In Appreciation: Jaylee Mead

In this day and age, there are a number of ways to find people we have lost. We — Washington, the arts community, the theater community, actors, writers, musicians and students — lost Jaylee Mead last week. The astronomer and arts philanthropist died at the age of 83 of congestive heart failure.

Even though she’s gone, we can still find her. If you love the performing arts, just look around you. The Mead name belonged to Jaylee and her late husband Gilbert, who died in 1997, and it is on any number of lobbies, theaters, spaces, and buildings where their focused, passionate philanthropy had an enormous effect, from the Arena Stage to the Studio Theatre, in addition to places like the Kennedy Center, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the Levine School of Music, the Mead Theatre Lab for Experimental Plays, among many other groups. They were also active in education and youth causes.

Look to YouTube, where you would be delighted to find Mead holding forth in a parent role in a local production of “Pippin” singing “It’s time to start living because spring will turn to fall in no time at all.”

The Meads, with the focus of their trade, and the hearts and passion of their tastes and intelligence, were active all over Washington and left their mark on the city. There was no question that Jaylee Mead had a huge impact on the theater world of the city, and as a result, the city itself.

Spectacularly and most notably, the Arena Stage now bears the name of The Mead Center for American Theater, owing to the Meads’ $35 million in gifts to go with matching pledges.

Joy Zinoman, the retired artistic director and founder of the Studio Theatre, described Mead’s efforts as “unparalleled.”

Mead provided a million dollar loan to Zinoman when she was contemplating to move the Studio Theatre to the 14th Street space it occupies now. “It was brave. It was a great risk. She was providing this for a place at the time we could only rent and not buy for ten years. That was the situation at the time,” Zinoman said.

“She was my friend, certainly, but more than that—benefactor, sure, inspiration, sure, but also a kind of mother figure, even though we weren’t that far apart in age,” Zinoman said. “She was just so brave, undaunted, she took off on a car trip across the country, she was at the theatre almost every night. I admired her more than you can imagine. We all loved her. It’s a great loss that you feel strongly.

“She was very tough and rigorous in her approach to giving. She knew what was needed, and she approached giving with the rigor of a scientist and the spirit of a great soul,” Zinoman said. “She had a vision, just like the rest of us, and she helped us to achieve ours.”

Zinoman acknowledged that Mead was an influence on her in more personal ways as well. “I can be, let’s say, a little volatile. I think that’s no secret. I could get angry easily and lash out. And Jaylee, well, I think she tempered me, helped me be a little calmer in those situations.”

It’s generally acknowledged that the Meads changed Washington with their philanthropic efforts. Most folks would concede that while the later presence of Whole Foods near 14th and P Street helped, it was the Studio Theatre in its bigger, new location that pioneered the economic revival of the area. Something similar is happening in the Southwest waterfront area where the Arena Stage is located. We lost Jaylee Mead on Sept.14, but look around—she and her husband left a big footprint on the Washington landscape and its culture, a footprint you could tap dance in.

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Thu, 24 Apr 2014 06:30:17 -0400

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