In The Flesh

In the Flesh, Papermaker

Novelist and first-time playwright Monica Wood never expected to come face to face with one of her own made-up characters. Then she met Jake.

Photographed by Mark Fleming
Although my fiction writing has been described as “visual” or even “cinematic,” whenever I’m asked to physically describe my characters, I mostly see grayish blurs. My characters live for me as words, not pictures. In place of corporal attributes — height, weight, coloring — I offer figurative cues: “blousy and frittering” for an elderly aunt; “guileless as a grasshopper” for a young boy. Readers tend to fill in the rest so thoroughly that they think I’ve given them a “cinematic” picture.

My newest work is a play called Papermaker, the story of a paper-mill owner and his daughter who unexpectedly encounter a family of mill workers near the bitter end of a labor strike. Like all plays, Papermaker comes to life not in the imagination but on a stage, embodied by characters who exist not metaphorically but literally. I must have known this from the get-go, but because I based the plot on an earlier novel of mine, the script for Papermaker felt more like a novel than a play as I wrote it. And because plays rely solely on dialogue and allow for little description, I gave even less thought than usual to what the speakers might look like.

Until now. I’m on the 17th floor of Ripley Grier, an outfit that rents audition and rehearsal space on 8th and 34th in Manhattan. Sharing this well-lighted room with me is Sally Wood, Papermaker’s director; Sam Buggeln, our casting director; Patricia Buckley, our audition reader; and Anita Stewart, artistic and executive director of Portland Stage, where the play will shortly begin rehearsals for its five-week run. We have 18 young actors on the audition schedule today. They’re all competing for the role of Jake, the 24-year-old son of the union’s vice president.

Before I can brace myself, the door opens, and in walks Jake. Except he’s not Jake — he doesn’t match even my blurry, half-formed, word-centered notion of Jake. This guy has a medium build, dark hair, snowy teeth, and an action hero’s clefted chin. He home-runs the audition, so much that I allow for the possibility of a Jake with an ever-so-slight urban vibe. Then comes the second Jake, who has big blue peepers and sandy hair. He’s the boy-next-door that my Jake once was, but can no longer be (or can he?).

As the day wears on, we see icy Jakes, warm Jakes, jittery Jakes, angry Jakes, all of them excellent actors, all of them personifying some part of Jake, but not the whole. Seeing these actors walk in and out is like writing and rewriting, my drafting process made manifest in a casting call. I feel the way I do when I can’t quite get the words right: frustrated, single-minded, exhilarated despite myself.

Then the real Jake walks in.

I don’t recognize him at first. He’s too tall, too loose of limb; he moves with a grace that, hitherto, I would not have associated with a young papermaker on strike.

Then he reads his lines.

“We’re gonna lose,” he pleads to the reader playing his mother. “Am I the only one in this family who knows that?”

Because plays rely solely on dialogue and allow for little description, I gave even less thought than usual to what the speakers might look like. Until now.

Whoa. Someone just metaphorically slugged me in my metaphorical chest.

“Mom,” he insists. “We are going to lose.”

He means the strike, and I believe him. Oh my, I believe him.

Despite the wing-lift of relief that Jake has appeared at last, as crisp and solid as a final draft, I also feel the soft nudge of loss. Jake has lived for over a year in the hazy mess of my imagination, more feeling than flesh. Now he’s real. Large hands, a challenging gaze, a little scuff on one knuckle. Unrevisable.

My work ends as his begins.

Papermaker runs April 21–May 24. $37–$47. Portland Stage Mainstage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland. 207-774-0465. portlandstage.org


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Monica Wood

Monica Wood’s new novel, The One-in-a-Million Boy, will appear in April from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.