Behind the Curtain: Crafting a Season at the Van Wezel

Every fall, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall comes alive with the anticipation of a new season filled with Broadway shows, captivating performances, and exciting specials. But what exactly goes into building a season that leaves audiences enthralled year after year? We had the privilege of sitting down with Executive Director Mary Bensel and Booking Manager Kyle Turoff to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the intricate process of putting together an unforgettable season.

Building the Season: A Delicate Art

Creating a season lineup that appeals to a diverse audience is no small feat, and it all starts long before the performers take their places on stage. Mary Bensel, a seasoned veteran with over 40 years of experience in the industry, is the mastermind behind this operation. Her approach is a combination of artistry and strategy.

"I try to build a template each season that offers variety and diversity," says Bensel. "I want everyone to feel welcome here, whether they're children, senior citizens, Broadway enthusiasts, or comedy fans. It's about ensuring we have a well-rounded selection of shows."

The process begins with meetings with agents, many of whom she has known for decades. Building personal relationships with these agents is key to discovering which shows are available. After all, the pandemic caused a significant shift in the industry, necessitating new connections and fresh approaches.

To identify potential acts, Bensel attends conferences, takes notes, and often has to create custom tours. She emphasizes the importance of staying connected with agents and continually seeking out the next big project. Sometimes, for blockbuster shows like "Disney’s The Lion King," - planning may span five years due to the logistical challenges of moving such massive productions from one market to another.

The puzzle pieces of the season are constantly shifting, with local organizations such as the Sarasota Orchestra and the Sarasota Ballet also vying for time at the Van Wezel. Yet, miraculously, every year, the pieces come together to form a cohesive and exciting season.

The Selection Criteria: Art Meets Business

Selecting which shows and performances make the cut is a meticulous process that combines Mary Bensel's extensive experience, feedback from peers in the industry, and hard data.

"I try to see as many shows as possible, but that's not always feasible," Bensel admits. "I rely on word of mouth, weekly grosses, and the success of a show in other markets to inform my decisions. Being a Tony voter allows me to experience most Broadway productions firsthand."

She also considers the demographics of Sarasota's audience, which tends to skew older, making it challenging to accommodate younger acts with larger seating requirements. Balancing logistics with audience preferences is a constant challenge, but Bensel is fortunate to have the support of Booking Manager Kyle Turoff, who helps navigate these complexities.

"I do a little bit of everything here," Turoff says. "From planning the season to marketing, working with the tech department, and overseeing the box office. When a season is in full swing, I'm here for as many shows as possible because I want to gauge our audience's reactions."

For Bensel, the joy of seeing the audience's enthusiasm and enjoyment is the ultimate reward, driving her decisions on which shows to bring back each year.

The Magic of Traditions and Holiday Shows

The Van Wezel has a cherished tradition of hosting "Salute to Vienna New Year’s Concert," a European holiday extravaganza featuring Vietnamese orchestras, singers, and dancers. Bensel, who is a self-professed Christmas enthusiast, revels in bringing the holiday spirit to Sarasota. Her love for the holidays spills over into her work, and she strives to present a magical holiday season with beloved classics like "The Nutcracker Ballet" and "A Christmas Carol."

Unforgettable Moments and Memorable Shows

Over the years, the Van Wezel has played host to countless memorable performances. Some of the standout moments include bringing "Disney’s The Lion King" to Sarasota, selling out three weeks of shows, and witnessing the spectacular magic of Barry Manilow and Dolly Parton, both of whom left audiences in awe.

This season, they're excited to welcome comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, known for his hysterical performances. The challenge of securing big-name acts is ever-present, with availability often dictating opportunities. Yet, Bensel's dedication and love for the industry have proven instrumental in securing remarkable talent.

Challenges of a Smaller Venue

One of the Van Wezel's unique challenges is its size. With limited seating capacity, they don't always attract the same agents or acts as larger venues. The theater's capacity falls below 2,000 seats, causing it to be categorized differently in the eyes of agents and performers. Despite this limitation, the team continues to bring world-class entertainment to Sarasota, proving that size isn't everything when it comes to delivering unforgettable experiences.

Crafting a season at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is a complex yet rewarding endeavor. Mary Bensel, with her wealth of experience and passion for the arts, and the dedicated team behind her, work tirelessly to bring the magic of Broadway, comedy, and various performances to Sarasota. It's a labor of love that ensures audiences leave the Van Wezel with unforgettable memories and a sense of wonder year after year.

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