By Laura Milani Alessio
Photo by Robert Kozloff

As a student here, I learned I could teach myself enough about a strange subject in order to say something about it—not necessarily as an expert, but to be able to participate in the conversation.”
—David Auburn, AB'91

On a cold winter day in Hyde Park, much like one portrayed in a pivotal scene of his play Proof, David Auburn, AB’91, arrived at Court Theatre to sit in on a rehearsal for the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning work’s first professional production on campus.

He watched the story unfold between the brilliant but mentally unstable mathematics professor, Robert, and his daughter, Catherine, who gave up her studies to care for him and who might have inherited both the beauty and bane of his genius. Auburn says seeing the work performed at Court brought him back to the starting point of an unimagined journey.

“I came to this theater and saw most every show here while I was a student,” he says, so to see his name on Court's marquee is nearly as “surreal” as when Proof premiered on Broadway in 2000, when he was just 30 years old. “The roots of the play are in this neighborhood,” he says. “It is an eerie feeling, like a circle being closed.”

From Off-Off Campus to Broadway

Born in Chicago but raised in Ohio and Arkansas, Auburn came to UChicago as an undergraduate to study political science. He soon discovered his passion for theater, which started after he began writing for Off-Off Campus, UChicago’s storied improvisational sketch comedy group.

After completing a writing fellowship in Los Angeles at filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Productions, Auburn moved to New York to begin Julliard’s playwriting program. His first play, Skyscraper, was produced at a small Off Broadway theater in 1997, and captured the attention of members of the Manhattan Theater Club, who asked to see the young playwright’s next work.

That next work was Proof, which Auburn penned after moving to London to join his future wife, Frances Rosenfeld, AB’92, who was doing her doctoral research in history. Auburn was reading the 1940 autobiography by G.H. Hardy, in which the venerated British mathematician describes the best validations of mathematical theories as incorporating “a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability….” Hardy’s words struck Auburn as an equally valid rule of thumb for drama as he set out to write Proof.

The widespread success of the work that Auburn wrote while in his 20s still amazes him.

“Everything about Proof has been unexpected,” Auburn says. “I knew it might have a chance at being professionally produced, or that I might possibly produce it myself with a small group.” Instead, Proof headlined at the Manhattan Theater Club for three months before moving to Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre and enjoying a three-year run and national tour.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, among other accolades. By 2002, Proof was the most widely produced play in the United States and was being performed in numerous theaters abroad. Proof was made into a 2005 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins and was filmed partly on the UChicago campus. A London revival of the play also is set for this spring.

Writing with ‘intellectual swagger’

Auburn credits UChicago for providing the physical setting for Proof, as well as its intense intellectual culture and accompanying eccentric personalities. “There is a certain, offbeat type of Hyde Park character that everyone who has spent any time here is familiar with,” Auburn says. “You would see them wandering around in bookstores. Legends accrued around them—you’d hear stories of their incredible academic talent 30 years ago, before they slipped off the tracks. They’d still be haunting the neighborhood because this community both accommodates and shelters them.”

Auburn says this same UChicago culture equipped him with an academic confidence and conviction, a sort of “intellectual swagger,” he says, that has allowed him to write about topics he initially knew little about. “As a student here, I learned I could teach myself enough about a strange subject in order to say something about it—not necessarily as an expert, but to be able to participate in the conversation. You come to realize that if you read the right books, talk to the right people, and ask the right questions, you will come out a different person.”

For example, beyond reading Hardy’s memoir and other insightful works on the mathematics field before writing Proof, Auburn also asked mathematicians to critique his script. By and large, they embraced the work. The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute invited him to an interview event prior to the San Francisco opening of Proof’s national tour, and an offshoot of the play took place at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, where a panel of female mathematicians discussed sexism and bias in their profession.

“The interest of mathematicians in the play has been one of the most gratifying things to happen,” said Auburn.

The intellectual confidence Auburn honed at UChicago prompted him to explore many other diverse topics in subsequent plays—ranging from The Journals of Mihail Sebastian (2004), about the Romanian government’s World War II-era atrocities, to last year’s Broadway debut of The Columnist, starring John Lithgow as Washington commentator Joseph Alsop.

Auburn also wrote the film script for The Lake House (2006), starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves as time-crossed lovers. Auburn’s Hollywood directorial debut came in 2008 when he directed The Girl in the Park, starring Sigourney Weaver, Kate Bosworth, and Keri Russell, about a woman who encounters someone who may or may not be her missing daughter of 15 years.

Bringing inspiration back to campus

The breadth of the theatrical career Auburn has crafted—all by his early 40s—has been a source of inspiration to students and faculty on campus, says Drew Dir, AB’07, resident dramaturge at Court Theatre and a lecturer in the Theater and Performance Studies program. The cast of Court Theatre’s Proof was particularly thrilled that Auburn gave them a copy of the notes he had written for the director and cast of the play’s original production.

“It outlined the back stories of all the characters and their family histories,” Dir says. “It even had notes about Catherine’s mother, who you never see in the play, with contours of her background, so in the rehearsal room we could fill in the blanks for these characters.”

After seeing the rehearsal, Auburn says he was impressed by Court’s “nuanced and thoughtful” rendering of Proof and thought its abstract setting was perfectly appropriate.

“In the Broadway production, the set was so realistic and evocative of the Hyde Park neighborhood that it sometimes drew gasps from people in the audience who had lived there,” Auburn says. “But for this production, you don’t need an elaborate, detailed set because you can walk out the door to see Hyde Park all around you.”

Court Theatre’s production of Proof runs through April 7.