by Julie Stewart
Jill Benson is the driving force behind a creative first in Merida: a murder mystery dinner theatre. Better known for tirelessly volunteering to help street dogs through her association with Sanctuary Evolución in Uman, Jill recently began rehearsals for a four-act play she wrote titled Murder in Mérida: Love Kills.
First off, why are we using the “re” spelling of theatre?
Oh crap…is it supposed to be spelled differently? That darn spell-check!
Can you explain the concept behind a murder mystery dinner theatre in 5 words?
Great show and awesome food!
What is your background in playwriting and theatre?
Well, I love to write and I love to act. When I was a kid, I was a big ham. My friends and I would imitate Carol Burnett and other sitcoms we saw on TV. We got together and rewrote and acted out commercials. I can remember doing ‘Trix are for Kids’ for my classmates one day. The first play I wrote was a comedy sketch for the high school talent show. The synopsis of the sketch was the delivery of a baby in a hospital operating room. The props person (my best friend) forgot to set the doll (the baby) under the delivery table. The doctor was to reach under the table for the doll, then pretend he had delivered the baby. Since we forgot to put it there, during the prime moment of the delivery, my friend – not knowing what else to do – just threw the baby onto the stage. The flying baby hit the doctor in the head. All of this totally unintentional and one big screw up, but the audience let out a great laugh. So, I deemed it a success.
In my 20s and 30s, I got involved in commercial acting. Corporate training videos, local and regional commercials, and in-store infomercials. I also got a non-speaking role in a Spike Lee mockumentary called CSA: The Confederate States of America. If you ever see it, I’m the school teacher at the very end…if you blink, you’ll miss me. I later joined an improv group called ‘Full Frontal Comedy’ and began doing Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre. I had the most fun doing the improv and dinner theatre – you just never knew what was going to happen. During that time, I was also part of a group called Actors for Actors (AFA). We wrote and performed scripts, sketches and monologues. I loved that period of my life. Like all things, life takes you down different paths. My interests changed, I went back to school for environmental studies and worked as a field tech for an environmental consulting company. Then, well, Mérida called and here I am.
What inspired you to write this murder mystery?
White wine…mostly Chardonnay.
Murder in Mérida was a work in progress for several months. What processes did you use to write and hone the play?
Well, there is this really cool thing going on in Mérida called Open Mic Night. All of my friends were doing it – and they were all brilliant! Poets, short story writers, comedians. I thought, I have to get in on this. It’s hard not to be inspired when you are surrounded by so many talented people. So, I began by writing the script, and bringing it in sections to Open Mic Night. It was a great way to see what worked and what didn’t. Writing a murder mystery can be a little tricky because all the pieces have to fit. I would think I was a genius with something I came up with!!!… then someone would point out how it didn’t make any sense! After a few rewrites, a couple of readings at friends’ homes, and the next thing I know, we’re talking about doing a show.
Are any of the characters in Murder in Mérida fashioned after local personalities? And if so, can you tell us who?
Most people who know me, know that I am an animal lover and that I support a local animal protection group called Evolución. When I first started thinking that I might write a script, I thought it would be fun to fashion the characters after dogs at the shelter. They all have their own unique and sometimes crazy personalities. So…..all of the characters in the show are based in part and named after some of my favorite dogs at Evolución – many of whom have since been adopted. So, for example, our beautiful actress of stage and screen – Vienna -is based on a very proud wiener dog of the same name at Evolución. She has since been adopted. Gustavo, our inspector, is based on a dog named Gustavo at the shelter – he is always full of energy and interested in everything. He is still available for adoption.
Which character in the play do you predict will be most memorable?
Hmmmm, that is hard to say. I mean they are all so memorable. And I have to give credit to the cast for that. They are such an amazing and creative group of people. And they are just so funny. It’s like we never know what is going to happen from one rehearsal to the next. There is one actor that comes up with a different line at each rehearsal, he just makes it up, and we never know what he is going to say – it’s all everyone can do not to crack up!!
Are you planning to write another play anytime soon?
Si!! Stay tuned for Murder in Mérida: Love Hacienda Style!
Your email sign off is the Ghandi quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” How is Mexico faring using those standards?
Well, every country has its own unique challenges with this, it all comes down to people and the choices we make. But I am an optimist and I believe not just Mexico, but the world as a whole has made and will continue to make great strides. Really, mankind has been on this earth for such a small amount of time, we are still evolving. Just because we have done things a certain way for decades or centuries, does not mean that we have to continue down that same path. The power of choice is a very powerful thing and one not to be underestimated.
How is Mexico faring? As long as there are groups and activists who are working to strengthen animal protection laws, we are seeing improvements. But to really see a change, there needs to be a change in the social consciousness. And that always starts with ourselves and the people we touch. We create social change with our own behavior every day. And it doesn’t have to be huge, just the little things we do can make a difference. For me, I like to show public displays of affection towards my animals, and show compassion for street animals. Children learn by what they see. If they see acts of kindness, they will learn kindness. If they see acts of violence, well…you see where I’m going with that.
One of your hobbies is distance running. You won an award at a 10k race in Merida about a year ago. That’s impressive! Tell us about it.
Hehehehe! Well, yes, I do enjoy running. And I try to run on at least a semi-regular basis. I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I find that for me, running helps me not just physically, but mentally as well. It helps me purge the problems of the day. And so, yes…I am proud to say I won third place in a 10k race. Shall I tell you all about it? Well, after the race I sat down in my usual state of dazed exhaustion when one of the organizers came up to tell me I won third place in my category and to come to the stage to accept my medal. I was surprised, as I am usually pretty slow (la tortuga!), but I very proudly walked up to the stage to accept my award. Wow! Third place in my category! Females, ages 40-50. Not too bad! My ego goes up a notch! ….Now for the full story. Ok, I admit it. There were only three people in my category! And the first place winner could have run the race almost twice and still beat me…but hey, I got the medal…right??
What other talents do you have?
Hmmmm, well I know how to make tofu taste like chicken…sort of. My dogs think I have an excellent singing voice. I can parallel park a Ford E350 passenger van in a parking space the size of a gnat.
Who did it?
You can see the trailer for Murder in Mérida: Love Kills at: www.meridamysterytheatre.com