Speaking with Jaylee Mead

Jordan Wright

We last spoke to Jaylee Mead in June 2006. Players Jaylee and husband Gil Mead were then thrilled their $35 million gift to the Arena Stage – the largest donation ever to a regional theater – would be announced in less than a week. The retired NASA scientists inspired us with their deep commitment to the arts, and to each other.

Jaylee Mead was widowed in May 2007 when Gil Mead died. But she has plunged forward with her trademark enthusiasm and smarts. She expanded her contribution to a theater scene second only to New York.

The 2.5-year renovation of the Arena Stage has finished. Possibly the Meads greatest legacy, it has added a beautiful glass wave to the waterfront as three spaces (including the new Mead Center for American Theater) have been integrated in architect Bing Thom’s acclaimed design. A three-year, live-in writer program and an expanded schedule promise an even deeper artistic impact.

The Arena opened with Oklahoma! This highest grossing play, which has drawn rave reviews, is another Mead contribution—the two inspired Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith to embrace the musical genre.

But Oklahoma! is just one offering in a season that takes on contemporary social and cultural issues through riveting drama: plays about war-torn Congo (Ruined) domestic dysfunction (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and homophobia (The Laramie Project) all play in 2010-2011.

Jaylee believes this range is important. “You expand your own outreach or horizons, and being exposed to different kinds of theater helps you do that,” she says. The Meads have supported numerous spaces, establishing themselves as a top contributor to DC’s artistic transformation.

Helen Hayes award founder Victor Shargai has known her for decades. He accompanied her to the interview and now the two go to many shows together.

“She can be seen at almost every theater in city,” said Shargai. “Whatever she’s doing, she wants to be involved. She doesn’t want to just give money.”

Mead serves on the boards of the Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre, and the Helen Hayes committee. She helped pick David Muse to replace Joy Zinoman and is very active in selecting the top players in DC theater.

But her artistic involvement has sprung from humbler origins.

Mead became the first woman to join NASA Goddard after she earned a mathematics degree from the University of North Carolina. “I had a lot to learn because most of the men had been to places like Harvard or MIT so they had very strong training,” she remembers. “My background was less strong, I’d say, but you make up for it by doing more reading and more talking to people.”

She also went back to school, earning a PhD in astronomy from Georgetown University. She established the Goddard Astronomical Data Center to study stars and galaxies, ultimately earning the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1986 NASA Medal for Scientific Leadership.

NASA was also important personally. There she discovered deep, abiding loves of theater and of Gil Mead. She joined the theater group Music and Drama productions, often being directed by him. Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Vera Charles in Mame are two of her favorite roles.

The couple wanted to see how professionals handled every aspect of shows, so they went to the Signature Theatre, a space that showed several musicals each year. Sometimes they organized their cast of 50 to attend.

The two soon became deeply enmeshed in the Signature. They sponsored shows and underwrote a scholarship for three high school students to attend an intense two-week musical theater camp with Broadway actors.

Their Signature involvement led to the pioneering Arena Stage. One of the first regional theaters and theaters in the round, it was also the first locally to integrate. And Gil Mead soon achieved his dream to sit on the board.

Beyond their artistic contribution, theaters have helped transform neighborhoods. The Signature in Shirlington is a cultural anchor that draws in restaurants and retail for show audiences. And the Shakespeare Theater has been cited as a reason for the Verizon Center’s development in Penn Quarter.

“I’m very pleased whenever I see a theater help develop the neighborhood. For example the Studio Theater on 14th has made a big difference up there with the kind of businesses that have moved in, the people it brings to the neighborhood,” says Mead. “That’s what I hope will happen down at the waterfront.”

The Meads invited casts of different productions to their Watergate apartment, hosting dinner parties that turned into impromptu sing-a-longs. The cast of Oklahoma! has been invited over later this month.

“Nothing makes her happier than sitting around the piano just singing show tunes,” says Shargai.

She is equally comfortable in front of audiences and is one of the few people without notes at the local awards ceremony.

“When she gets on stage and presents the tribute award for the Helen Hayes, she absolutely sparkles,” says Shargai.

Her participation is appreciated by theaters that experiment with new mediums and formats.

“She always finds good in anything,” says Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who has known her for 15 years. “It is great for us artists because someone is supporting our efforts.”

Mead often sits in the front row, immersed in and encouraging the production. Seeing her close by is an incomparable experience for actors, says Schaeffer, one of her many great creative fans. “She’s always giving back. She does it from the audience and she does it through her philanthropy,” he says. “She has this great spirit which is so enthusiastic.”

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