“Hi there! My name’s Ida, and I’m a Home Shopping Networkaholic"
By Susan Pouiln
When did I meet Ida? 1996.
I was competing in the first (and, as far as I know, only) Yankee Yarns Contest in Keene, New Hampshire. At the contest, there were people from all over New England telling ten-minute stories in different categories: “traditional,” “contemporary,” “for children,” etc.
I entered the contest on a lark to tell a story of mine called “The Stud Finder,” which placed me squarely in the “contemporary” category. My story took a new look at an old problem—finding a guy. I didn’t think I stood a chance. In fact, I secretly hoped the judges might give me an Honorable Mention for “most sexual innuendo in a Yankee Yarn.” (Not a high bar since the genre is devoid of sexual innuendo.)
No one was more surprised than me when I actually won in my category and got to perform that night at the Colonial Theatre. Veteran Maine storyteller Tim Sample was the host that evening. He and Bob Bryan of “Bert and I” fame told some of the old “Bert and I” stories that Bob and Marshall Dodge had made famous.
So I was in good company. But as the show progressed, I realized that I was the only woman on stage, flanked by a bunch of guys in flannel shirts joking about their mothers-in-law. I listened to them and thought, “You know what? These stories are okay, but they don’t portray the strength, humor, and good old-fashioned common sense of the women I knew growing up.” Plus, their point of view reflected a Yankee sensibility (it was a Yankee Yarns Contest, after all) that was a world away from the Franco-American culture in which I was raised, way up near the border of Québec. Where was the joie de vivre?
And that’s when Ida came to me. I wanted to create a character who would pay homage to those women; a gal who didn’t have much formal education, but who possessed a strong sense of herself, a great sense of humor, and “street smarts,” if you can use such a term for someone who lives in a small town. Most importantly, I wanted to create a gal with a Franco-American background who spoke with a Maine accent, like so many in my family.
I clearly remember the exact moment it happened—the day she first appeared to me. One morning as I sat staring at my blank computer screen, I heard this voice in my head say, “Hi there! My name’s Ida, and I’m a Home Shopping Networkaholic.
Voila! Ida was born.
I found I could naturally channel this wonderful and oh-so-familar woman. Ida told me stories even if I came to my computer empty. I saw my mother in her immediately, and my dad, and many of the wise and wonderful people I knew growing up. The more I wrote, the more a familiar world unfolded; a world quite apart from the one that appeared in traditional Down East stories.
Early on, I determined that Ida would not be a caricature. No, she’d be a three-dimensional person living in a small town in Western Maine. And although it might be hard to find Mahoosuc Mills on a map, the town is real to me, and it’s filled with stories. I know I can open any door in Mahoosuc Mills and there is a story waiting. Ida works as a cashier down to the A&P, and stories walk into that store every day.
I am continually discovering new things about Ida and her world. Heck, I still discover new things about her in the orginal Ida play even though I’ve been performing it on and off for more than twenty years. I think that’s because I know more about Ida now than I did when I wrote the play. I’m a different person now, so I’ve gained a different perspective.
Through Ida, I’ve had the opportunity to write in different forms—plays, blogs, and books. Each form stretches me in unique ways. The same story might appear on a blog, in a book, or as a play. Each version must be crafted in a slightly different way to fit the form. So Ida has made me a better writer.
Ida has also made me a better performer. She’s such a big personality, I’ve had to expand my acting tools accommodate her energy. When you are the only person on stage, the audience is your scene partner. And I’ve found with Ida in my corner, I’m more daring. I’m no longer held hostage by the rules of theater. I can respond to a comment from the audience, and improvise on the spot. Ida can laugh at her own jokes. In short, I’m more relaxed, and I have more fun.
And then there’s laugh surfing. When you’re on stage, you learn pretty quickly that laugher is a lot like a wave. It builds and then it crests. If you have a two or three joke set-up (which happens a lot in Ida’s world), you can’t wait for the wave to co
mpletely dissipate before starting to talk again. If you do that, the show will lose momentum and the next joke will fall flat. As a performer, you must listen and time when you jump in for maximum lift off. I call it “laugh surfing,” and Ida’s pretty darn good at it.
When premiering a new Ida play, Ida makes me more fearless because while the show may be new, the character isn’t—I’m not starting from zero. I can listen to the audience and hone the play from performance to performance during those first shows of the run. When I debuted Makin’ Whoopie, for example, I cut about two pages between the first night and the next day’s matinee. I flipped some jokes and changed the ending—no problem. I continued honing the show during the fall through twelve performances at three different venues until I got it where I wanted it.
In a strange way, Ida has been a mentor. When I’m in a some sort of jam I ask myself, “What would Ida do?” See, she has a different back-story than I do, so she experiences the world in a different way. She often sees solutions to problems that I don’t. Ida helps me view things in my life from a different perspective.