Mary Bensel has trouble sleeping at night.
It’s not surprising. Good sleep can be hard to come by in this stressful time, especially if you’re in charge of a major arts institution in the midst of a pandemic. The executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall has led the theater through many events for nearly 13 years. All the same, she has never faced something quite like this.
“I have never worked so hard and not put a show on,” Bensel said. “I am more exhausted when I go home than any day that I have a show because it's a mental exhaustion as well.”
Theater is Bensel's life, and she loves it dearly. Being unable to put on shows for Sarasota audiences has been hard on her and, like so many organizations in so many industries, she and the Van Wezel are facing a period of deep uncertainty. The organization is in the process of finding ways to operate as the pandemic progresses.
The Van Wezel stopped putting on shows in mid-March. It had about seven weeks to go on its schedule, which included sold-out runs of “Come From Away” and “A Bronx Tale" as well as several rentals, educational shows and events.
"It broke my heart that the last show I'd seen was the night prior to that (was) Paul Anka in concert and I never realized what a special night that was," Bensel said. "That might be the last live concert I'd see for a really long time.”
Those lost weeks of performance and income were deeply damaging. Bensel said it was a $2 million loss to the company’s bottom line.
Since then, the organization has held a few streaming events and looked to see how its fall season can proceed. The sheer scale of many of Van Wezel’s upcoming Broadway shows have proven to be a serious issue with the new social distancing guidelines.
The performing arts hall typically breaks even with 70-75% of its 1,741 seats filled. Half-capacity for a season is a nonstarter.
“The (Van Wezel's) business plan is for 100% capacity, no social distancing," Bensel said. "And for example, right now, the Van Wezel is now allowed to open to 50% capacity with six feet of social distancing ... when you have a show that its tickets are priced for a 1,800 seat hall, it doesn't work."
Some shows, like “Come From Away” were rescheduled from the end of April to November 2020, but have again rescheduled to November 2021 with some being bumped to the 2022.
Over the summer, staff has used local talent including Kettle of Fish, Jah Movement and Yesterdayze and others for its monthly virtual cocktail hours. A cabaret sunset show program for 80 people in the Grand Foyer was planned for the summer using local artists, but as case numbers in Florida again started to rise, staff decided it would be more responsible to wait until numbers begin to go down.
As the case numbers continue to climb, it puts the Van Wezel in an uncomfortable position of not knowing when it will be allowed to fully reopen. But Bensel and staff aren't sitting on their hands — they are looking into ways to decontaminate the performing arts hall for a future audience. Some of those ideas include a fog machine and an entry device that temperatures.
Much of Bensel’s days are now spent consulting with political leaders asking for funding. She says the performing art hall — which operates on a 93% to 94% of earned income — was not eligible for PPP funds as it is a government facility and was exempt for many state grants.. Bensel is a part of the Florida Presenters Association’s Advocacy Committee is a board member with the Florida Venue Managers Association and written several letters to local political figures advocating for relief for arts groups.
“I went to graduate school to get my master's degree in theater, I never knew that half of my job would be political, and the other half would be about cleaning products,” Bensel said.
As it stands, the arts hall’s schedule has “An Evening with Bruce Hornsby” set to debut in November, with a season brochure being released in September. A busy schedule of shows is already mapped out for the spring if possible.
“It's almost every day there's supposed to be a show (in the spring),” Bensel said. “But the problem is, if we can’t open to a full capacity, I don't know how we can do that.”