Mary Bensel drove to Sarasota from Maryland with her Yorkie, Tinkerbell, found a Lakewood Ranch house to rent, and plunged into her new position as Van Wezel executive director at the height of season in December. She’d been on the job for about a month when we put her in the hot seat.
Your first task was to assess the Van Wezel’s strengths and needs. What have you found so far?
We have a beautiful setting and very diverse programming. We have a fabulous, hard-working staff. The challenge is that there aren’t enough seats to support the major Broadway touring shows when they first come out. They’re looking for a minimum of 2,300 to 2,400 seats; we’re in the 1,700-plus category, so the ticket prices have to be higher. The average Broadway show easily can cost $500,000 before you make the first dollar.
Do we need a larger hall?
I would love to have a larger hall, but in today’s economy, it’s not in the cards.
What’s your plan to eliminate the Van Wezel’s deficit?
Anybody’s challenge is to have a balanced budget. Whenever I get asked this question, I want to turn around and ask people how their business is going. I went to a restaurant the other night and walked right in with no line—on Main Street in season.
To eradicate a subsidy in an economy such as ours is challenging. Ticket sales around Florida are down 25 percent. Do we operate the hall seasonally? Do we do the same number of shows next year? One of my charges is to build traditional and non-traditional subscription audiences. Next year, we will certainly have a Broadway season. I hope to have a children’s season, and we will definitely have an orchestra season, because many of those shows were booked already. And the audience for Patti LaBelle is not the same as the audience for the Joffrey Ballet. I would plan a different marketing approach each time.
What is the role of the Van Wezel Foundation?
At the Barbara Mann Hall in Fort Myers, I worked with a foundation and they were fabulous. If I had need for a grant, they went and did a search. It was a wonderful synergy. I hope I find that to be the case here.
At one point, Van Wezel supporters had suggested that that the hall should be run privately.
I’m a city employee. That decision is above me.
How are you going to reach out to new audiences?
People say they want to see something new, something avant-garde. But Putnam County Spelling Bee played for a week and not many people came. Many times, people tell you they want something new, but they pick the familiar.
How are you settling into Lakewood Ranch?
My neighbors have been so welcoming; they walk my dog twice a day for me. I’ve been bringing them theater tickets. We don’t give tickets away, so I got them honestly!