NASA drama club doubles as support group for furloughed federal workers

"Into the Woods" may be the most unlikely government shutdown victim. The play by NASA-types is without a home. Yet rehearsals continue, as much therapy as theater. The Post's Lee Powell finds out if the show will go on. (The Washington Post)

The furloughed NASA policy analyst peers out of her witch’s mask, brooding about the way her theater group’s production of “Into the Woods” has become a shutdown drama as well as a musical.

“Theater people will generally do anything to make sure the show will go on,” explained Kathy Fontaine, who is among 100 cast and crew members in the production being staged by Goddard Space Flight Center’s Music and Drama Club.

Ever since the government shutdown locked them out of their usual venue on Goddard’s Greenbelt campus, club members — many of them idled NASA employees and contractors — have been rehearsing at a Glenn Dale church a few miles down the road.

Fontaine, who is playing the witch and is also the show’s producer, says everyone is worried about the loss of their paychecks and how long the shutdown may drag on. But they are also worried about opening night because the shutdown has closed Goddard’s Barney & Bea Recreation Center, where the club has staged plays for more than 40 years. Last week, the group was seeking an alternative venue for the performances, which are scheduled to run from Oct. 25 through Nov. 23.

“We put so much work into the show already, I don’t think anybody wants to quit,” said Fontaine, 51, who has worked at Goddard since 1989. “We are going to do it.”

The drama club is one of hundreds of social networks at federal agencies across Washington. There are softball teams, knitting groups, kickball teams, book clubs, ballroom dance groups, even a chamber orchestra made up of doctors and scientists at the National Institutes of Health.

For the furloughed, those social ties are providing much needed camaraderie and support at a time of stress and uncertainty. In the case of Goddard’s drama club, rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of Grimms’ fairy-tale characters also double as a welcome distraction and a form of group therapy.

“It gives us something else to think about,” said the play’s co-producer, Linda Pattison, 49, a furloughed information technology ground security manager who is playing the part of Jack’s mother. “It also gives us a great deal of time to learn our lines.”

“And you get an opportunity to have your colleagues together as opposed to everybody sitting at home doing their own thing,” explained Dwaine Kronser, 57, the furloughed chief of NASA’s enterprise solutions division who is playing the Baker.

The drama club provides a space where fellow federal employees and contractors can empathize about the furlough at a level that outsiders might have a hard time understanding — the sharp dig of being told their work was not needed, the dictates to not come to work, the uncertainty of when they might be paid again.

“The first bite is being told you are nonessential,” says Fontaine, sitting behind the orchestra and waiting for her call from the director. “You go into public service because you think your country needs you. Then they say, ‘Maybe we will pay you.’ That can be demoralizing, if you let it.”

Rosalie Daelemans, who is married to an idled NASA civil servant, said the past two weeks have been unnerving for families. “We have one kid in college,” said Daelemans, who is playing Cinderella’s evil stepmother in the show. “We have bills.”

Some federal worker clubs have lost connection during the furlough because they are not allowed to communicate by government e-mail. Calls to office lines of furloughed workers flip to voice-mail greetings explaining that they are out of the office.

Goddard’s Music and Drama Club, known as MAD, had similar experiences during the government shutdown 18 years ago. So before they were frozen out of their offices, Fontaine asked the show’s cast members and crew for their nongovernment e-mail addresses and got help lining up the rehearsal space at Glenn Dale United Methodist Church.

MAD has a long, storied history at NASA, where the cast and crew of their productions feature top astronomers, computer scientists and astrophysicists. Its most famous member was Gilbert Mead, a NASA physicist and heir to a paper manufacturing fortune who emerged in the 1990s as one of Washington’s most generous arts philanthropists. Mead served as MAD’s musical director and conducted the orchestra. His wife, Jaylee Montague Mead, a Goddard astronomer, acted in productions. They are both listed in the MAD production playbill for “The Pajama Game” during the 1970-71 theatrical season.

Today, MAD has more than 200 members, including NASA employees, contractors and family members. The club, which is financed by ticket sales and donations, usually performs three to four shows a year, including a spring play or musical, a workshop variety show, a holiday choral and a fall dinner theater. Tickets for “Into the Woods” are $34 for adults and $24 for children younger than 10 and includes a buffet dinner. Performances usually draw a crowd of colleagues, family, friends, NASA retirees and folks from the community.

The club maintains a family-like atmosphere, said the show’s artistic director, Randy Barth, who joined MAD in 1974. Barth, who worked for Goddard as a civil servant, left to work in private industry and returned to Goddard as a contractor — said the furlough has been good as well as bad for this fall’s production.

“It has given me a little more opportunity to set things up with the show and talk to people about their parts,” Barth said. “On the other hand, it has caused a tremendous burden with trying to find other places” to rehearse and perform the musical.

“There is fear in all of us we will put in all this effort and we won’t be able to do it,” Barth said.

But some how, some way, he and others vowed, their show will go on.

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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