly analyze the duality that exists within the Constitution; a living, breathing document with hundreds of years of contradiction. From there, Schreck leads the audience on a personal journey through her family history, toward confronting the opposing dualities within the women in her family who helped raise her and shape her identity. It is a tour-de-force.
But, like any healthy debate, there is another voice.
Iveson is the one male actor who dutifully shares the stage with Schreck almost the entire 90 minute length of the play and his presence, too, presents a duality. In the program he is credited as “performer,” but he plays a series of roles: a Legionnaire, a guy named “Mike,” and a sort-of debate moderator. In these separate functions, he represents a friend and confidant, a positive male energy and also an authoritative, watchful, white male gaze symbolizing the very governing, ruling body typical to this country. He is the observer of rules and order. He is the ticking clock.
And, just like the hundreds of photographs of white men that surround Schreck on stage, Iveson presents a counter argument, a rebuttal to the points, the stories, the analysis that Schreck delivers.
“I think it's significant that those are all roles played by a man, “ Iveson said. “The first two, the Legionnaire and then “Mike,” are related. They ask the question: What if one of the guys on these walls that form the backdrop of the whole play reveals something about himself just like we have seen Heidi doing for the whole course of the play? A sort of inner question to that is: How much do these guys on the wall rely on not allowing themselves to be vulnerable? So you have to see both the living embodiment of the photograph and the person behind the facade to really activate that question.”
Iveson’s role is difficult to define. Is he a foil to Shrek, a co-star of sorts, or a type of “one-man-band” ensemble member wearing a variety of hats?
“I actually kind of view myself as a part of the set. And truthfully, the plant on stage with me-her name is Cordeline, by the way-is sort of my co-conspirator. Sometimes I am the antagonist in the play, but most of the time I am like Cordeline, providing a sort of living reminder of the life outside the walls that the play engages the audience to take part in.”
Iveson’s contribution is far more active than his humble description suggests. With furrowed brow, downturned mouth and a constantly gripped left fist, his “Legionnaire” character is constantly engaged with the telling of Heidi’s story. It is a masterclass on active listening as moments unfold on the stage.
“Even though I know where the story is going, I have no idea how we are going to get there. Heidi is a dynamic performer who could take a quick narrative side trip or catch some unexpected feels at any point in the show. I don't want to miss a second of that.”
Iveson has spent much of career honing these skills as an ensemble member in the prestigious Elevator Repair Service, an experimental theater company based in New York, since 2006. His experience with that company has helped shape who he is as an actor and how he creatively contributes as a company member.
“It has been invaluable for me to have the experience of negotiating the ensemble thing through that work,” Iveson said. “John Collins [Elevator Repair Service’s founding Artistic Director] works extremely intuitively and visually, which only doubles the actor's responsibility to remind herself that she doesn't have the whole picture. She is one piece in the puzzle. But also, especially in that kind of work where potentially everything is up for grabs, the actor has an equally serious responsibility to show up with some strong ideas because what we make in the room is more or less the whole of the show. Figuring out how to hatch a huge vision that you can quickly adapt, or detach yourself from if necessary, is something that's valuable in all acting realms. I am grateful for the many opportunities I have had to keep attacking that problem.”
Jesse Green of the New York Times referred to Constitution as “nothing less than a chronicle of the legal subjugation of women by men, as experienced in the day-to-day injustices of living while female and in the foundational American document that offers paltry recourse.” And, yes, this relationship between Schreck and Iveson is incredibly charged and nuanced as the debate of living “while female” broils on.
“There are a lot of strong women in my family, and I am beyond lucky that I got exposed to that from an early age, to the idea that powerful women are not a threat but a boon,” Iveson said. “It's so dumb a sentence like that even has to be said out loud, but in this grueling and awesome period of reckoning we are going through in America, it has become painfully clear that a lot of men are deeply threatened by women and have constructed gigantic systems to deal with their panic. And, really, most of us are implicated.”
Constitution marks Iveson’s Broadway debut. It is a generous, thoughtful and collaborative performance in an original American play that has gone on to win Best American Play from the New York Drama Critic’s Circle, the Obie Award, a Tony nomination and been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Iveson explains how his involvement came to be.
“Heidi and Oliver Butler [Constitution’s director] asked me to join the show when the original Legionnaire was not available. Heidi and I have worked together a number of times over the years and I have always been kind of obsessed with her acting and writing; how could you not want to be a part of that? She is freaking amazing.”
When Iveson sheds the ill fitting suit of his Legionnaire for the hipster t-shirt of “Mike” we see a man reveal his duality: shedding layers, exploring honesty. He becomes the embodiment of the “counter argument” to the man he initially presented. He shows us vulnerability that the photographs that surround Schreck on that stage do not. It is a wonderful moment in the play and a thrilling opportunity for Broadway audiences to be introduced to, and enjoy, the subtle, varied nuances that are Iveson’s performance. He reveals something of himself, something unexpected and his quiet contribution makes this play all the more brilliant for it.