Many research colloquium classes in the Honors Program aim to teach that research isn’t limited to the sciences. Theater and Dance Professor Jenny Mercein also teaches that creativity isn’t limited to the arts.
Professor Mercein started teaching her first-year Honors colloquium, “Creativity,” after her husband and co-professor, Professor Ryder Thornton, told her about a course he had taken while pursuing his MFA in directing. In the class, Thornton visited museums, parks, and different sites to broaden his understanding of ‘creativity,’ getting to know Philadelphia in the process. When the Honors Program put out a call for colloquium proposals, Mercein decided to pursue a similar question as a professor that her husband had as a student, and to look at what constitutes creativity in New Orleans.
Professors Mercein and Thornton use two primary texts in their class: “Creativity” and “The Science of Positive Psychology.” This semester, Mercein hoped to lean on scientifically proven methods to increase happiness, and the relationship between happiness and creativity. She was inspired to include the intersection between science and happiness by Yale Professor Laurie Santos, whose class Professor Mercein took this summer. This semester, especially, Mercein says that “we all need as many strategies as possible to increase our happiness.” One of her main goals in teaching this Honors course has been to teach that “creativity isn’t just limited to our standard notions of who a creative person is, and that creative thinking and the skills you learn when you approach a creative art translate.” She aims to get her students thinking about creativity in different fields, not just in the arts and humanities, in which creativity feels familiar.
Mercein’s involvement with the Honors program has only grown; in addition to advising senior Honors Theses and adding to her docket of taught colloquium courses, Professor Mercein has presented at incoming student recruitment sessions on her upcoming projects. Mercein is particularly interested in theater that addresses important social issues, and that “sparks important dialogue and conversation.” Collaborating with other colloquium instructors inspired her to add new dimensions, on the science of happiness and the breadth of creativity, to her teaching, and she says the Honors Colloquia she has taught have given her “a forum where (she) can really experiment as a professor.”
One of the projects Professor Mercein has discussed at Honors recruitment sessions is called “Roleplay,” which recently won a Big Easy Theatre Award for best ensemble. She says she was inspired to pursue a piece about sexual violence on campus after the climate survey results were released in 2018. Mercein says that, while the results of the survey were so disturbing, she found the town hall about the survey strangely inspiring. “It was a moment where I saw Tulane students so galvanized and so energized to have their voices heard,” Mercein said. “I really hadn’t seen the students so politically motivated.”
Professor Mercein felt that that energy needed to be harnessed, and she immediately sent an email to President Fitts, then-Vice President Tania Tetlow, and Title IX Coordinator Meredith Smith with the subject line: “I’m in.”
In reflecting on how she could use her skills and talents to be part of creative solutions, Mercein came up with the idea to develop a theater piece in an effort to raise awareness and create positive change. She reached out to her colleague in the theater department, Professor Darci Fulcher, who was involved with a local theater company called Goat in the Road Productions. There, Mercein found that Fulcher, along with Katie Matthews, an ethnographer and documentarian, had already begun investigating the acting studio as a place where students felt comfortable discussing issues like sexual violence. Soon, 11 students were cast, and they then spent the year creating an original piece of theater based on prompts, improvisation, stories they had heard, and their own experiences. Mercein said that “it was very important to us that this piece was the voice of contemporary students.”
Ultimately, this process led to the discovery that there were so many other topics– racism, homophobia, white privilege, and more– that needed to be unpacked in order to address the toxic environment on campus, where things like sexual assault and harassment can happen with such regularity. The ensemble performed “Roleplay” on campus last fall, and there is a documentary about the creation of the piece that is currently in production. While the Big Easy Award was presented to herself and Goat in the Road as producers, Professor Mercein says it is owed to her students.
Professor Mercein feels passionately that acting can be used for research, and that theater and performance can serve any field. She embodies it in her personal work and in her work with her students, as she is a “big believer that theater training can serve you whether you want to go into law, or business, or even STEM.” She says that, between her training as an actor, her directing, producing, and teaching, her “career has been really eclectic… I follow whatever breadcrumb trail allows me to collaborate with cool people and helps me feel somehow creatively fulfilled.”
She hopes to impart that same advice to her students that she has learned in her years in the field: that it is rare for someone to only wear one hat in their career. She says careers will take twists and turns that can’t be predicted, and that careers “can only be defined in retrospect.” Professor Mercein acts how she teaches, and tries to imbue the notion of boundless creativity, unlimited to any field or discipline, in all she does.
All faculty interviewed recommend a book they find compelling and important.
Professor Mercein recommends "The How of Happiness" by Sonja Lyubomirsky, as she says the book offers actionable recommendations to improve happiness.