We the People should get to know Mike Iveson.
An award-winning performer, composer, and playwright in New York’s downtown theater scene for more than 20 years, Iveson makes his Broadway debut in What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s timely Tony-nominated triumph about the laws of our land. Schreck, who earned money for college as a teen by giving speeches on the U.S. Constitution in American Legion halls across the country, now takes the stage to intimately explore the controversial document’s impact on women. Iveson first appears as a legionnaire moderating a reimagined debate contest, but his role contains multitudes; the actor eventually breaks character altogether, shedding his uniform to share his own personal stories that further unpack toxic masculinity.
NewNowNext recently challenged Iveson to find out what the Constitution means to him as a proud gay American.
You’ve been with Constitution since its off-Broadway premiere last fall. How did you become a part of the show?
I’ve worked with Heidi and our director, Oliver Butler, before, and we’ve been friends for many years. I actually remember the moment I first learned about the show, a year or two before it was even a thing. I ran into Heidi on 42nd Street, and she was like, “I’m going to do this weird monologue where I talk about the Constitution…” [Laughs] Obama was still president at the time, so the national panic was much less acute.
I consider myself pretty woke, but the play is very eye-opening when it comes to a woman’s experience in our patriarchy.
Yeah, the abuse that women endure is more of an epidemic than we think, because there’s so much about women’s reality that we ignore as a culture. It’s good that we’re at this time in history where we can’t ignore it anymore.
I’m still not sure how I’d respond if someone asked what the Constitution means to me.
Being with the show for a while, I feel lucky that I understand a lot more about it now. But I feel like if I just saw the show once and was handed a copy of the Constitution at the end, even that would be a huge eye-opener.
What purpose does the American legionnaire serve in the show?
It’s so rudimentary, but just as important as anything I say, I’m a man listening to a woman. Weirdly, that visual is useful for men to see—a guy listening intently to a woman. It’s a big part of my job.
Heidi tells stories in which men are perpetrators, as lawmakers or otherwise. “When I realized I was going to be talking about so much violence,” she says in the play, “I really wanted some positive male energy up here with me.” No pressure, right?
Well, it’s funny, because it seems like the audience likes to have a clear villain in the beginning, or maybe even throughout. The audience wants the legionnaire to be a bit of an antagonist, so I’m leaning into that. But I’m also listening, I’m supporting, and sometimes I’m being myself, so I’m embodying the ambiguity that comes with being all those things.
There’s more to you than meets the eye.
I wear a lot of hats, yeah—and that links up with how Heidi is showing you what society expects women to be, being accommodating and pleasing and happy in order to win the contest. But we also see the forces in the world that made her accommodating, that make women decide to be accommodating, and she’s showing you that she’s actually quite angry.
You ultimately break character to explore your personal experiences with toxic masculinity. Why is it important to add your voice to this very feminist show?
Besides being an antagonist and a listener, in some ways I’m also a representative for the audience. After you listen to Heidi for an hour or so, I stand up and do a mini version of what you’ve just seen Heidi do. I’ve heard from people who’ve seen the show that it’s almost like a template, so then you, as an audience, can do the same thing. You can then explore your own relationship to toxic masculinity, or think about how the Constitution protects or doesn’t protect you.
Has the show made you consider how the Constitution protects you as a gay American?
I go into some specifics in my story about being singled out for being gay or passing, but I mostly feel aware of my status as a white guy. As a gay American, though, I think about the founding fathers, because it doesn’t make sense, numbers-wise, that some of them weren’t gay. Also, I hadn’t really followed some specifics about how gay marriage didn’t fall under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and how that was used to legalize same-sex marriage. Because—and this is stupid—my boyfriend was like, “We’re never getting married,” and I said, “That’s fine.”
How did you craft your monologue for the stage?
First I met with Heidi and told her some stories—I had no idea if they were pertinent or not. Then Oliver and our associate director, Tatiana Pandiani, expanded on those, and we worked on it until it gained a sprawling shape. Then Heidi would take that and turn it into much better sentences, because she’s a brilliant writer. So over time, it just found its form.
The monologue also serves as a reminder that toxic masculinity doesn’t only impact women. I like your anecdote about the big dude at a sports bar who asked if you wanted to fuck a female bartender.
Yeah. That part about Pickles Pub is harder for me to talk about than anything else, actually, and I don’t know why, because it was such a non-moment. It’s ultimately not clear that the guy wasn’t hitting on me, but I left the bar so I never got to the bottom of it. It was awkward and weird, but also not, because I normalized it. The way I acted like that situation was normal, it’s strangely hard to fess up to that.
You also talk about moving to New York and getting punched in the face while you were wearing Patricia Field hot pants. Is it unnerving to be so vulnerable in front of a Broadway audience?
Oh, yeah, every night, because I never know how my story will be received. Like, I remember the night I was assaulted very well, but I’d never talked about it—I don’t think I was repressing anything, it just never came up, and it’s not shocking to me anymore because I assimilated it many years ago. But sometimes when I talk about it in the show and get the audience’s reaction, that gives me a better understanding of how shocking and intense it really was. It’s always a little awkward, though, because I’m doing a deliberate misdirection where the story’s funny until it’s not.
You say you evolved from having “gender-neutral” energy to feeling “most comfortable presenting as basic male.” Is that the result of a survival instinct?
I don’t know. Are our personalities formed by what society mandates? We’re definitely asking that question in the show.
I hate that you feel like you can’t wear Patricia Field hot pants anymore.
[Laughs] When I was younger, I felt like if I was to wear, like, chinos, I would’ve been too depressed to walk out of the house. I needed to express myself in a crazy way. Then, I don’t know why, that was gone. Maybe it was about getting older? But I’m not willing to throw out the idea that just surviving within our culture had something to do with it.
Because you end up playing yourself, did you help choose the outfit you wear under the legionnaire uniform?
No. Heidi had a fantasy for a minute that I could have tearaway pants and underneath I’d be wearing this outfit I talk about in my monologue—my tight red, white, and blue striped shorts, and a YSL suit vest as a shirt. But Oliver thought that would be a colossal distraction, and of course he’s right. I have a different T-shirt for matinees, but I like the Amoeba Records T-shirt I usually wear. I would actually own that shirt—I’ve been to the one in San Francisco, back while I still a Patricia Field pants-wearing guy, so that comes together in a nice way.
What T-shirt do you wear at matinees?
It’s inscrutable. [Laughs] Our costume designer, Michael Krass, is a freakin’ genius, so I didn’t ask any questions. It has this logo with a star and it says “Fly Baby.” Is it a command or, like, saying that this baby is fly? I don’t know, and that’s okay.
What the Constitution Means to Me runs through August 24 at the Hayes Theater in New York.