By Charlotte Prong Parkhill
Kitchener Post staff
When Sandra Bender was 12 years old, an aunt brought her from her Perth County home near Listowel into Kitchener for her first concert — a Christmas show at Centre in the Square.
In December, as the stage was being prepared for another Yuletide Spectacular, she reflected on her first six months as CEO of the iconic downtown performance venue.
After that first trip, she fondly recalls attending performances of Fiddler on the Roof, Annie and Gloria Estafan.
“You know, I’ve seen it all, and I love this place as a result,” she said. “You have those emotional attachments to the venue or the building or the first experiences.”
After spending six years in Australia, most recently as the head of two TV channels, Bender was lured back to Canada by the prospect of taking the head job at the Centre.
“I’d been doing a lot of stuff with audience engagement, brands and programming. Venues are a really intriguing area of audience engagement because they’re not necessarily, these days, excelling,” she said.
But former general manager Jamie Grant left the Centre in good shape. The building is owned by the City of Kitchener, which also contributes about $1.4 million per year to its operating costs — literally keeping the lights and the heat on. And, other than a few minor deficits, the venue has been on stable financial ground.
The Centre recovers the rest of its operating and capital costs through rentals, concession sales and a service charge on tickets.
There are events in the hall about 150 nights of the year — everything from high school graduations to Broadway-style musicals, comedy acts, rock bands and, of course, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
“Everything around here these days is about getting ready for the 2013/14 season,” Bender said.
The focus will be on how to engage more directly with the community, providing content and services for the older audience while broadening the under-45 audience. They’ll be using social media and bringing in new performances, including contemporary dance, contemporary opera and a non-traditional circus.
Coming years may also see a push toward better use of the space outside the performance hall itself.
Recent focus group research indicated that patrons want to park once, and hang out pre- and post-show at the Centre.
“We need to be more proactive in supporting patrons from 6 p.m. to midnight,” Bender said, adding that the vibe should be comfortable, familiar and easy.
“How do we make the Centre relevant to them?” she said. “If they’re not interested in classical music or they’re not interested in Broadway, what do we have to offer them?”