Mike Iveson wears many hats — literally — in What the Constitution Means to Me.
The actor alternates between several roles in the acclaimed 2017 Broadway play by Heidi Schreck, which was released Friday as an Amazon Prime Video film directed by Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). His first (and primary) role is a legionnaire moderator.
As background, the acclaimed production was inspired by Schreck's teenage tour of American Legion halls, in which she vied for scholarship money by giving speeches about the U.S. Constitution. The set itself is a recreated hall with the faces of white, male veterans framed behind her.
Iveson, as the legionnaire moderator, is silent for most of the production — unless he is providing explanatory ground rules or noting infractions during Schreck's debate. Schreck, now in her 40s, steps in and out of her 15-year-old self to provide lessons about America's founding rule book, as well as her own family history, to illustrate how the document (and the country it gave birth to) is biased against women.
For Iveson, a New Yorker through and through, it was a privilege to play this character — inspired by a World War II veteran who would coach Schreck and drive her to competitions — because it allowed him to meet legionnaires and learn their outlook on life.
“They're super intelligent, and they're also very mainstream," he said. "Obviously, I'm an urbanite. I have completed other ideas about America. I've lived in New York for multiple years. But that kind of patriotism is real and [shouldn't be] judged."
"America is a really great idea. It's an amazing idea," he added. "The idea has gone off the rails recently, but I don't know, the legionnaires I've met, I’m huge a fan of all of them."
While Iveson is sitting off to the side for a majority of the production, don't mistake his silence for zoning out. “I pretty much had to be on my toes the whole time,” said Iveson, who noted how Schreck would sometimes change a joke or add a gesture that would require a committed nonresponse. "She caught me once or twice."
At one point in the Amazon production, Schreck motions to the moderator and jokes how he can't say any lines — because she didn't write any for him. The moment showcased her wit and her reclamation of the stage and story as a woman, while also demonstrating the challenges of being her scene partner.
"She has more power than most of your co-performers because she's the writer. And she used her power," Iveson noted.
However, the tables turn when midway through the production, Iveson strips off his suit jacket and into a version of himself, Mike, a gay man who shares experiences with bigotry to the audience. And these are no fictional stories.
“They’re all true… it's pretty much exactly as it happened," the gay actor asserted about his accounts, which include a physical assault over his gender-nonconforming appearance and his father using an antigay slur in his youth. The experience of sharing these intimate stories night after night in front of audiences was "unlike any performing I've ever done before."
“It was a funny thing to learn about what it means to not just tell a group of people some maybe difficult things about your life, but then also to process their reaction in real-time. That was always the crazy part," he said.
However, he sees this role as essential to the production, which until that point had been focused on Schreck sharing traumas experienced by her female ancestors, including rape, physical abuse, and death in a mental institution. Iveson's coming out about his own trauma as a man impacted by toxic masculinity essentially passes the baton to the audience.
"I always see what I doing in general as an invitation, if that makes sense," he said. "She gives me the mic. And then I give it to the audience in a certain way."
Iveson did not originate the role of the moderator — that distinction goes to Danny Wolohan in the play’s initial “Off-Off-Broadway” iteration. When Wolohan was unavailable for the show’s move to Off-Broadway, Scherek invited Iveson, a longtime friend, to fill his shoes. And he changed the role when he came to it, bringing his own stories of experiencing homophobia and gender-policing in this scene.
His accounts don't only reveal his own victimhood. They also show that "perhaps I was complicit in somebody else's victimization," which as one of Schreck's stories reveals is not limited to the male gender.
In a third role, Iveson portrays an actual moderator of a debate that takes place at the end of the play between Schreck and one of two teens, Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams, who alternate depending on the night. The question every night is whether to keep or abolish the Constitution. And the audience gets to decide the outcome.
The verdict largely depends on the performance. "Depending on how national politics was going some nights on Broadway, it would just be, 'Abolish, abolish, abolish, abolish,' for shows on end. But there were patches of time where people would be like, 'Yeah let's keep,'" recounted Iveson, who through Off-Broadway, Broadway, and the touring production has moderated hundreds of these debates.
How would Iveson decide? While historically that answer may have been "keep," the Black Lives Matter movement, and the call to tear down systems that have perpetrated injustice, might have swayed his decision in recent months due to the extremity of the measures required to enact change. “Abolish has a nice ring to it. It does seem like radical measures are called for,” said Iveson. “Everyone seems aware, thank god, that all the systems need dismantling.”
The arrival of What the Constitution Means to Me also arrives (not coincidentally, certainly) in a moment when the nation has been captivated by the presidential and vice-presidential debates. While Iveson could only bear to watch clips from each, as opposed to the full spectacles, he was impressed by the performance of Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, in her head-to-head last week with Mike Pence. “She's real good," Iveson praised. "She’s challenging the opponent. She's challenging herself and answering it."
Iveson also observed some surprising parallels between how President Trump and Schreck break the traditional model of the debate — albeit to far different ends. “He wants to destroy it," Iveson said of debate, in reference to the Republican's belligerent interruptions of Joe Biden. Schreck — who writes her own debate rules and has no competition onstage during most of Constitution — "has clearly gone to great lengths to like to say that she believes in the form because she's recreated it on stage. …And then when she smashes it, it's not like she burns the building down. She interrogates it.”
Regardless, the actor is unsurprised with the success of both the production, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the enduring tradition of the presidential debate, which can be traced back to Abraham Lincoln. “It's such an ancient human need to have someone make an argument for you and then see how you feel about it. And our play takes advantage of that," he noted.
It also remains a potent means of persuasion. Today, "you're sitting there, you're watching TV, or you're in the audience, and you let your mind be taken over by their point of view. And then you learn some stuff about yourself. You see how you feel about things," he said.
Speaking of timeliness, one of the most emotional moments in the production is when Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s voice materializes onstage. Even in normal times, “that's something people go crazy for” when it occurred during performances — the late Supreme Court justice and liberal icon had even attended one show in her lifetime. Her death has only heightened the response; cars flashed their lights and honked during a screening earlier this month at the Woodstock Film Festival. Iveson is “overjoyed and sad” to have her vocal presence in the film. “She’s going to be an icon for Americans for a long time."
There is a fourth, uncredited role that Iveson plays — and that is one of ally to Schreck as she bares her heart to an audience.
"She always knew that she wanted someone on stage. Because what she has to do is daunting and scary. And she always said that the genesis of the role was she doesn't want to be up there by herself trying to tell these stories," Iveson said.
And these stories have had an impact on Iveson, who has learned vital lessons about how his lived experiences as a gay man are shaped by the Constitution — and how he should respond to that reality.
“You can have a blanket condemnation of all the systems but that's not very helpful," he said, adding, "It's useful to know the actual ins and outs of the document and know some specifics about what's oppressive about it to be able to combat it."
And what does the Constitution mean to Iveson, as a gay man? Whereas Schreck saw the document as a crucible, a witch's brew where rights are forged, the actor sees a fabric sewn with two-sided sequins. "It's two different sides," he said. "If you comb it a certain way, you see a different image."
What the Constitution Means to Me is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer below and register to vote at Vote.gov.