Dr. Jaylee Mead and her late husband, Dr. Gilbert Mead, discovered their love for theater through participation in Goddard’s Music and Drama (MAD) productions. Jaylee, who joined Goddard in 1959, describes MAD as, “Our employee theater group which produces Broadway-type musicals in a dinner theater format.” From the start, Jaylee says that she was “just turned on by the theater. It’s something that brings great joy.” She continues, “MAD had very good networking, and you knew who you could depend on after being in a production with them.”
Gil was frequently the music director in charge of the orchestra and chorus. Jaylee’s first role was “Babe” in The Pajama Game. She later appeared in such productions as Mame, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. In her final performance, she appeared in Pippin as the title character’s grandmother. She remembers that she sang “a wonderful song about ‘start living today, start living your life now—that’s the spirit’—and I have the spirit!” At 81, Jaylee does indeed have the spirit, and a most generous one at that.
Jaylee and Gil met in 1966 while working across the hall from each other at Goddard. He was a physicist and she, an astronomer, and not, as she is quick to point out, an astrologer. Says Jaylee, “When you see how somebody works, you get to know their style.” They married in 1968.
During the 1980s, the Meads took on a new role, that of Washington, D.C. regional theater supporters. They became two of the most generous individual donors to theater in our area. Explains Jaylee, “I became interested in finding out more about the theater downtown where I lived. I wanted to find out more about Studio Theatre.” She took a special interest in the Studio Theatre because it was located in an area that was demolished by the 1968 riots. “Now that same neighborhood is thriving since it attracted the presence of Whole Foods, CVS, great restaurants, and new apartment buildings.” She enjoys Studio’s contemporary work.
Jaylee joined the Board of the Studio Theatre and was Chairman from 1994 to 2000. “I was involved in getting new board members and fundraising, which I enjoyed. I learned a lot,” says Jaylee. She remains involved with the Studio Theatre and is still on their Board. She recently served on their committee to name a new Artistic Director, who will be, appropriately enough, David Muse. Jaylee explains that when looking for a new Artistic Director, “I look for somebody to inspire others to excellence, someone who can also fundraise and direct shows. Someone who is charismatic.”
Gilbert’s interest in the Arena Stage led him to join their board in 1992. Both he and Jaylee were named Life Trustees in 2006. Through the Meads’ extraordinary generosity, the new theater complex will open in October 2010 and will be named Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
The Mead Center will consist of three theaters united under a cantilevered roof on the same Arena Stage site near the Southwest D.C. waterfront. The Mead Center will offer educational opportunities including Camp Arena for young people. The gala celebration for the grand opening of the Mead Center will be held on October 25, 2010. Says Jaylee, with a gleam in her eyes, “It’s going to be a special night.”
Jaylee remains passionate about supporting theater in the Washington, D.C. area and developing our aspiring performers. She says, “I like highlighting people from D.C. One of my hopes for Arena is to highlight the local talent.” Arena Stage’s recent production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies is a good example. Jaylee points out that not only was Duke Ellington a Washington, D.C. native, but this particular performance also led to the discovery of two local boys living in the nearby housing projects whom Maurice Hines himself declared to be phenomenal tap dancers. Indeed, these young boys have appeared in numerous television news stories. Another local talent whom Jaylee greatly admires is Holly Twyford. “She’s just very versatile and a wonderful actress. She’s a dramatic actress.”
Explains Jaylee, “When I first got involved in theater here, many actors had to go to New York for work. Our hope was to keep them here.” Jaylee is pleased that some recent Broadway productions were “nurtured and improved” at Arena, including last season’s Next to Normal, which is still running in New York City, and Looped, which is about the life of Tallulah Bankhead. Notes Jaylee, “It’s so hard to succeed on Broadway because it is so expensive in New York.” Jaylee continues, “I go to New York a few times a year. On occasion, I go to the London theater. It’s a long trip when we have such good theater here and in New York. I don’t really enjoy travel as much now.”
Jaylee has a few favorite playwrights. “I like Tennessee Williams. I think he has written some imaginative things. I also like Edward Albee.” As for songwriters, Jaylee says, “I like Rodgers and Hammerstein. They are so singable.”
Her favorite old movies include the musical classics “Singing in the Rain,” “Oklahoma,” and “The King and I.” Jaylee says that “It’s wonderful how we have these old movies on DVD now and can enjoy them whenever we want. I don’t go to as many movies because I go to so much theater.” Although Jaylee is enormously fond of musicals and plays, she is not as interested in opera or the ballet. “I’ve never become a fan. But you can’t go to everything.” She goes to the theater at least once a week. Jaylee notes, “I go to a lot of opening nights.”
She is also very interested in newspapers. “I don’t read as many books so much as I read newspapers. I do like politics. Washington is a wonderful place for politics,” explains Jaylee.
As for her favorite production ever, there is a tie. “I really like the way Signature Theater did Showboat. I also liked Cabaret because it is such an interesting story. Just a few words stand for a whole lot.” Jaylee’s tastes run from both the traditional to the avant-garde. Continues Jaylee, “I liked Chicago. The music and rhythm are very moving. The choreography was excellent.” As for her favorite actors, Jaylee explains that “I like people who can both dance and sing like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and even Bette Midler.” She mentions that “Angela Lansbury is so charming. She’s 85 and in really good shape. She’s on Broadway now. Last year she won a Tony Award for Blithe Spirit.” She also enjoys Tyne Daly who was just in Master Class at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The Meads also supported the Kennedy Center’s efforts to establish the Millennium Stage program. Explains Jaylee, “Every night at 6:00 p.m., there is a free performance. This way people in town can see what they’re offering, and it is usually musical.”
Says Jaylee, “I’d like to be remembered as someone who liked to give money to help things.” That, she and her late husband have done, and then some.
Elizabeth M. Jarrell