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Behind the List with Ken Wesler

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Ken Wesler — in his office with his guitar signed by some of his favorite guitarists, including B.B. King — is president and CEO of Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York. Photo/The Susquehanna Photographic
Ken Wesler — in his office with his guitar signed by some of his favorite guitarists, including B.B. King — is president and CEO of Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in York. Photo/The Susquehanna Photographic

president and CEO of Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center

Q: You came to the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center in 2010 — what have the past three years been like for you and for the Strand-Capitol?

A: We dramatically increased our educational activities. As a matter of numbers, in 2010 we had 500 student impacts all year. This year, to date, we have just under 47,000 student impacts.

Activity's ramped up, too. In 2010 we had about 250 different events — we define an event as a show, a rehearsal, a business meeting, anything like that — the whole year. This year, we're up to 2,000 as of the end of February.

We've also increased our community involvement. We now underwrite $150,000 in rent per year for nonprofit groups to use the Strand. We also offer free office space to four other arts groups: the York Symphony, the Junior Symphony, the Youth Symphony and the Senior Honors Choir. We also now are managing the York Symphony under a memorandum of understanding.

How has programming changed?

We completely changed the programming profile in terms of the kinds of shows we're putting on our stage. Before, I would describe the programming as typical. The usual programming profile includes a lot of world music and what I call "high art."

My philosophy is 100 percent about satisfying customers. That's been the biggest change, but both approaches are absolutely valid.

You've affected positive financial change in the organizations you've been involved with in a depressed economy. Has that been your greatest challenge? If not, what is?

It's a lot of necessary change while, at the same time, we're still running. It's like changing the tires on a moving car.

There is some kind of art — symphonies, ballets — that I booked within three months of getting here because those things book two and three years out. If I want to change some programming, it takes years. Other kinds of programming I was able to change walking in the door.

We've learned that world music does not sell here, but world music groups book tours two and three years in advance. This is only the end of my second full season as programmer, so there are still things I booked before I had any understanding of the market at all that have to work their way through the system. So that's always a challenge, dealing with the lack of market reaction to certain kinds of shows.

You've directed a number of performing arts centers all over the country. How does the York area compare?

The biggest difference — and it does present a challenge — is that this is the most price inelastic community I've been in. There's a greater sensitivity to ticket price in York than anywhere else I've been. In York, what I've learned is that any time you go over $50 a ticket, you have to be very careful about what the show is. Even if the customer will buy a ticket for $100, it affects their willingness to contribute philanthropically.

We need to raise contributions that equal 28 percent of our $4.8 million operating budget. It doesn't help me to do a big show, charge $105 a ticket and sell out because those shows are so expensive. We don't make any money on them.

So I do the show, I break even, and those 1,262 attendees don't make a donation because they feel like they spent big on this ticket. That's the big difference between York and the other places I've been.

What is your favorite thing about the Strand-Capitol?

Every sold-out show is a favorite of mine — all those people in the theater having a great time, that's what I live on.

I was downstairs yesterday drumming with some of the art school students, and it was so exciting. We have all these community groups here fulfilling their missions — everyone from Performing Arts for Children, the Rotary Club of York, Greater York Dance, the YWCA, Lincoln Charter School, the York Jazz Festival, NAMI, Family First Health, the Susquehanna Valley Theatre Organ Society and others.

And we've got these volunteers, and they're wonderful. I don't think people realize they're walking past retired senior executives from companies, teachers — every walk of life is represented in our volunteer corps.

What has been your proudest moment in your career?

I don't have any! Being proud of something is a look back, and all I focus on is looking forward.

About Ken Wesler

A Philadelphia native, Ken Wesler graduated from Temple University with a degree in theater management.

After almost a decade in stage direction, Wesler joined Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre as managing director in 1989. He left in 1995 for the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., where he was chief executive until 2006. In 2010, he came to York as president and CEO of the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center.

Now 49, Wesler and his wife, Deborah, live in York. He enjoys drumming and target shooting in his spare time. His son, Alexander, 23, is a specialist in the Army Reserve, and his daughter, Samantha, 21, is a sophomore dance major at Slippery Rock University.

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