PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With David Auburn, on Lost Lake, at the Annual Playwrights Conference

By Sophia Saifi
August 2, 2013

Playbill.com sits down with Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Auburn at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's annual National Playwrights Conference. 



Auburn [Proof, The Columnist, The Journals of Mihail Sebastian] was at the Center to develop and workshop his play Lost Lake. The first public reading of the play took place at the O'Neill's Rose Theater Barn July 26-27.

The reading of Lost Lake saw the culmination of the prestigious month-long conference in Waterford, CT.

Directed by Wendy C. Goldberg and starring Frank Wood and Elsa Davis, Lost Lake is a gently unraveling two-character play that revolves around the lives of two strangers whose lives become entangled when a single mother rents a shambled lakeside cabin in upstate New York.

David Auburn sat down with Playbill.com to talk about the importance of deadlines, the themes that tie his writing together, his upcoming work and his experience at the O'Neill.

Question: What is it like being here at the O'Neill?

David Auburn: I have never been here before, which surprises me a little bit. I wound up here this year just because Wendy called me up in the springtime and asked if I would be interested in being the guest artist this summer. It was fortuitous because I had about two thirds of a draft of a new play,

Question: Did it have a name? How much had you worked on it?

Auburn: It didn't have a name, but it is the play that we are doing here. Previous experience has taught me that having a deadline can be a very useful thing and that public presentation is a nice incentive for finishing something. I said I would love to come, [but] I can't send you the play yet, and she said that's fine. 

Question: What did you know of the O'Neill before you got here?

Auburn: The O'Neill is something that every playwright knows about in New York and many of my friends and colleagues have workshopped plays here and been here over the years. It is part of the legend of New York theatre because everyone knows that The House of Blue Leaves was one of the first plays workshopped here and there is a storied history here. O'Neill's house [Monte Cristo Cottage] itself is a kind of a shrine.

Question: What do you think is the importance of regional theatre to American theatre as a whole?

Auburn: I think it is easy to forget this when you are in New York, but regional theatre is where most of American theatre gets made. A vast preponderance of it is out there and there are fine theatres and first-rate theatre artists in almost every American city. It is really striking to go somewhere and be reminded of that. To have a play done in Nashville or Cincinnati and be reminded that there are first-rate directors there and experienced actors and very fine designers. America is so big; our theatre talent is spread across the country.

Question: Lost Lake sees characters unwilling to deal with other people’s problems. Have you ever had an experience where you were thrust into someone else's issues? How did it inform the play?

Auburn: One always has this experience when the garrulous person at the end of the bar starts telling you things and pretty soon they are exposing great unhappiness and tragedy in their lives, and you don't know that person and it is hard to know how to react and respond to that. Sometimes you are that person. That is interesting. Just the idea of bringing two strangers together and testing what their obligations are to one another, what their responsibilities might be to one another, what their antipathies might be, seemed potent. I also liked the setting. I liked the idea of doing a very small intimate play in this dilapidated rustic setting and having all of the drama come from these two characters rubbing against each other.

Question: Was one of the characters always intended to be African-American or was that something that came later?

Auburn: It came out of thinking about both of them. Let's have two people who are as unlike each other as possible. So you have someone from the city and someone from outside the city. You have someone who is older and someone who is white and someone who isn't. Initially trying to play with those opposites and then finding some of the stuff and keeping it.

Question: How is it been working with the team you have here?

Auburn: Wendy [C. Goldberg] is such a thoughtful smart person who has great ideas about the play. And then you have two actors who are ideal for the characters that they play. They are the actors that I would like to keep doing it. There is something about what happens in a room and other people are responding to it, that a playwright, at least this playwright, needs to really hear the play, to see what's working and what isn't working and where people are engaged with it and where they are tuning out. You need that room and this is a great room. You are surrounded by other theatre artists and young theatre artists who have their perspectives and experienced ones and that all kind of goes into the soup.

Question: You've said that if you hadn't gone into playwriting you would have been interested in studying international policy. Your play right after Proof was [about] Mihail Sebastian, who is a Romanian journalist, and then The Columnist was based on Joseph Alsop. Where does the fascination for these personalities come from?

Auburn: It's an interesting coincidence that you mention that they both were journalists. Sebastian was also a journalist but he was primarily a playwright. Both of those came out of being interested in people. They were characters that were living through very tumultuous political circumstances and were struggling to define themselves in these circumstances. Sebastian was this aspiring young provincial Jewish intellectual who was trying to make a go of it in this very hothouse, very anti-Semitic world of Bucharest theatre. Alsop was a very conflicted gay conservative socialite in DC in the 60s. Both of them belong in and are outsiders in these worlds that they are trying to dominate.

Question: Relationships between parents and children keep coming up in your work.

Auburn: It just seems territory that when I get into it as a writer, it seems to resonate in me. Interesting things happens to me creatively. Those are central relationships in my life.

Question: You have also always explored issues of mental health, most obviously in Proof but then in your corresponding works as well. What draws you to that?

Auburn: Well, people who are in trouble make for interesting characters. People who are on the edge in some sense, whether it is circumstantial or whether it is something happening to them emotionally or psychologically, there is drama in that. You always go where the meat is.

Question: What other projects are you working on it right now that are not in the realm of theatre? 

Auburn: Anna Christie is coming up, which is a confluence of coming from the O'Neill Center and going to direct an O'Neill play. I like being in a rehearsal room, the energy and the collaboration and the experience of that. As a playwright one can only write so fast. In order to get into that room more often, I like to direct. The other thing I really like about directing, aside from that collaborative experience, is really being forced to figure out and get into the mind of another playwright. Why they were making choices that they were working on? 

Question: A year ago you were working on the [movie] script for Deborah Harkness's novel, "A Discovery of Witches." How did that come about?

Auburn: They were assignments that came to me. Warner Brothers approached me about doing the Harkness book and I liked the book.

Question: So what happened with that?

Auburn: We finished the script only three or four months ago. I think they're tying to see how they can make it.

Question: It's something so different from what you yourself create.

Auburn: Yeah. She [Harkness] had built this very, very elaborate world, so I feel like she's the architect and I'm the contractor, and I have to figure out to transform her novel into something that works by a different set of rules. I enjoyed it.

Question: The first screenplay of yours that was produced into a fim was "The Lake House." How was that different from working in theatre?

Auburn: That was an interesting project, because it was very useful for me. I was the principal screenwriter and not the only screenwriter; then the studio decided to do some reshoots and I was brought back to work on some of the postproduction. So I got a nice little crash course in film editing and studio politics and I supervised the looping sessions with Keanu Reeves. I got to do some interesting movie chores, and that really set me up nicely for when I did my own movie.

Question: So apart from directing Anna Christie for the Berkshire Theatre Group and working on Lost Lake and your various film and television projects, is there anything new in the works?

Auburn: Lost Lake has been my focus for the last six months and it is just starting to come into fruition and that’s nice for right now.