May 10, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 16

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    Playwright, alumnus Auburn wins Pulitzer Prize

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    University Theater performed a staged reading of Proof last weekend in the first-floor theater of the Reynolds Club.
    David Auburn (A.B. ’91), writer of the current Broadway hit play Proof, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in drama on Monday, April 16. Proof also received a nomination on Monday, May 7, for a Tony Award in the category best play. In this short interview, Auburn talks about the University and its surrounding community’s unique role in the drama.

    Theater reviewers in Chicago and Hyde Park residents who’ve seen Proof often comment about its startlingly vivid portrayal of the neighborhood. What did it take to bring such a well-realized corner of Hyde Park to life on a New York stage?

    It’s fun for me to walk into the theater with people who come from Chicago–they always gasp when they see John Lee Beatty’s amazing set design. It’s incredibly evocative. John Lee and I talked about Hyde Park, and then he went and took photographs all over the neighborhood. Out of that process, he kind of came up with the ideal Hyde Park house. So the porch in the play isn’t based on one particular house that actually exists. It takes elements from a bunch of different places to create the ultimate South Side Chicago yellow brick house. So that’s really his brilliance, I think, in finding the elements of various houses in the neighborhood and blending them all together. I have to say, I didn’t anticipate that the set would convey such a sense of the neighborhood. I really just wrote a porch into the script, and it was John Lee who put in the alleyways and the buildings on either side. He really created this whole environment.

    Some might argue that Hyde Park itself functions as a kind of character in the story. Was that something you were consciously thinking about–about how the character of a neighborhood or a community like Hyde Park can act in people’s lives?

    Originally I just used it because I knew I needed a campus setting, and I simply picked the campus that I know best–the University of Chicago. But later on, as I was working on the play, it became clear to me that Hyde Park was a good neighborhood for the story. It’s a place where there are a lot of extraordinary and unusual people. Sometimes you get the sense that among them, there are some who’ve sort of slipped off the track a little bit and they’re still kind of haunting the University–where they went to school, or where they used to work, or the bookstores or whatever it is–and although they’re still sort of a presence, it’s hard to put your finger on what they’re doing there. That’s Robert’s situation in the play. He’s kind of a ghost who wonders around the neighborhood, and he’s really no longer able to take care of himself. So I ended up feeling like it really worked well, and it felt right. I must say I really loved living in Hyde Park. But I only lived there for college, so I might have a romanticized view of it.

    What about the cast of characters–were any of them directly inspired by individuals you knew during your time at the University?

    No one in the play is really based on any one person specifically. The characters really developed out of the demands of the plot. Of course there are some things. There were certain teachers I had a lot of affection for–in the way that Hal in the play has toward Robert. Also, although I didn’t remember this at the time I was writing the play, someone recently reminded me that there actually used to be a rock band that would sometimes play on the roof of Eckhart Hall. I don’t recall that there were mathematicians in the group, as they all are in the play, but for whatever reason, they would perform on the roof of the math building. A friend of mine who saw the play said, ‘Oh yeah, you must have based that on those guys who used to play on top of Eckhart.’ I had to tell him no, that I really hadn’t. But I think there are so many students at the University who are quite good at their studies who also have their hands in other kinds of unusual projects. It’s just a Hyde Park archetype.