Tallying the checks they wrote over the years that allowed curtains — and buildings — to go up all over town might take an office full of accountants. In the most genteel way imaginable, Gil and Jaylee put their money where their mouths were. To Studio Theatre it went, and to Signature Theatre, the Kennedy Center, the Atlas Performing Arts Center and the Flashpoint performance space downtown.
Their $35 million gift to Arena Stage, for its magnificently remade complex in Southwest, was a landmark in theater philanthropy — the largest, single, private gift ever bestowed on an American stage. After the death in 2007 of genial, unpretentious Gil, when the city was undergoing a theater-building boom, the progress of Mead largess decelerated not a bit. In the ensuing years — with the beneficent Robert and Arlene Kogod coming up fast — Jaylee ensured that Mead generosity continued to paper the landscape.
Now, Jaylee has died, at 83. And it is difficult to think of that landscape with her not in it. In her final years, when she required the arm of a dear friend — almost invariably theater patron Victor Shargai — to guide her to her seat, she would walk hesitantly on opening nights down the aisle, and, with absolutely no airs or need for acknowledgment, she’d take in a show that she probably helped to pay for.
When I’m 83, I want to live with that kind of delight. For you never got the sense that it was to see her name on the building that she gave and gave some more. No, Jaylee Mead just had to be there.
Yes, the Meads took pleasure in the access and maybe even the gratitude their support engendered. In their Watergate apartment, Gil and Jaylee threw dinners for theaters and theater people: not stuffy affairs obsessed with the “ask’’ for money from other wealthy Washingtonians, but gatherings of board members and directors and administrators to talk about issues confronting the city’s stages. At a buffet dinner thrown by Jaylee that I attended, David Muse, then newly installed as artistic director at Studio Theatre — a longtime favorite of Jaylee’s — rose to talk about the challenges he faced. Jaylee wasn’t feeling that well and left our table to rest. It spoke to the ease with which she circulated, and the camaraderie the guests felt in her home, that Muse went through with his remarks as the hostess conserved her energies in another room.
Reflecting on that evening, one wonders what voids would exist in Washington theater today had the Meads not taken such a leadership role. In a town defined by politics, their choices of what to give money to never seemed tied to agendas. You were almost as likely to spot Jaylee at an experimental new play as at a ’40s musical, and on the intermittent occasions we had a chance to speak, her conversation never focused on whatever news had just broken about what new project she’d decided was deserving of her generosity.
“What have you seen that’s good?” she’d ask.
That question is often a signifier of a true theatrical gourmand, someone with a hearty appetite for the unmatchable experience of being dazzled after the house lights go down. Who will step up in the generations coming of age and be Washington’s next Jaylees? Whoever they are, let’s hope they feel they have to be there as fervently as she did.