Mary Winspear Centre’s new focus is drawing in more people

The Mary Winspear Centre saw 215,000 people in 2014.

For the Saanich Peninsula, the Mary Winspear Centre serves as a hub of arts and culture activity, supporting independent theatre, painters, musicians, cultural events and more, and is spreading its reach further every year.

It’s a small centre — with one 310-seat theatre and two meeting rooms — but the Mary Winspear saw 215,000 people travel through its doors in 2014, up about 30,000 from 2013.

That’s a significant increase, says executive director Brad Edgett, who attributes the boost to bringing in more diverse performances and more activity at the centre.

Just in the last month, the Charlie White theatre has hosted performances by Randy Bachman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, The Lonely and Palm Court Orchestra.

It’s a balance of new and established performers that Edgett says he’s worked hard to find.

“One of the shifts I’ve tried to do over the last couple of years is raise the level of the performers, while also recognizing that the theatre is great for people who are just starting out. I want to support new artists and I also want to woo established artists and make them remember what it was like to play small venues like this.”

The intimacy of the theatre is something that has attracted performers from all over.

“There’s something about playing in a small theatre where you feel like you’re singing to that one person,” says Edgett.

No matter what the business end of things looks like, for most musicians, “at the end of the day, it’s all about performing.”

For the staff and volunteers, it’s also about putting in that extra little bit of effort.  Prior to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s April show — her second sold-out show at the theatre in less than six months — Edgett arranged a traditional welcome prayer for the singer, something that made her feel incredibly welcomed.

“She’s iconic female Canadiana. She stands for so much. And she has that First Nations connection. And that’s something that I am very cognizant of, that we’re on traditional Coast Salish lands.”

Along with well-loved musicians that have proved their popularity in Sidney, Edgett has also been stretching into some unfamiliar territory.

“We are a non-profit, but I’m running it more like a business. We need to find ways to diversify our revenue.”

Starting May 6, the American Rhododendron Society is coming to the centre to feature heritage blooms and expert presenters, and bringing hundreds of people. That influx will also fill up the hotels and restaurants, and drive tourism dollars into the economy.

The proof is in the pudding: Edgett says the Mary Winspear drove about $8 million into the Peninsula in 2014.

“It shows that Peninsula focus. How we can bring one thing here and how it affects the whole Peninsula.”

Edgett’s methods certainly do seem to be effective, for the community and for the centre. In 2014, the theatre had 41 sold-out shows and was occupied 290 days of the year. The centre as a whole was open 360 days last year, proving the demand for arts and culture, of all varieties, is in high demand.

“We’re doing things that will captivate people’s attention, like Family Day, like the First Nations, Metis and Inuit show every October.

“We’re not just a music theatre. We want people to have experiences here.”

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