Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams talk about the Broadway hit What the Constitution Means to Me, and what Congress could learn from them.
Near the end of the hit show What the Constitution Means to Me, which recently transferred to Broadway, writer-performer Heidi Schreck is joined onstage by a teenage girl for a full-throated, parliamentary-style debate on a proposition: Should the Constitution be abolished and replaced by a new, positive-rights constitution?
It’s an unusual ending for a Broadway show situated in a Great White Way populated by revivals and movie adaptations. (Constitution is running next door to the Frozen show.) But then, What the Constitution Means to Me is far from a traditional production, as Schreck jumps forward and back in time to assume different versions of herself, real and fictional. It’s as much a treatise on politics as it is a memoir.
At What the Constitution Means to Me, the audience receives little booklets of the Constitution as Schreck’s debate partner comes onstage and flip a coin, then prepares to argue her side of the debate. Depending on the night, her partner is either high school senior Thursday Williams or high school freshman Rosdely Ciprian, both New York natives and avid competitive debaters.
Schreck’s performance is consistently engaging throughout the show, but once Ciprian or Williams shows up, it turns electric. Cast member Mike Iverson encourages the audience to stomp and clap, hoot and holler, and participate in the debate themselves. Though they know what the proposition will be, Schreck and either Williams or Ciprian debate extemporaneously, depending on the coin toss, though they often hit the same points from performance to performance. By the end, an audience member is chosen at random to decide who won the debate.
I’ve seen the show twice, once off Broadway with Williams debating, and once on Broadway with Ciprian taking the stage. Both girls are astoundingly composed, commanding the stage and debating in a way few in the audience would venture to do over a dinner table or a crowded bar, let alone on a Broadway stage. The debate, which injects levity into the show while remaining absolutely serious, lasts for about 15 minutes of the show’s 100-minute run time. It’s a welcome evolution of the story Schreck has been telling of her own time as a teenage competitor in speech competitions several decades ago. The work of arguing about the Constitution continues into the future.
I became interested in what it might be like for them to perform in this show, debating for the good of the world, their perspectives informed by the country and political climate they’re growing up in. So just days after the show’s Broadway opening, I met the teens backstage at the show to talk about it. We chatted about how they got involved, why they think adults need to actually learn principles from debate, and what they take away from being possibly the first true debaters on the Broadway stage. (Also, I think Thursday announced her congressional run.)
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
What was it like for you both to get involved with the show? Being on Broadway probably wasn’t what you thought you’d be doing when you took up debate.
I got started with the show when I was in the learning lounge, which is like debate central at my old middle school. Everybody would go down to debate and eat snacks and stuff. The room was used for everything; it was a multipurpose thing. But the main thing was debate.
So [debate teacher] Mr. Beatty was sitting in his occasional judging chair that we would all fight for. Other girls were saying, “They’re looking for, like, teenage girls, I think, for a debate.” And he was like, “I think some of you should audition.” I was just like, “Yeah, okay, it’s going to be cool.” I didn’t think he was serious.
Two days later, they were like, “Oh, yeah, this is like an actual thing. We have an audition date now.”
And then you auditioned?
Yeah, I got called back. This is two years ago. I got called back. And it’s taken off since then.
[laughs] Here we are! Was it the same for you, Thursday?
No. So, I debate at Brooklyn Law School, at NYU Law School, and it’s funny because a teacher who I’ve never had as a real teacher actually recommended me for this position.
I was president of my school my junior year. One of my goals was to get as close as I possibly could with as many teachers as possible in my school. So I happened to get close with this teacher. I helped her with the Black History Month assembly and the Women’s History Month assembly.
One day she told me, “You need to come downstairs, I have something for you to read.” I read the email: “They’re looking for a debater.” We started working on it, and then I auditioned, and I got called back, and I auditioned again. And then I got the part.
So what was the audition like? What did they have you do?
I was sent two excerpts from the big script. We were to familiarize ourself with one of these and be able to present it. It was weird for me, first of all. Because when I read the first, I was like, why are we talking about “swimming fairies”?
[...] It was funny, because I’ve never auditioned for anything in my life before. And so I thought I was going to be in front of people who were going be like, “Cut!”
Then I went in there. They’re like, “We’re not looking for an actress — we’re just looking for a debater.” I’m like, “I can do that. I can debate.” And that’s what I did.
I had that same excerpt about swimming fairies. And I’m just like, “Wait, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
So they just gave you kind of a nonsense proposition to debate?
I think they chose something that could relate to us. It’s kind of magical. I liked it. Then they had me perform a debate about one of the topics I’d done, about “ban the burqa.” Oliver [Butler, the director] was, like, really deeply staring at me. I was like, I don’t know if he likes me. I don’t know if he wants me to stop talking. Then I had a callback, and I had to do that same excerpt again, except read it in different ways, like in a grandma voice or a tired voice. I was like, I don’t know what’s going on. I hope I’m doing a good job. And my mom would give me a death glare if I did something wrong. [laughs]
So that sounds like a different kind of audition, and you both have different kind of jobs, too — you might be the first people to ever do debate on a Broadway stage, maybe in history. But it’s extemporaneous to a degree, right? The debates aren’t exactly the same every night. Do you find that the Broadway stage context is a lot different from the other places where you debate?
In the show, we do parliamentary debate. That is the style that Rosdely was more familiar with; I do constitutional. That has to do with getting a fact pattern, arguing an amendment or exceptions to an amendment, and using case laws and case precedents to think about what’s binding, what’s not binding — to prove your point.
So it’s very different from the debate we do here. That’s a debate that’s supposed to inform people. It’s a debate that’s supposed to get the audience rowdy. But it’s also supposed to be entertaining and a little bit funny, right? To keep them engaged.
But in constitutional debate, our debates as lawyers and judges shouldn’t be entertaining at all. You can cut the room with scissors. That’s how intense it gets.
Oh, the debate that I do — the one I do with Heidi is familiar, since I do parliamentary debate. But it’s really intense, because when I do debate and practice with Mr. Beatty and my teammates, it was just cool. But when we got to city championships, there would be various judges, and a whole room of kids, parents, and stuff, just watching the championships, and I’m like, “Oh, my god. This is intense. I’m freaking out.”
I don’t really feel that way onstage. It’s different onstage, where there’s a new dynamic and a new environment, which I happen to like.
I saw the show twice, once with Thursday and once with Rosdely. It was interesting to see how much it feels like you’re interacting with the audience, feeding off their energy, when you get onstage for a show. Your appearance onstage, which happens near the end of the show, brings its own new energy, since most of the show is Heidi.
But what I want to know is this: Do you find yourself feeding off the crowd’s energy? Is it different for you each night?
Yeah. It’s funny that you asked that question, because last night I had a show, and I just didn’t feel like I did a good job because the audience was so quiet.
But there are points in my debate where I go harder because people are yelling and screaming. They’re acknowledging that, you know, we’re hearing you and we agree with you. So that energy, yeah. I take that in and I just go harder and harder.
For me, when the audience is kind of quiet, I feel like I have to be more intense, like I really have to smack Heidi down, because I want these people to listen to what I’m actually saying. I don’t know if you had a bad day; I don’t know if you’re just not having it. But I’m going to get you.
And it usually works! Sometimes the audience just doesn’t budge, but there’s just different points in the debate that you know are going to get a reaction. And then it’s kind of weird when you don’t get a reaction.
I imagine the part where you accuse Heidi of “pandering” usually gets laughs.
Sometimes there are people that actually don’t laugh!
Some people who don’t know what pandering is.
I hear a lot of people talking about whether debate is good for politics and for our society. They look at the political situation in our country and say that debate teaches people to argue, but not to think about the issues themselves. If someone was to say that to you, how would you counter them?
So I’m a little confused. Their argument is that when you argue, you’re arguing whatever side, rather than just focusing on the actual thing. ...
They think you get hooked on the feeling of winning, instead of standing up for something you believe in.
I think that’s — that’s nonsense.
As a lawyer, you get a client. You have to defend the client to the best of your ability.
But I think it’s okay to admit to certain parts that are ... I partly agree with what you said. I do think that this is wrong with society. But a better debater is someone who can agree with somebody, but also have more points to refute and rebut and go against.
I do admit that you like the feeling of winning. But if you’re arguing a side that you wouldn’t normally go for, in debate, you always make it your own. It’s not always, Oh, you’ve got to go against your will about what you’re saying. You’re always going to find something in that argument, in that topic, that is going to connect and relate to you. You find something that will make it your own.
In parliamentary debate, before you go to a tournament, you have to know both sides of the argument, and you’ll always have something that’s going to make it your own. Even if you don’t agree with this issue, we have an idea of what the argument is on the other side.
So maybe one of the benefits is that you have to really understand where the other person is coming from, even if you don’t agree?
Are there skills that you feel like you’re taking away from learning to debate, especially in middle school and high school, that you’ll bring into life — maybe some that you weren’t expecting when you started doing debate?
Yes. Because I actually will be — I changed from want to be, I will be — running for Congress after grad school, at the age of 25, or maybe 26.
I will be running for the House, of course, because I cannot be in the Senate until I’m 30. But I’ll wait.
I think one major characteristic of congresswomen is public speaking, having that persuasive tone. I’m probably going to have to lobby for a lot of things.
I actually never thought that I would get that from debate. I started doing mock trials first, and I started at St. John’s Law School through the Legal Outreach Program. And when I did my first competition, I — believe it or not — hardly spoke. I was really shy, believe it or not. [Note: It is hard to believe.] Then I went to the championships, and I thought, you know, maybe I didn’t do that bad after all.
It gave me public speaking skills. I’m able to look people directly in their eyes and make my point and articulate myself. And I think that is one skill that I’m definitely going to need, and will have, in the future.
I was always an outspoken child. When I joined debate, I was outspoken, but now it’s with logic. So if somebody is trying to argue with me about something, or I’m saying something that they don’t agree with, I can fight back with logic. Debate taught me about logic. It taught me about thinking on your feet. It taught me how to connect with people better. Before, I was just like, “Eh, leave me and my facts and my debate alone,” even though I was outspoken.
So I want to be an actress. Or, I don’t know, maybe a psychologist. And I feel like the speaking skills are really going to help me in whatever career I decide to do. Debate has really impacted my life.
And not only that — as much as it helped me with public speaking skills, it also helped me with listening skills, right? I just realized this, actually. Even when I debate, I have to — well we set it up in a way where you have no choice but to listen to your opponent, because you’re going to have to do a rebuttal. You have to have a point to talk about and elaborate on. That’s a skill that I’m going to need and I’m going to have to use as a congresswoman or as a lawyer or as a judge. Because I have to listen to the people and do according to the people.
So, then, I know you’re paying a lot of attention to what’s going on in our country today. What do you think politicians and policymakers could learn from debate?
Well, for one, Congress could learn how to better communicate with each other and actually have debates. And actually talk about real issues and actually make decisions accordingly.
I honestly think debate makes people more insightful. Before, I was not paying attention to issues. Then, when I got into debate, I noticed, like, Oh, my god, there is a whole other world in front of you. Go explore it. Go learn more about it. So I feel like that’s how debate can help people become more insightful.
It can also help people be more outspoken. It can definitely help with confidence, and quick thinking and planning, because anything can go wrong and you always have to just plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead. And you have to think right then and there, what are you going to do. Because there’s nobody else to help you.
And one last thing: I think when you debate — like what Rosdely said — it builds your confidence, your speaking skills. I think it makes leaders. I think debate can help people advocate for real issues, and actually standing up for things, when we, say, debate an issue like immigration or something. Having people who can understand what the argument is from all sides of the spectrum and debate it. I think it’s better that way.
Yeah. Airing out the issue can kind of let us all really see what’s inside of it.
Progress will happen that way.
Rosdely Ciprian and Thursday Williams alternate nights debating during the Broadway run of What the Constitution Means to Me, which runs at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York City through July 21.