Actress, writer Susan Poulin discusses her alter-ego, Mrs. Ida LeClair, and the healing power of laughter
by Katy Kelleher
In the musty, stripped-down, nearly empty family basement in Westbrook, Maine, Susan Poulin and her sister, Jane, were spending a few hours cleaning, sorting, and tossing items ruined by recent flooding. Nearing the end of the dirty work, they were set to tackle two final boxes. The first trunk was filled with tutus and clothes stowed away and saved from their childhood days, everything inside had been damaged by water. Sitting on top of that was a second container—one that would become know as their mother’s “Death Trunk.”
Their mother, Betty Poulin, had passed away roughly a decade earlier from cancer. But on this cold October day, as they stared joyous and teary-eyed at the memories and mementos she had carefully stashed away to be opened only after her passing, “It was as though we were having a conversation with her,” Susan Poulin recalled of the surprise. “We opened it up and saw all these things that were important to my mother—that she wanted us to see—and we said to each other, ‘Okay, let’s go upstairs and eat chocolate and cry before we finish this job.’”
Chocolate, tears, humor, and a Death Trunk—these seemingly unconnected, but real-life things are not only part of Susan Poulin's personality, but also find their way into Poulin’s most recent "self-help" book. Yet it isn’t Poulin herself telling that story in the pages of The Sweet Life, rather it's her sassy, funny alter-ego, Ida LeClair, who just so happens to look a whole lot like Poulin. (Ida is also a short-haired Mainer with a tendency to stress-eat chocolate and crack jokes during tough times—just like Poulin.)
It is no coincidence.
Ida LeClair began as a stage presence, a creative way for Poulin to share her belief in the healing power of laughter with other like-minded Mainers (and with people from away who understand the silly stereotypes that LeClair plays on). But over the past two decades, Poulin's feisty, ground-breaking, straight-talking, and oh-so-familiar alter-ego from fictional Mahoosuc Mills, Maine, has not only become a vital part of Poulin's life, but has emerged as an iconic figure of Maine culture—a female counterpart to the likes of storytellers Marshall Dodge, John McDonald, and Kendall Morse. Only Poulin has taken it a step further by creating a fully-developed life and world for Ida, one more personal and familiar; now more similar to Lake Wobegon than the decks of the Bluebird. LeClair has appeared in five stage plays, two books, hundreds of blog posts and podcasts, and more than five hundred live performances. Susan's life often finds its way onto the stage or spelled out on the written page through Ida, whether it is the tearful opening of a mother's Death Trunk, or shopping for a bra that actually fits.
Like many great comedians, Susan Poulin doesn’t immediately strike you as a “character.” In her day-to-day life, she is a petite woman with a short, stylish haircut, piercing eyes, and a broad smile. Her features are almost delicate, and she offsets them with natural make-up, so precisely applied you have to look hard to see it. Ida, in contrast, wears big splashes of color on her face, phosphorescent blue eye shadow and Barbie Dream House-pink lipstick. Her ash-blond hair is a pouf atop her head, and her body is shrouded by big, unflattering pieces of cloth that read more “pajama” than “outfit.”
But despite differences, Poulin and Ida share a lot in common. Poulin is a Franco-American, born in Jackman and raised in Westbrook, Maine. Her family stories are rooted in the mill towns of New England and she often draws on her personal history to flesh out LeClair’s story and her life. Poulin's characters and locations are often based in part on family and friends—for instance, her mother has been recast in Poulin’s writing as her friend Betty, and her father as Betty's husband, Pat. “Whenever someone has a really good idea, it’s usually Betty,” Poulin says. “It’s my way of winking at my mom.”
But despite the complexities of Ida’s world, she didn’t come to Poulin a fully formed character, complete with friends, relatives, and a doublewide. She was the result of a series of events and influences that snapped into place after a New England-themed storytelling contest in Keene, New Hampshire. At the time Poulin was a budding actress and occasional saleswoman, attending the event and was watching other performers as she waited to go on stage.
“They were all men,” she recalled. “These big potbellied guys in jeans and flannel shirts making mean jokes about their mother-in-laws and talking about escaping their wives to go fishing. I thought: This doesn’t represent the women I grew up with in Maine. Not at all.”
Rather, according to Poulin, Maine women are “smart, funny, practical, and strong.” And so she set out to develop a character who would represent the women she knew, who could speak for them on stage; a woman with moral fiber and strong values, quirky habits, and practical knowledge.
And when the character finally came to her, it came in a finger-snap.
“My name’s Ida and I’m a Home Shopping Network-Aholic,” Poulin said recently, switching from her normal polished speech into an exaggerated Maine accent as she recalled the lightening strike moment. And just like that, with those words, she not only found her girl, but she officially crashed the male-dominated world of Maine and regional humor and never looked back.
A short time later in the fall of 1996, Poulin debuted the first full-length Ida LeClair show Ida: Woman Who Runs with the Moose to rave reviews.
“The first time people ever saw Ida on stage, she had her back to the audience. She was in front of a beautiful backdrop of the Maine landscape. She’s country line dancing and she still has her back to the audience. She dances around until she faces the audience,” explains Poulin. Once the show begins, and the audience is brought along on a strange ride, a spoken-word journey during which a “transformation” occurs. But the first transformations weren’t happening to Ida. They were happening to the audience.
“They think they’ve got her pegged,” says Poulin. As she said this, she leans across the table, as though she were about to whisper a secret. “Everyone plugs Ida into a group, but by the end of the show, they realize something: She’s a real person. She’s their aunt. She’s their mom. She’s a person they love. She’s someone they recognize and know.”
According to Poulin, Ida is a comedic figure—but that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to laugh at her. People laugh with Ida (and by extension, with Poulin) as she tells her stories of life in Mahousic Mills, the fictional town in Maine where Ida lives in a doublewide trailer with her husband, Charlie, and her dog, Scamp. She works as a cashier at the A&P, she hangs out with her friends from high school, also known as the "Women Who Run With Moose," and she regularly dispenses advice, whether you want it or not, mostly because she just wants to help.
“Ida is strong and brave,” said Poulin. “She is a person who leads with her heart.” To demonstrate and make her point as Poulin says this, she stands up. She squares her shoulders and pushes her chest forward. Ida's stance is different from Poulin’s natural stance. It’s a deliberate change, this shift in posture. It helps her get into Ida’s mindset, but it also helps her convey to the audience that Ida, for all her follies and all her malapropisms, is a good woman who deserves our love.
This love has helped Poulin through her own difficult times. A decade or so ago, as Poulin struggled to come to terms with her mother’s cancer, she found herself repeatedly drawing on Ida’s strength and resilience. She again learned the therapeutic value of laughter.
“My world was upside-down,” Poulin recalls. “But then I would go on stage and hear 300 people laugh together as a group. They would laugh, and I would laugh. I would leave the performances changed.”
These days, Poulin spends much of her time updating Ida’s weekly blog and scheming up new shows. Her just-released second book, The Sweet Life, may be her most personal yet, diving into Ida's personal relationships and offering useful (and often hilarious) advice not only on love and marriage, but dealing with the loss of a loved one.
It's a lot of work, but fortunately, even when Poulin is suffering from writer's block, Ida is always there for her.
“There is so much stuff in front of the door that I need to open to get to my creativity," she said. "and when I think like that, I hear Ida’s voice in my head saying, ‘Use the backdoor! Open a window!’ ”
As she says that, Poulin laughs at herself, a big, happy noise that sounds just a little like Ida herself.
“I realized over time that Ida always keeps the door open for me," she says. "She’s standing in the doorway and I can see her silhouette with a bright light behind it. The door to my creativity never closes, not as long as I have her.”
Read more about Susan's new book, The Sweet Life, at www.islandportpress.com.