Travel

Kirsten Tretbar Took The Long Way To Career As A Tour Guide

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Sometimes there's no single answer to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Kirsten Tretbar knows that. She began her professional life as an actress with a variety of passions — the love of travel and culture perhaps the most deep-seated.

Tretbar is a writer, too, and a college instructor and a documentary filmmaker. And she's not bad at furniture sales.

She and her mother, Kathy, are both serious Anglophiles and have led literary tours of England, focusing on the Bard, of course, and Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, among others. They recently formalized these tours as a business called Shakespeare's Daughters.

Here Tretbar talks about the circuitous journey to her latest incarnation as an overseas tour guide.

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It all started with my dad asking my mom when they were getting married if she wanted to go on a honeymoon all over Europe on a motor scooter.

Very "Roman Holiday," but two kids from Kansas. Mom jokes she wouldn't have gotten to go on this trip unless she agreed to marry Dad.

My dad came from a doctor family out in the middle of Kansas that did these big travel adventures. They lived in the farm town of Stafford. My mother came from a farm family outside of Stafford, a place called Zenith.

So for me growing up, when other parents in Shawnee took their kids to go skiing or to the beach, my English teacher-writer mother and my dad would take us on these wondrous cultural explorations. I realize I majored in anthropology in college because I grew up in a National Geographic family.

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One of the most exotic places we went was when I was 10, the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland.

It wasn't like we went for a day. We stayed for two weeks. We became very good friends with an Irish fisherman named Mikey McDonagh. My dad actually went back later and fished with him. He was a salmon fisherman and later died in a horrible storm accident. I remember learning that the way the women knitted the sweaters was how you identified the bodies when they came back from accidents.

My mother was very interested in the history of Ireland. I knew the meaning of "rural exodus" when I was 10 years old. In college I did a project with my photos from that trip, talking about the folk art, the dying fish industry.

I know I was a very lucky girl, because we had the resources to travel, and I had parents who wanted to take us on these trips.

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I'm a big believer in being an artist first and foremost.

I'm a huge fan of the book "The Artist's Way" (by Julia Cameron). I laugh about labeling myself as this, that or the other. I've become what I've become because I'm an artist. I got my master of fine arts at USC.

It's really important to follow your creative longings and dreams, and those can change constantly. That's OK. You don't have to be defined by one job or one label. At 44, I'm proud of my ability to explore every creative option that comes along.

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The filmmaking career happened while I was an actress and was hired to produce TV programs for British television.

I ran a production company with my first husband in the 1990s. We had written a script for a miniseries about President Lincoln for a private client, and she died. We were wondering how we were going to make ends meet, when a friend calls with a job in Brunei. We were hired to film the sultan's 50th birthday party, including a polo match with Prince Charles and a private concert by Michael Jackson.

I left that husband and that life, came back to Kansas and eventually made a documentary that to me was soulful, "Zenith," about the people of the town staging a passion play. I won a "Christian Oscar" for it and went to a lot of film festivals. I didn't make any money, but it was probably the most rewarding thing I've done in my life so far.

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Travel to me is all about looking at the world through a kaleidoscope and understanding the history, the art, the literature, the cultural phenomena.

And I'm a great organizer and a business person. Taking a group of people around and keeping them safe and comfortable and getting them to the right place at the right time is a skill that takes some time to learn.

My mother and I took different groups to Haworth, the bleak hillside town in Yorkshire where the Bronte sisters were raised. You're in the house, and you can't believe the creativity that came out of this place. One time my mother took a busload of women on a hike and had them liein the heather.

What we're doing is almost a school or book club on wheels. So you go to a castle but you want to look out the exact window that a character looked out of, these specific moments from literature. You want to see the pen Jane Austen wrote with, to see the desk and the view she saw when she was writing "Sense and Sensibility." To me that really matters.

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