BACKSTAGE: November 2014

JV Mercanti’s 9 Crucial Pieces of Audition Advice

JV Mercanti wears many hats: theater director, casting director, acting teacher, author (“In Performance: Contemporary Monologues for Men and Women Late Teens–20s”) and all-around audition expert. Currently the director of acting for Pace University’s musical theater program, Mercanti has taught both performance and directing at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus and the University of Miami, all while casting high-profile Roundabout Theatre Company shows and the Broadway production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Between his 17 years of experience behind the audition table, his upcoming monologue compilations for teenagers and actors in their 40s, and his work on an upcoming country western musical version of “The Seagull,” Mercanti is a jack-of-all-trades with serious insider knowledge.

“Read plays,” he advises. “Find out [which] actors are doing the things you think you can do, and what they’ve done. Don’t wait for this business to come to you. It’s a lot of work. Find writers that you like.” Here are more morsels of advice for theater actors to chew on.

On what he looks for as a casting director.
Since 1997, Mercanti has seen every conceivable kind of audition; he knows what behaviors are more likely to attract casting directors’ attention. “I like an actor who’s in control of the room when they come in, who’s excited to show us what they’re about to do,” says Mercanti, who admits “have fun” is a piece of advice he gives often. “I always say you don’t have anything to lose because you don’t have a job before you walk in the door. So stop stressing. No one believes me when I say that but it’s totally true. What do you have to lose? We don’t know you and we want to hire you, so stop worrying about getting it right and worry more about telling a story or taking us on a journey. We want you to be someone we want to work with. Don’t try to be right. Being right is boring.”

In addition, Mercanti looks for actors who are “emotionally involved in the material and connected to it, who can tell a story, who can plot the story and not just play one quality or one value the entire time.” Specific objectives are particularly important; for Mercanti, they’re an overlooked component in monologue delivery. “I think you can’t ever get onstage in any way, shape, or form without an objective. Otherwise you’re just talking.”

He also acknowledges that although casting directors say it all the time, it’s true: they know within a minute whether actors have what it takes. “If you can open your mouth and know what you’re saying and have an emotional connection to what you’re saying, then we know you can act.”

On his “In Performance” book series.
Mercanti’s chosen monologues focus mostly on contemporary writers including Julia Cho, Lisa D’Amour, Rob Ackerman, and Lucy Thurber. “I try not to find any monologues earlier than the 2000s, and if I can, I keep it even more contemporary than that,” he says. Encouraging actors to read, or at least be acquainted with, the entire play is important, so Mercanti tends to feature published works. “I prefer they find a well-written monologue because that does half the job for you. When something’s obscure, it’s usually obscure for a reason.

“Each monologue has a synopsis of the play, a character description, the given circumstances so they know what happens exactly before it, and a list of 15 questions they should ask while rehearsing it.” Actors familiar with monologue collections may be surprised to find such in-depth coverage in Mercanti’s books. Most other compilations, he notes, tend to include little more than the speech and an oversimplified designation of “comedic” or “dramatic.” “In my experience almost every monologue falls somewhere in the middle—or any good monologue does,” he says. “I do think the more you know about the play, the better you’ll be able to act the monologue. I also know most actors won’t go out and find the play so I’m trying to help them a little bit by letting them know the circumstances.”

Other books of monologues, Mercanti points out, select “the most heightened emotional circumstance possible” as well, which he believes does not demonstrate an actor’s full abilities in the audition room. “That mostly means it results in them screaming or crying and not actually telling a story.”

On the book he recommends for actors.
In Mercanti’s acting and directing classes, he includes on his reading list Joanna Merlin’s book “Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide,” which he says “is not just about auditioning.” When it comes to practical advice—rather than the inaccessible philosophy of most texts on theater that Mercanti has encountered—Merlin is a fountain of crucial knowledge. “That book is a guide on how to act. It’s invaluable and I use it in every class. She just lays out the process of acting for you.”

On monologue age ranges.
“If someone who’s 19 comes in doing a monologue for a 13-year-old then that’s a problem,” claims Mercanti. “What does that say about them as an artist? We grow up, we change, our taste evolves, our point of view on the world and ourselves evolves. We have to find material that challenges us and evolves with us.” A superbly written monologue, Mercanti says, can be examined in different circumstances for years as the actor delivering it ages. “I’m including Christopher Shinn in these new books; his writing is so beautiful and complex that a 20-year-old could do that for 10 years and find something new.” The actor’s job is to find the artistry in the writer’s words, and self-awareness can unlock that discovery. As Mercanti says, “Art is a reflection of life. So as you change, the art should change.”

On language.
Mercanti thinks a lot about the page-to-stage transformation. Ultimately, he says, it all comes down to language. “The words are the tools with which we communicate. Really good writers take time and care over the words they’re choosing for their characters. If you understand how your character is using language, you understand the world about your character.” Smart actors, too, will pick up on the cadences of great writers and develop a feel for the difference between Tennessee Williams and Caryl Churchill and Annie Baker. “These writers all have really amazing, specific voices which are up to the actor to interpret. To add their own voice, their own take on it. That’s why I love good playwrights,” he adds. “They often inspire you to interpret.”