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For the week of July 10 - 16, 2002

Arts and Entertainment

Pulitzer winner Auburn discusses ‘Proof’

Express Arts Editor

If Andy Warhol’s prediction, "In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes," speaks to the speed with which fame can flee, David Auburn’s life might illustrate how with equal quickness fame can enter a life.

David Auburn. Courtesy photo

Auburn was 27 when the one and only full-length play he had written was produced off-Broadway. The next year, the summer of 1998, he quit his day job to write a second play. By late fall, the Manhattan Theatre Club had decided to produce it. Then Auburn won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for the play, which was titled "Proof." Then he won a Tony Award. He was 31-years-old at the time.

Since then, the drama has been playing on Broadway, in London, Los Angeles and in a few select venues in between. One of those other venues is Sun Valley, where the New Theatre Company opens the show tonight, 8 p.m., in The Community School Theatre.

In a phone interview from his home in New York, Auburn discussed the process of writing "Proof," its success and some of the joys of writing plays in general.

"Proof" is a story about a young woman, Catherine, played by Rachel Aanestad, who has spent several years caring for her father, Robert (Robert Rais). He is a brilliant mathematician who has suffered from mental illness. As the play opens, the deceased father visits Catherine. She is tormented by the thought that she may have inherited both his genius and illness. Also figuring into the drama is Catherine’s sister Claire (Leslie Scarborough), who wants to take Catherine back to New York and take charge of her life. Hal, played by Richard Hefner, is a math protégé of Robert’s rummaging through his former professor’s papers hoping to find something of academic value.

Auburn said he begins writing a play by sketching out a story idea.

"I’ll try to think of a situation and work outward from there, try to imagine what might happen, what certain characters might do. With ‘Proof’ the idea was for the two sisters to find something (after their father’s death). Also, because the parent had had a mental illness, one of the daughters would be worrying about whether she inherited the sickness."

Auburn chose a mathematical proof to be that found item, because "I thought it would be an interesting world to put on stage. It is a fascinating subculture," he said. Auburn was a political philosophy major at the University of Chicago, but in writing the play, he spent a lot of time with people in the math profession, trying to understand the "pleasures and difficulties they faced."

The play, Auburn said, took shape relatively quickly. In 1998, he moved to London with all of his savings to live with his girlfriend, who was working there. Going against his gut instincts, he did quit his day job to take a shot at writing what was to become "Proof." In about six months he had a draft he could show friends, some directors and his agent.

The play was picked by the Manhattan Theatre Club for a spring reading series. Then actress Mary-Louise Parker read it. The next day the MTC called and said the play would go into production. It was an instant hint on Broadway.

As to why he gravitates toward playwriting versus novels or short stories, Auburn said, "It’s the pleasure of collaborating with actors and directors. They bring their own ideas and interpretations to it. On Broadway I’ve been able to watch three different actors take on the part (Catherine). I’m constantly surprised … it keeps the play fresh."

He was a bit surprised by its reception, too. "At first, I just felt lucky to have it produced at all. But then to have it keep growing, playing around the world has been wonderful."

And as for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Auburn took, and still does, take the honor in stride. Mostly, it means "I am able to make a living as a full-time writer. The pressure (of the award) is balanced by the opportunities to have your work read and produced."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.