Monday, April 15, 2013
PROOF: The Playwright and the Play
Though Auburn participated in community theatre in Arkansas, then acted and wrote sketches for a student theatrical group at the University of Chicago, he intended to go into international relations. But his career path altered after his sophomore year when he turned down an internship with a U.S. Senator to go to an international festival with his theatre group.
After graduating with a degree in English, Auburn got a Steven Spielberg Fellowship to write screenplays in Los Angeles, and then attended the Julliard School in New York, where he was admitted into the first playwriting course given by playwrights Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang. Auburn’s first play was Skyscrapers, a Durang-esqe absurdist comedy, which ran Off-Broadway for about a month in 1997.
He moved to London to be with the woman he later married, and wrote his second play: Proof. With Sarah Jessica Parker as Catherine, Proof ran Off-Broadway, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the New York City Center Stage II for 79 performances in the spring and summer of 2000. It won a number of awards, including the Drama League and Drama Critics Circle awards for best play.
Proof moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in the fall of 2000, and played for 917 performances, closing in January 2003. It won Tony Awards for Parker, director Dan Sullivan, and for Best Play. Parker and Auburn also won their respective Drama Desk awards. Then Proof and Auburn won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Among the theatre works Auburn has written in the years since Proof is Sebastian, a one man play based on the journals of Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian about the Holocaust, and The Columnist, a play about Washington columnist Joseph Alsop, which ran on Broadway for 86 performances in 2012, starring John Lithgow. He also directed Michael Weller’s Side Effects Off-Broadway in 2011.
Though Auburn received screen credit for the movie version of Proof, it’s due mostly to the fact that quite a bit of the play’s lines are included. Auburn didn’t actually participate in writing the screenplay, since he had an unspecified disagreement with director John Madden on how the movie would treat the play. Madden had directed the stage version of Proof in London, which starred Gwyneth Palrow. Madden had previously directed her in Shakespeare in Love, and urged her to make this her first major stage role. She also stars in the 2005 film, with Anthony Hopkins, Jake Gyllenhaal and Hope Davis.
But Auburn did write the screenplay for The Lake House (2006) and The Girl in the Park (2007), which he also directed.
The Roots of Proof
Auburn has named Anton Chekhov as a prime theatrical influence, and the origins of this play have a Chekhovian ring: he wanted to write about two sisters who are quarreling over something their father left behind when he died.
He told the New York Times that another idea was a daughter who was afraid that she was inheriting her father’s mental illness. He found himself thinking about his student days at the University of Chicago, and its eccentric faculty. “The story needs Chicago, I think,” he said in another interview. “It needs the melancholy atmosphere that I often felt in Hyde Park. In coffee shops, wandering around the bookstores, you’d often see these people... these sort of perennial campus ghosts haunting the place. You got the sense that they’d slipped off the tracks somehow. Sometimes there would be little legends attached to them—you’d hear that this guy or that one was a brilliant prodigy who cracked up spectacularly. I suppose any big University has these figures, but it feels like a particularly Chicago phenomenon to me. Robert in the play is one of these types.”
The exact setting of the play came simply from imagining dialogue among the characters. “The porch came out of a visual impulse—it was simply where I ‘saw’ the first scene happening when I sat down to write it. The larger decision to confine the play to one set had to do with my wanting to see if I could write a traditional ‘well-made’ play, to see if I had the craft to work within those constraints.”
“The first draft came very fast and the whole plot and structure of the play was there from the beginning,” he said in a PBS interview. “I knew what was going to happen in the story and what was going to happen in every scene. So that came quickly then going back through it and really figuring out the relationship between the characters and sort of putting some meat on the bones of the play ... It was probably about nine months or something like that before I had a draft that's substantially like the draft that is in performance now.”
Proof is a remarkably efficient play, with no wasted words or extra action. In math terms, it could be called elegant. But it also has some internal complexities. It moves back and forth in time. And it defies a standard definition of genre. According to Auburn, that’s by design, and because that’s the kind of play he likes. “I like stories that surprise you with sudden shifts of mood or tone, so that as an audience member you never quite settle into complacency, feeling, ‘Oh, this is serious stuff, I’ll just sit here nodding,’ or, ‘This is a comedy, there’s nothing I need to worry about taking seriously.’”