When I was invited to direct a show at the Princess Theatre in Prosser, Proof, by David Auburn, was at the top of my list. I saw Proof in 2001 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre shortly after its run on Broadway. It is no wonder that Proof won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year. What drew me to Proof was the way the playwright showed us relatable characters through the lens of the beauty and art of mathematics to explore relationships among genius, sanity, heredity, gender, academia, and family.
Now that I am delving much deeper into the story in collaboration with an excellent production team and cast, I’m discovering even more underneath the layers in this story. And I am learning that each of us has our own stories of family, relationships, mental illness, and the struggle to define the difference between what is real and what is imagined. I have seen the play performed several times, and each performance has been different. My hope for our production is to be true to the story in a way that connects with our audience, providing new or different insights into things we all experience in our relationships with those we love.
I asked members of our production team to share their own thoughts about this beautiful play — reflecting on what drew them to the story, its importance or relevance to them, or anything they’d like to reflect on about the play or our specific production. Here are their responses.
Katie Clark (Assistant Director)
Proof is, for me, a story about the beauty of things that we often fail to find beautiful. How many people groan when you say “math”? Proof shows it for the compelling art form that it is. How fearful are people about severe mental illness? Proof humanizes it. The marriage of math, genius, and the honest way Catherine is written allows the audience to truly experience the terrifying beauty of living in a mind that is both so alive while simultaneously trying to destroy itself.
Processing grief, being a caretaker, being alone for the first time — these are things that are difficult for anyone, but amplified by mental illness. To live in the extremity of a mood disorder is to be privy to the most intense emotions that we are capable of as humans. When looking through that lens, it’s no wonder that some of the greatest minds have been those of people struggling with mental illness. But at what cost? Is it worth broken relationships? Isolation? Is it worth the inevitable deterioration? Proof won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for its ability to explore these themes with honesty, care, and an incredible plot twist.
Kimberly A. Starr (Producer)
In my role as Princess Theatre’s artistic director, I strive to create a balanced season which includes opportunities for a broad range of on and off-stage talent and productions which will both attract — and occasionally challenge — audience members, while providing enough butts-in-seats to safeguard our company’s financial sustainability. In addition, I must ensure we have enough actors, directors, producers, designers, stage managers, and technicians to serve all production positions each season.
Although our paths had crossed a few times, I connected with Ted Miller about a year ago when I approached him for advice. He immediately embraced me and my desire to investigate how best to approach the situation. We spoke at length, and he directed me to related resources, one of which has significantly and positively impacted how I view my role in theatre. I greatly appreciated his sincere desire to help, and that interaction soon blossomed into a friendship. Around that time, I was preparing our 2022-23 season, so I asked Ted if he would consider directing a Princess Theatre production. After a few conversations and perusing a few plays, he agreed to direct Proof for our company.
As we started filling in our team, Ted invited individuals to join us who have never worked on Princess Theatre shows. In addition, the play’s actors have never graced our stage. I can see the talent and passion they all bring to our production team and am thrilled to work with so many individuals who are new to our company. I am hopeful this experience is just the beginning of their involvement with our theatre family.
Cyndil Davis (Stage Manager)
“You’re acting just like your father!” A phrase that would end any conflict in my household growing up; the ultimate wake-up call and trump card. Even in his own words, my dad would echo the sentiment, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re good for nothing; you can always be a good bad example.” Much like Catherine fears, my brother and I have always feared we would be the apples falling too close to the tree. And much like Catherine, my father passed unexpectedly when I was 26. In Catherine, I see the same odd inner conflict I continue to feel: to mourn someone you loved, but also utterly disliked in many ways, and to fear your DNA is stronger than your brain. This play hits home in innumerous ways, even as math has been my constant foe. The light it shines on some of life’s most difficult times, fears, and truths is truly something to behold.
Greg Schenter (Dramaturg)
Getting involved with the production of Proof has motivated me to explore connections between math and mental illness. It is fascinating. Math is misunderstood. Mental illness is misunderstood. The math that I know is passionate, alive, mysterious, often unconventional, and sometimes not yet defined. Many people that I know can be described by the same attributes. Early discoveries in mathematics are useful. Counting is useful. Accounting is useful, but the evolution of mathematics has transcended these primitive concepts. I have been fortunate to see the connections between physical laws, processes, symmetries, and mathematics. As I learn more about math, I learn that my understanding falls short. I can relate to Einstein’s quote: “The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
As I learn about mental illness, I begin to see connections between it and math. The human mind is mysterious. We struggle. What is real? Does mathematics exist outside of the physical world? Did I inherit a sickness? Finding connections, the key to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, must be important to mental health. What is the role of confidence? What is the source of creativity and inspiration? Those mysterious, often unconventional, unexplored regions of our minds, as complex as they may be, are a source of beauty.
Jess Howard (Assistant Stage Manager)
Proof means so much to me that I have been willing to drive the hour round-trip to Prosser for two months of rehearsals to help bring this show to a Mid-Columbia area stage. For me, that’s a pretty big deal!
My original introduction to this story was in the form of the 2005 movie. When it released, I was right in the midst of writing a master’s thesis in mathematics, on a topic that made the song i hit me with an extra dose of amusement. “It’s about mathematicians” got me to the Cineplex. Then, in the experience of it, the disagreements about mental healthcare that weighed on Claire and Catherine mirrored those within my own home. As the nuclear family members of a volatile person with mental illness, our relationships were particularly strained by one big question: When is outpatient care enough; when does inpatient care become necessary?
At the time, I had no idea that in the following year I would have more in common with Claire (and Catherine). Things deteriorated, and I became a young adult orphan, thrust into making active decisions about my family legacy and about how to handle my younger sibling. Of course, I never made the mistake of forgetting her birthday… just saying.
The investment that I’ve seen from our cast and crew for Proof, the care put into this production by so many of my teammates, has been a warm hug for my survivor heart.
Emily Franks (Actor, Catherine)
Proof is a very important story and it’s just as impactful today as it was twenty years ago. There are parts of this play that are so beautiful that you feel so free within the words. And then there are parts that show the truth behind the mental illness that not a lot of people really get to see. There are times when it’s so hard to watch but you simply can’t look away because you feel so connected to Catherine and her struggles. This play focuses on how humans connect when there are barriers between them. Catherine connects to her dad through math, and she connects to her sister through sarcasm, and she connects to Hal through a mixture of both. And for someone who is neurodivergent, those coping mechanisms really work for Catherine. She’s never learned how to connect to other people in a healthy and mature way. She only knows what she was brought up with, which was a dad struggling to keep his brilliant mind intact until he could no longer take care of his family.
Chris Hart (Actor, Robert)
I have come to this production with very little prior knowledge, but upon my first reading, I was clearly struck by its raw honesty and depiction of a family struggling with — and impacted by — mental illness. It is a story of hope and resilience that shines a light on the truths of what it’s like to live and care for someone afflicted with such a challenging condition.
Mental illness and ‘stigma’ have lived hand-in-hand for a long time, and it is a topic that is very difficult for individuals and families to face due to the hard realities that accompany such a situation. Proof gives us an opportunity to see those raw truths in a way that can inform. The play can help each of us to understand the individual and familial challenges that are so commonly encountered with a mental illness. It confronts those topics head-on, shines a bright light on them, and helps us avoid the ‘judgment’ that so often accompanies stigma.
We also know that our nation’s healthcare institutions have seriously struggled to meet patient needs during the pandemic, particularly so for patients needing mental health services. This seemingly ceaseless, ever-growing demand for mental healthcare should get our attention! I believe a play like Proof, a show that delivers the raw truth of our humanity, can help each of us move our mindset from judgment to understanding when we consider these increasingly common family challenges.
Xander Lih (Sound Designer)
This will be my second time doing sound effects and music for Proof by David Auburn. The script does an excellent job of describing how exhilarating mathematical deduction can be. Proof shows reason and logic side-by-side with emotion and sudden insight, as things really are.
Lead character Catherine is one to admire. Women have been historically underrepresented in the fields of mathematics while at the same time significant contributions from women often were overlooked for their importance. Set in 2000, Catherine’s world hasn’t changed much from the Age of Enlightenment. The people around her — friends and relatives who should know better — reinforce in their own ways the social barriers women still face as professionals in mathematics. Will Catherine have the resolve to see her through?
The story takes place in a backyard but is quite a ride. As it begins, things are uncertain and tenuous. Clues are given, there are twists and surprises along the way. Disagreements are had over what is real and what is not. And it comes down to who has the proof.
Samantha Curtis (Actor, Claire)
Proof is one of my absolute favorite plays and I am thrilled to be a part of it. I was initially drawn to the script by the themes of math and a woman’s battle in STEM, which I am all too familiar with. But it was the close relationship between the two sisters that had me fall in love, through their struggle to see and understand each other. While mathematics can be elegant and beautiful, to someone unfamiliar, it can be a jumbled mess of numbers and symbols, confusing and intimidating. And we see that mirrored in Claire’s frustrations with understanding her sister Catherine’s mental illness and the grief and fear she feels. Being in a caretaker role can be exhausting, and Claire does everything she can to offer help to her sister, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Proof begins to light the difficulties that families and relationships face when dealing with mental illness. It starts an important discussion that is just as relevant today as the day it was written.
Aaron-Michael Sintay (Actor, Hal)
Proof allows us to consider the intersection of logic and emotion, and how two different ways of thinking, although often at odds, can be used jointly to create something greater than the sum of its parts. We see mathematicians describe their work in terms of beauty, passion, and elegance — far from the sterile, logical declaration of fact that many would assume a proof to be. The combination of the logic of mathematics and the emotion its beauty elicits drives the characters to create and discover new connections. Likewise, we see the characters’ relationships influenced not just by what they know to be true, but also by what they feel, leading to interpersonal connections that would not have been discovered otherwise.
Ted Miller (Director)
After reading through these responses, I took a few minutes during rehearsal to ask the group why we are presenting this play. Why are we sharing Proof with our community?
That question led to a broader discussion of many of the things already said. We discovered that the reasons are as many and varied as the members of the team. But I think they can be summarized with the reason live theatre is such an impactful art form.
Since the earliest performances in ancient Greece, theatre has been a unique way to share our common human experience. Theatre provides us a way to see things from another point of view, to experience life through the actors on stage, and to perhaps give us a better understanding of the human condition.
There is a sign posted at the San Francisco Playhouse with a quote by Artistic Director Bill English that says:
“Our theater is an empathy gym where we come to practice our powers of compassion. Here, safe in the dark, we can risk sharing in the lives of the characters. We feel what they feel, fear what they fear, and love what they love. And as we walk through our doors, we take with us greater powers of understanding to make our community a better place, one play at a time.”
And I think that summarizes perfectly why we produce plays like Proof. To make our community a better place.
I invite you to come experience the lives of Catherine, Robert, Claire, and Hal through the art of live theatre. Perhaps David Auburn’s beautiful story will help us all in our journey of empathy and shared humanity.
Proof will be performed April 28 & 29, May 5 & 6 @ 7:30pm and April 30 @ 2:30 pm at the Princess Theatre in Prosser. Information and tickets at ProsserPrincess.com.
Includes adult language, portrayal of mental illness, and reference to mental illness treatments. Suitable for teens and older.
Ted Miller has been part of the local performing arts scene for over 25 years. He currently serves as president of the Washington State Community Theatre Association.