Gift Opens Act 2 For New Arena Stage

The design for the expansion of Arena Stage, above, by architect Bing Thom, fronts the structure with glass and contains a common roof and lobby for three theaters. Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, left, have contributed the largest gift ever to an American regional theater. The new complex will be named the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
The design for the expansion of Arena Stage, above, by architect Bing Thom, fronts the structure with glass and contains a common roof and lobby for three theaters. Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, left, have contributed the largest gift ever to an American regional theater. The new complex will be named the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Rendering By Bing Thom Architects)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

In the end, it was the ingenuity of old friends that pushed Arena Stage to $100 million in its $120 million capital campaign. Philanthropists Gilbert and Jaylee Mead, longtime theater lovers, quietly pledged a $20 million gift, then challenged Arena's board to match it in a year's time.

Arena officials announced yesterday that they had done just that, hitting a turning point in a four-year fund drive that will allow the landmark regional theater to build a boldly designed complex. In a ceremony at the Arena's Kreeger Theater, board of directors President John M. Derrick Jr. and Chairman Wendy Farrow Raines said the complex would bear the Meads' name: Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.

Dedicated to American plays, the complex is set to be completed in 2009.

When a screen was lowered with a representation of the future Arena with the Meads' name in lights, Gilbert Mead reached over and squeezed his wife's hand.

The couple have given the Arena campaign a total of nearly $35 million, which the theater's artistic director, Molly Smith, described as "the largest gift ever given to a regional theater in America."

The Meads are two of the most active supporters of the arts in Washington.

"Our interests in Arena are due largely to our appreciation of the kind of productions they are able to mount. We felt that this was the most exciting of the theaters in the Washington area," said Gilbert Mead, 76, a retired NASA physicist and an heir to the Consolidated Papers Inc. fortune. A pianist, he has been a musical conductor in amateur theater groups at NASA. Jaylee Mead, 77, is a retired NASA mathematician and astronomer, and performed with a NASA employees music group.

They have served on Arena's board for 14 years and have sponsored more than 15 productions at the theater. Jaylee Mead said yesterday they don't want to be the only supporters of arts groups, which is why they made their gift matching, with a strict deadline and a mandate that the match should have no more than 20 donors, with a half-million-dollar minimum.

She said that now that they are going public, "we have a nest egg that we think will be sufficient to really get us going," she said, explaining their intention to provide leadership, but not do the begging. "The greatest joy is to give while you live, so you can see what is happening with your money. You can enjoy the experience of new theater, all the productions being planned."

Other major donations included $7.5 million from a family that did not want to be named. Among those who gave at least $1 million were Josephine Ammerman, the widow of H. Max Ammerman, a Washington lawyer and one of the developers of Tysons Corner; Diane and Norman Bernstein, a life trustee of Arena and a major real estate developer; and Nancy and Donald deLaski, the founder of DelTek Systems software application firm.

The expansion will renovate the Fichandler and Kreeger theaters and add a 200-seat theater named the Cradle, which will showcase new American plays. That building will have 21 apartments for artists. Parking will move underground. A full-service cafe will be at the tip of the Kreeger. New acoustics will eliminate the sound of sirens from outdoors. All of the Arena functions, from set design to classroom teaching, will be contained on the theater campus.

"We needed much more than a facelift," Smith said.


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