Stages of a Career

Before she knew she wanted to be an actor, Jenny Mercein knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Now an assistant professor of theatre in the Tulane School of Liberal Arts, Mercein is grateful for the twists and turns that led to her becoming a teacher and an actor.

Mercein joined Tulane in 2016. She earned her undergraduate degree from Yale University and an MFA from the University of Washington.

As she prepared to move to New York City after she graduated from college, Mercein’s Yale mentor told her, “Go to the Actors Center and talk to Michael Miller.”

Vintage photo of former Professor of Theatre, J. Michael Miller, putting on stage makeup
J. Michael Miller appears on the cover of the November 1960 Tulanian. He’s applying makeup before a performance in a Tulane production of “Waiting for Godot.”

J. Michael Miller earned a PhD in theatre from Tulane in 1963. By the time Mercein moved to New York in 1995, Miller had founded and retired from the distinguished graduate acting program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He’d established the Actors Center for training actors at all stages of their careers.

“His concept was that training for an actor should be ongoing,” said Mercein.

For actors, “our instrument is our body — both our physical body and our psychological body — and that’s always changing. As we grow older, as our life experiences change, our instrument changes,” said Mercein.

At first, Miller, aware of Mercein’s inexperience and youth, allowed her only to take voice and bodywork classes. He would tell her, “No, you are not ready” for acting.

Eventually Miller welcomed Mercein to the Actors Center acting classes. She has since worked onstage and in Shakespeare festivals as well as television and film.

Mercein said that at the Actors Center under Miller’s mentorship she learned “the sense of the lineage in our profession of acting teachers.”

The voice and body principles that she learned at the Actors Center “are core to my teaching now,” said Mercein.

“I feel like the greatest gift Michael gave to me was the idea that the knowledge is passed down intergenerationally.

“I would not have ended up teaching, which is so fundamentally important to me and brings me the most joy, were it not for Michael’s support. And I love the pure coincidence that I ended up following in Michael’s footsteps and coming to Tulane.”

Jenny Mercein, assistant professor of theatre
Jenny Mercein

Miller is soon to publish a memoir. “I’m excited to read it and hear his perspective about how his journey from Tulane led up to NYU,” said Mercein.

Along with recent roles in TV shows such the locally shot “NCIS: New Orleans” and “Your Honor,” and the Southern Rep Theatre production of “August: Osage County,” Mercein has performed in solo pieces that she’s written. “That’s always been something I like to impart to my students too: it’s important to be a self-generative artist.”

Mercein was part of a group that devised the theater piece “Roleplay,” which was created in response to the climate survey on sexual violence and harassment at Tulane. A student-generated piece, it was performed in 2019. A documentary about the process was filmed. Mercein is the producer of the film, which is now in post-production.

The students theatrically embodied their authentic experience, said Mercein, sometimes with humor. The play looks at factors that contribute to a toxic environment leading to things like racism, homophobia and sexual violence. The play empowers students to use their own voice to create change.

“It is generating a tremendous amount of buzz,” said Mercein.

Later this year, the play script will be released by Dramatic Publishing. “We’re publishing the play in such a way that we’re empowering other universities to use what we created as a skeletal framework. My biggest goal is that this spawns a movement across universities.

“What’s so remarkable about the project is that the problem of sexual violence is not — and discrimination is not — unique to Tulane in any way, shape or form. This is an epidemic across the country. What the film will show is that what is unique to Tulane is that Tulane had the courage to confront it head on and to empower the students to use their voice to try to create positive change. The film is ultimately uplifting and shows Tulane in a beautiful light because it shows Tulane as being courageous to look at these issues, and it shows Tulane students as being incredibly innovative and creative.”