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John Decker - A Change in Scenery
March 28, 2014

[image-51]Aerospace Engineer John Decker became a re-hired annuitant to devote more time to his other passion – the theater.

Aerospace engineer and now re-hired annuitant John Decker experienced a life-defining moment at the impressionable age of 9, when his mother took him to see a re-release of the classic 1939 movie, “Gone with the Wind.” The emotional impact of the ornate theater and the elaborate production values of the movie ignited his imagination and launched him into a lifetime love of the theater. He immediately began his theater career by designing and building his own puppet theater, which he used to perform puppet shows at school.

Just a few years later, and without any formal training, Decker began performing major roles in plays and musicals, which he has continued to do. “At first, I was nervous about it, but once I actually got up on stage, it felt very natural,” said Decker.

While studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he found that he missed the theater, so he spent his junior year “abroad,” studying theater at nearby sister school, LaSalle University. Each summer he returned to his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, to perform in summer stock. His senior year in college, he designed and built his first theatrical set as a natural outgrowth of his study of architecture. “I already had the drawing table!” said Decker.

While pursuing his master’s degree in engineering at night at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Decker worked at a variety of day jobs, including one at a small Manhattan scene shop designing and building scenery for Broadway, off-Broadway and nightclub productions. He completed his master’s degree in 1979, moved to Maryland to work at Bechtel and then began working at Goddard in 1985.

[image-78]A self-confessed, lifelong workaholic, Decker was often one of the first to arrive at the office each day and also one of the last to leave. Even after his late departure, Decker worked the night shift as an amateur and eventually professional set designer and actor.

In 1985, Decker became the resident set designer at the now-defunct Petrucci’s Dinner Theater in Laurel, Maryland, where he designed and built the scenery for more than 20 productions over the next five years. He was also a founding member for a small, professional theater company called “Deus Ex Machina,” meaning “God out of the machine,” a reference to the old theatrical saying that, at the last minute, divine intervention will fix everything.

Decker’s theatrical resume includes roughly 150 shows for which he has designed and built the scenery, performed, or done both.

Because of his many years in the theater, Decker offers a unique triple perspective, including the viewpoints of the audience, actor and set designer. “The audience is immersed in the entire story, the actor is living out his part of the story and the set designer is creating an illusory world that must support the entire production,” said Decker.

[image-94]As a member of the audience, he loves musicals like “110 in the Shade” by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. “I enjoy musicals about down-to-earth people with real problems, emotions and dreams,” said Decker.

From an actor’s perspective, one of his favorite roles was the psychiatrist in “Equus” at the Greenbelt Arts Center. “I saw this play on Broadway when I was 20 years old and I immediately wanted to play the psychiatrist, but I had to wait 30 more years until I was old enough to portray his inner conflicts believably,” said Decker.

As a set designer, one of his favorite productions was “The Dining Room” by A.R. Guerney at Silver Spring Stage. “Instead of a traditional box set, I designed and built an abstract, universal dining room. I used sheer, patterned fabric, which allowed the actors to appear through the walls like ghosts,” said Decker.

 For the past ten years, he has been performing with a small, professional company called “The Quotidian Theater Company,” at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He recently appeared there as Jimmy Tomorrow in a critically-acclaimed production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh.”

In the summer of 2014, Decker will be appearing there as Charles Audelle in Conor McPheron’s ghost story “The Veil.” He is also involved with numerous other area theaters including the Greenbelt Arts Center, Silver Spring Stage, Rockville Little Theater and Kensington Arts Theater.

Decker retired from full-time employment at Goddard in August 2013. “Now I am able to more fully indulge my other passion—the theater, which has an even greater emotional impact on me now than it did when I was 9 years old. For my entire working career, I have managed to juggle my passions for both engineering and theater, but now the time has come for me to stop juggling and shift my primary focus to the theater. And, rest assured, I am most definitely enjoying the change in scenery!” said Decker.

Of Note: 2013 Robert H. Goddard Award of Merit.

See John's Conversations With Goddard interview from December 2012.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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John Decker in front of one of his sets.  This one is from "Sleuth."
John Decker in front of one of his sets. This one from "Sleuth."
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of J. Decker
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A set from "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
A set from "Brighton Beach Memoirs."
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of J. Decker
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The set from the show "Something's Afoot."
The set from the show "Something's Afoot."
Image Credit: 
Courtesy of J. Decker
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Page Last Updated: March 28th, 2014
Page Editor: Lynn Jenner