David Auburn, 44, is best known for his play “Proof,’’ which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for best play. His play “The Columnist” debuted on Broadway last year, starring John Lithgow as the imperious political journalist Joseph Alsop. Educated at the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School’s playwriting program, Auburn has also written and directed screenplays and frequently directs for the stage. Last month, he workshopped his new play, “Lost Lake,” at the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. Now, he is in the thick of directing O’Neill’s 1921 play “Anna Christie” for the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge.
Q. You’ve had a busy summer. How was your experience working on your new play, “Lost Lake,” at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center?
A. I go from O’Neill to O’Neill. It was a nice time. It’s a two-character play about a single mother who rents a cabin in a remote area, hoping to get her kids out of the city for a week. It begins with a conflict with the owner of the cabin, and it turns into an uneasy friendship. It is about these two people whose lives intersect and the extent to which they can and cannot help each other.
Q. Did being around O’Neill’s boyhood summer home inform your approach to “Anna Christie”?
A. New London was a working fisherman’s port town in O’Neill’s days, and “Anna Christie” is a sailors’ play about the romance of the sea. The more of that you can soak up, the better. It was really useful to be in that town before coming here to direct.
Q. The sea plays a major role in “Anna Christie.” How do you handle that onstage?
A. We have a set that suspends you in the middle of a big vastness that is around the characters. You feel their closeness and the sense of them being surrounded by something a lot bigger than themselves. The sea — and what it can do to you — is like a character. It is a presence.
Q. Is it hard to switch gears from doing a workshop of your own play and directing someone else’s play?
A. It doesn’t feel that much like a gear shift. It is the same work of making theater, just slightly different tasks. It was nice not having to come into this cold. I had the motor running.
Q. But the process must be a little bit different.
A. Well, it feels like every time you start something new you have to figure out the rules of that thing from scratch. One hopes you acquire some kind of experience and knowledge that you carry with you from project to project, but every time I feel like I am inventing it from scratch.
Q. The play was quite provocative when it debuted in 1921. How does that hold up today?
A. The sexual politics of the play are very modern, and in a way, you don’t have to do anything to make it feel contemporary. It was radical in its time, and now it feels contemporary. The way Anna Christie defines herself is startling and modern.
I read that O’Neill was slightly unhappy that the ending of the play was misinterpreted. He was unhappy that it could end up feeling like a sort of jolly romantic comedy with a hopeful and romantic ending, a kind of “Abie’s Irish Rose” ending and not an ominous ending. To an extent, things do work out romantically, but it is also clear that it is a sort of temporary solution, and there is more trouble down the road.
Q. How much research do you do?
A. I try to know as much as I can before going into the rehearsal room. I read a big two-volume biography, the [Louis] Sheaffer biography. Going to the O’Neill Center was helpful. I spent a few months reading and thinking about earlier productions of the play.
Q. You also do a fair amount of research for your own plays.
A. I don’t think of it as research. I think about it as learning interesting stuff. It is not a chore. It is part of what is exciting and interesting about being a writer.
Q. Do you prefer writing or directing?
A. I almost never have a bad day in the rehearsal room, but I have a lot of bad days at the desk. The collaborative side of working in the theater has been the thing that most appealed to me. The time writing at my desk feels like a means to an end, a way to get into the rehearsal room. That might put it a little strongly. There are days I love moving the words around on the page and fiddling at my desk.
Q. I read that you teach playwriting to high school students in New York City.
A. The Manhattan Theatre Club has an after-school club called Write Now! One day a week, I help high school students figure out how to write short plays. Some of them write things that are very personal, very dark, family dramas that seem to have been ripped out of their guts. Some of them write about sexy vampires.
Q. What advice do you give your students?
A. Produce yourself. I think that more writing careers come out of people who have formed little ensembles or theater companies. I had a little group of friends in New York, and we would rent a bar or a small theater somewhere in the East Village. Nobody made money and mostly the audience was friends and family, but we learned a lot.
Q. Do you miss those early days?
A. I really do miss it sometimes. I felt a little bit of it back at the O’Neill. I like having it in small doses. You spend a few weeks doing nothing but thinking about a play. You feel wrapped up in it. You don’t think about who is going to make pancakes in the morning for the kids. I wouldn’t want to only be in that world, but it allows me to enjoy going back and making pancakes.