Mesmerized: A Ben Franklin Science and History Mystery tells the story of Ben Franklin and his want-to-be-inventor niece, Sarah, as they use the Scientific Method to test a magical cure-all. We sat down with playwright, Suzanne Maynard Miller to hear about this brand-new piece.
Suzanne is an award-winning writer whose work has been seen in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Singapore, Hong Kong, and throughout the UK. Aside from Mesmerized, other projects include the musical stage adaptation of David McKee’s Elmer (with composer Allison Leyton-Brown); Leo Lionni’s Frederick (with composers Sarah Durkee and Paul Jacobs, “Distinguished Play Award,” American Alliance for Theatre & Education, 2016); and the musical stage adaptation of the popular children’s book series Pete the Cat (with composer Allison Leyton-Brown).
Mesmerized tells the story of Ben Franklin and the scientific method but what makes this story still relevant today?
Information. It’s here! It’s there! It’s everywhere! To believe or not to believe… that is the question.
At its core, Mesmerized explores why we trust the sources we do when it comes to information gathering. Today, this question is more relevant than ever, and the play delves into it, headfirst, as we follow the escapades of Ben Franklin and his fictional niece, Sarah.
Throughout Mesmerized, Sarah and Ben test out the scientific method and examine their results (as well as their own biases) as they seek to understand what, if anything, is true about Dr. Mesmer’s seemingly miraculous methods. In the process, Ben and Sarah discover what the scientific method can do (explain a phenomenon, show patterns, reveal the truth at a fixed moment in time), as well as what it cannot do, namely, convince those who refuse to be convinced.
Although this play is a fast-moving farce, it is meant to encourage audiences to slow down and reflect on how they gather information and why they trust the sources they do. The play also champions the art of making mistakes. These are all relevant practices for people at any age, in any time period, including our own.
Can you tell us about the creation process? What inspired you to combine science and theatre?
A play that explores S.T.E.M., women in science, the scientific method, and Ben Franklin checks a lot of boxes.
When Jacqui Russell (Artistic Director of Chicago Children’s Theatre) and I began discussing this project in 2019, we were struck by this beautiful book (Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France) and how Mara Rockliff’s dynamic story, with Iacopo Bruno’s rich illustrations, combines history and science in a picture book for kids in grades 3-5. We were also mesmerized (for lack of a better word) by the historical events depicted in the book, as well as the story’s magical combination of science, truth, and mystery.
In early drafts, the play felt very “one side vs. the other” (Ben Franklin vs. Franz Mesmer). And while Mesmerized does end with these two celebrities squaring off, the character Sarah also acknowledges the importance of asking questions and considering all sides, saying to Ben at one point, “How are we going to learn anything if we are not learning anything?” In other words, the play recognizes that few issues or problems are black and white; we must also explore the “gray area” before deciding what we think.
Given the timing of developing this project, an enormous influence on the piece was, of course, the pandemic. Working on the script in 2020, I became acutely aware of the different ways people were discussing the term science. I paid attention to how fear of the unknown led to blame and mania and chaos— and I was struck by how the reaction to new discoveries (be that a disease or a remedy) was quickly met with extreme, and often staunch, reactions. All these observations and reflections gave more urgency to the script – and changed it wildly from the light-hearted story I was shaping in 2019 to something much deeper and much more pertinent to the times we are now living in (while still being full slap-stick humor, quick costume changes, and silly puns).
During early script-development workshops, I discovered that farce was an excellent medium to convey the many layers the play explores. Scientific discovery, the historical context of 18th century France, Ben Franklin, Franz Mesmer, Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and six actors playing 17 characters… the play was ripe for pandemonium! In addition, as we began rehearsals, I knew it was essential to let the actors explore the macro and micro questions of the play. How do we weave in the birth of the nation with a play that’s not really about that? How do we vamp as the actor playing the King gets offstage and returns as a doctor? Do you think Mesmer should enter on roller skates? (Obviously, yes.)
What do you hope audiences take away from this story?
I hope children and adults alike come away from the show learning about the scientific method as well as the power of the mind. And I hope the show sparks discussions in the classroom as well as at the dinner table about science, discovery, and how we explore (and have a healthy skepticism of) the information that permeates our daily existence. Because the play draws on historical events, I think Mesmerized provides audiences with an opportunity to wonder and be curious about historical figures and events that may or may not be familiar to them.
But, most importantly, I want everyone to have a good time— to experience the wonder of stepping into another world, only to discover that human beings, regardless of what century they lived in, grappled with some of the same questions we wrestle with today: What is truth? How powerful is the mind? And… is this wig too crazy to wear in public?