A Conversation with Mary Bensel

This is the time of the year when Van Wezel patrons eagerly await the release of the 2011/2012 schedule of shows.  Broadway to Bravo! series, music, dance, comedy, drama, orchestra and every variety of act, all ours to enjoy!  Behind this awesome schedule of performances is a year of travel, meetings, performances, and 15-hour days filled with negotiations, scheduling, elation and disappointments, excitement and fatigue.  All necessary elements involved in putting together the 170 shows which make up our new season.  Our Executive Director Mary Bensel has the ultimate responsibility of booking these shows and encounters all of the above from her first meeting in September, to the release of the season brochure the following September. She works very closely with Charmaine McVicker, our Booking and Operations Manager. We felt that the story behind this monumental achievement would be of interest to our patrons.  So we asked Mary to answer some questions to illustrate the behind the scenes activities involved in planning a new season.  The questions are mine…the answers are strictly Mary Bensel! 

Darrell Huntley, Editor       

Question:  When do you begin planning your new season?

Mary:  Actually it is a year-round process; you are always looking for new material, new entertainment trends, emerging performers, and new shows. The first actual booking meeting is usually in September and all of our meetings must be concluded by July. This is our cut-off deadline to be included in our new season brochure.  Of course, as they become available, new shows are added throughout the year.  Some are included in our mid-season brochure.

Question:  How many booking meetings do you attend? 

Mary:  There are two major booking trips: they involve the Performing Arts Exchange (http://pae.southarts.org) which represents east coast venues and APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Professionals; http://www.apap365.org/) which services venues throughout the country.  Other meetings involve The Broadway League (www.broadwayleague.com), Florida Facilities Managers Association (http://www.floridafacilities.com/)of which I am a current Past President, and the Florida Presenters (http://www.flapresenters.com/). All of these meetings are supplemented with constant contact with agents, producers and individual theaters.  Unfortunately, most subsequent trips to see new shows and performers are limited to in and around Florida because of travel budget considerations.  It is fabulous to have access to YouTube and the Internet which is a big help. We also work with other promoters to co-present some shows!

Question:  How do the booking conferences work?

Mary:  They have over 500 agents in attendance, involving individual agencies to the mega agencies like C.A.A.  We try to pre-schedule our meetings to allow us to meet with approximately one agent every 30 minutes.  The meetings begin at 8:30 in the morning and we usually try to break by 11 to 12 at night.  We schedule breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings to allow more time for our most important  contacts.  Each conference has in attendance agents representing all of the performing arts venues.  

Question:  Do you meet with only the agents or are the performers also involved?

Mary:  I generally meet with just the agents, but there are showcases of artists and I do attend new shows at night.

Question: What is negotiated in these meetings?

Mary: Everything from price to individual performance requirements.  Individual requirements usually involve such personal things as lodging, meals, transportation, catering, dressing rooms, etc.  Facility requirements involve sound systems and technicians, special lighting requirements, stage hands, facilities for unloading and striking sets and all items of a physical nature.  Price negotiations can include set fees, percentages of the gross, fees plus percentages, backends fees + bonuses or a flat fee vs. 85% of the gross after expenses (whichever is greater).  It is literally all over the map.

 Question:  Along with the specific items to be negotiated, what intangibles enter into the negotiations process?

Mary:  The most important intangible is establishing relationships with the agents!  It is their job to represent their performers and to resolve all details of the booking so that the artist can concentrate on his performance.  They hate surprises.  We work hard over the years to establish trust so that they know, after years of working together, that your word can be trusted.  If you say something will happen…it will.  Trust takes time and experience to develop.  Both my reputation and that of the Van Wezel is constantly on the line.  It is a requisite in all negotiations and is of prime importance when problems occur.  They know that they can trust my word!  My years of working with many of the same individuals and the backing of an organization with the reputation of the Van Wezel and the City of Sarasota is a major asset!

Question:  You have had years of experience booking performers.  What is one of the major changes in the booking experience?

Mary:  Finding new talent that can stand the test of time!  In the new era of television talent shows and Internet exposure, the talent explodes upon the horizon with a flash of light and like a super nova disappears from view almost as fast.  The old process of playing small clubs and auditoriums so as to hone your craft is gone.  There is no way to learn how to develop audiences that will faithfully follow and support your career.  There is no place to be bad!  You start at the top and there is no place to go but down.   The final four in the American Idol competition just played to 54 million viewers, which is more than most of the old stars played to in their entire careers!  (But do you remember who the American Idol was four years ago?).  The Van Wezel and other comparable halls cannot afford much of the new talent that has been developed in that environment. They want bookings in major locations that can seat tens of thousands of their fans.  The days of seeing Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella, Barbra, Dean, Liza and comparable talent in an intimate setting is now a thing of the past.  Instant fame and a big paycheck …that’s the way it is done now.

Question:  Speaking of performers, in your negotiations, what are some of the most unusual requests that you have been asked to provide?

Mary:  They are many and varied, most involving more mundane matters such as food or special dietary considerations or special lodging requests (which can get pretty hairy when a group decides to switch rooms or even hotels after they arrive).  One of the legendary ones was the rock group that asked for 40lbs. of M & M’s and then demanded that you remove all of the brown ones.  When asked why they would make such an unusual request, they replied “because we can.” In one of my other jobs the most difficult involved a show whose presenter did not pay the act prior to the performance.  The act locked themselves in their dressing room and refused to perform until they were paid.  The audience was getting very angry.  I ran to the box office where luckily I had enough funds to pay the group most of their fee and they went on. 

Question:  At what point and how often do you involve your staff in booking decisions?

Mary:  I check track records here, elsewhere, consult with other presenters.  Then Charmaine McVicker, Booking and Operations Manager, sets up booking appointments, we consult with Julia Mays, Director of Marketing, and our marketing department on promotion of the shows, Robert Warren, our Education and Community Outreach Director, works on school shows and consults with the education community.   I am blessed with a highly talented and experienced staff who represent a wide range of ages and interests.  I constantly confer with them, and I highly value their insightful comments.  They are knowledgeable and are extremely helpful in booking the season!

Editor’s note:  Our Executive Director has over 3o years of experience managing major Performing Arts Halls.  After an early career in Theatre promotion she began her management career with 5 years at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater; 10 years at the Merriam (formerly Shubert Theatre) in Philadelphia; 1o years at Fort Myers’ Barbara B. Mann PAH and a 1 1/2 year stint as Director of Sales and Touring for Troika Entertainment (a Washington  D.C. producing company for which she booked and set up touring routes for their Broadway tours; including Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, etc.).  To our great good fortune she was lured away from that position to accept the position of Executive Director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, a position she has held going on 4 years.