Lena Carstens is in New York City for the weekend, and tonight her old stage-managing buddies are primed to give her a hard time for turning her back on the Broadway life. “They’re going to make fun of me,” she says good-naturedly. “They always do. But commercial theatre, at the end of the day, is about investors. And it’s hard for me to get excited about making money for shareholders.” Luckily, this sharp-eyed, Georgia-raised 28-year-old has landed back home (and in the not-for-profit theatre) as the managing director of Atlanta’s irreverent and fast-growing Dad’s Garage.
The theatre and improv company, which has a rabidly devoted (and enviously young) fan base, has expanded in its 11 years from a volunteer-led organization to a professional theatre running on a $575,000 budget. The past several years have seen its founding leaders move on. And Dad’s Garage will have to move out of its current space in the now-gentrified Inman Park neighborhood sometime after this season.
Carstens’s recent business-school background (she abandoned Broadway five years ago to get her dual MBA and M.A. in arts management from Dallas’s Southern Methodist University) prepared her for much of this. “One of the things I say a lot,” she confides, “is that the problems that we have at Dad’s Garage are not different than at any other start-up company that’s gone through a tremendous amount of growth. It’s a different environment and the people are really different. My staff wants to say, ‘No, we’re really unique,’ but there are a lot of best practices out there. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” The fact that her favorite class was “Planning and Controlling a Growing Business” now seems like an omen.
It was the chance to learn those best practices (and the language of corporate buzzwords) that made SMU—where she was one of nine students on the arts management track, enmeshed in a business school of 125—so attractive. Carstens earned her undergraduate degree from the theatre conservatory program at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo.—which she jokingly calls “Fame: The College.” For graduate school, she went looking for a broader view than her all-theatre-all-the-time undergraduate years.
“It’s very easy to focus narrowly on theatre and to forget how the rest of the world operates to the point that you then can’t talk to anyone who isn’t in theatre,” she says. “So getting an M.A. instead of an MFA was really important to me.”
Not that she’s eschewing her production-side education. Upon graduating from Webster, Carstens moved to New York with credits from five professional theatres under her belt. She’d cut her teeth working with Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, both of which share facilities with Webster. And with finely tuned networking skills, she landed her first job—as a production assistant on the Broadway revival of Betrayal—nine days after she arrived. (One of Carstens’s hecklers tonight will be Arthur Gaffin, who hired her, and whom she now calls her mentor.)
Those days taught her to hang out with the techies (“Your crew doesn’t trust you if they can’t go out and have a beer with you,” another early mentor taught Carstens) as well as placate Hollywood stars (Juliette Binoche and Liev Schreiber, in the case of 2000’s Betrayal). She also got a few crash courses in crisis management—like when, on opening night of Betrayal, the entire union crew turned in its two weeks’ notice. But despite a rapid rise to her first shot at production managing, after a year Carstens was ready for something new.
“I probably could have become a Broadway stage manager without going to a conservatory, but it would have taken me a lot longer,” Carstens considers. “And I think I could be a managing director and not have gone to grad school, but it was a way to skip a few years to get there.”
Alongside her fast-tracking education, though, Carstens has lined up an array of old-fashioned apprenticeships. “I finally figured out that I’m a chronic networker,” she says, almost sheepishly, “but didn’t mean to be initially.” Just before finishing at SMU, Carstens called up an old friend at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, where she had interned as an undergrad. With his help, she connected with the Alliance’s managing director, Thomas Pechar, and talked him into applying with Carstens for TCG’s New Generations Program. They got the grant, and Carstens served as associate managing director for the next two years. Before the end of the fellowship period, Dad’s Garage had come calling.
“At Dad’s the challenges are about growing,” she surmises. “Because we’re growing we need to be a little bit more professional. We need to make sure our taxes are paid on time. But at the same time we have to figure out how to stay crazy. I think of start-up companies like Google. They went through a period where they really had to figure out how to stay zany internally while growing into this huge thing.”
With company like that, who needs Broadway?