When I graduated from college in 1976 I thought it an unfair expectation that someone my age, with my lack of experience, should immediately have to start a job and pursue the American dream. Fortunately my good friend Meg had landed a fellowship to study Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin (UCD) and she invited me to come along.
I may have lacked a specific ambition, but I knew I wanted time to write and to explore work choices beyond the status quo. At college I’d been studying and writing about small businesses and communal workplaces. That summer, while I was back home, earning money for the trip, I determined that, since I wouldn’t be allowed a work visa in Ireland, I would start my own business. Someone told me that the pubs there didn’t serve food. Being a baker, but not much of a drinker, I thought of making pies. It was my brother Shaw who vetoed that idea and suggested soft New York pretzels instead. I found a recipe and Patty’s Pub Pretzels was hatched.
Pub owners in Dublin were intrigued by what the young American girl was up to. I offered a week of free pretzels for their best customers, so they had nothing to lose, and I got my first orders pretty quickly. Likewise the man at the Aliens’ Division of the Justice Department, where I went for my business permit, tried a pretzel and told me to proceed. Early opinions were that the pretzels tasted a bit too much like warm bread (duh!) so I started putting cheese and yellow food coloring in the dough. The cheese pretzels did well. I soon had half a dozen pubs as customers. I’d get up early to bake dozens of pretzels, then deliver them on my bike just before the two o’clock closing time (at holy hour). I constructed a heating unit for each bar with infrared lights and aluminum trays and lampshades to keep the pretzels warm and I happened to find a flat on the top floor of a house owned by a Boland Flour delivery man who provided me with huge bags of flour. In a few months I was eking out enough to live on.
I was lucky to be in Dublin with Meg. We had an instant social circle among the students and professors in her graduate program. We spent time at downtown music venues where we drank a lot of Guinness and enjoyed being on the fringes of the Irish traditional music scene. Meg went out with a fiddle player (another American) and I spent time with an Irish bus conductor who moonlighted as a music producer. In Ireland most people we met – like the eloquent PhD who tended bar — were not defined by their jobs. The idea that life was meant to be enjoyed and not pursued was new to me and I could feel myself being drawn in. I discovered Bulgakov, Mishima and Marley in Dublin and I went to evening courses at UCD and got to know a lovely young man named Sean. This was well before the Celtic Tiger decades, when the economy was so depressed that Sean had been on the dole for virtually all his years since high school. He took a few classes and he took walks with me. It was simply a friendship, but the family I lived with didn’t approve when he stayed over one night after missing the last bus. It didn’t look good they said, which I didn’t understand at all.
Meg and I saw a German production of WAITING FOR GODOT directed by Beckett himself. We saw plays by Synge and Pinter and other Beckett works at small professional and university theatres around town. They were good productions. The words and the actors drew me in and made me want to be part of it somehow.
“You love conversation so much,” Meg said, “You should try writing plays.”
She was right; I suddenly had an interest in theatre. I didn’t know enough to realize that this was the type of collaborative business I’d been searching for. Choosing to invest my time learning more about this ever invaluable artform was the impulse of a moment, but it made sense and it gave me a goal to work toward. I thought of volunteering at a local Irish theatre company. Then I realized it was time to make a choice – stay or go.
Meg’s year was done. I could have stayed in Dublin, pursued my theatre dreams on the side and kept on making pretzels. Why not stay and continue to relax into that worldly, culturally rich life of talk and drink and music, dabble in theatre, grow my business?
But I missed my family. Meg and other ex-pat friends had already decamped. I resented my landlord’s misplaced morality. The pretzel business needed to grow if I wanted to make a real living at it, and I had taken my pretzels as far as I wanted to. Besides, I could feel the beat of American ambition in my heart. I had theatre ideas now and they didn’t seem to fit in Dublin. I wanted to go home and discover whoever I was going to be there. I found I had an American soul after all – full of drive and determination. I decided I needed to get back to the U.S. and get started.
The afternoon was progressing innocently enough. I happened to be at St. John the Divine (newly renovated after its fire) for the 4pm Evensong service. I would never have been there except that my teenage son James’ church choir had been invited to sing. St. John is one of those vast, grand places with vaulted stone arches and richly colored stained glass. For Evensong we all sat up front in the carved choir pews which line the chancel. Early in the service the Bishop started talking about ecology and the fact that this was the very first event in their “year of ecological thinking.” He welcomed Bill McKibbon, one of my favorite gurus of the green movement, and mentioned a documentary. Were we going to watch a movie as part of the service? No, at the end there was a short break before the screening and I explained to my family that I had to stay for Bill McKibbon and to support the topic.
The movie, despite its off-putting title, Renewal, did a good job of showing how specific faith communities of all sorts – evangelicals, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, interfaith – were taking practical, concrete steps to save land, make and conserve energy, support organic food, and work toward sustainable forests and renewable power, in the name of stewardship. This was good, positive, pro-active stuff. (In fact, I’ve already ordered five copies to give to various friends and family who might show the film and spread the word.)
Afterwards the filmmakers were applauded and a panel was assembled (including Bill McKibbon). There was praise all around until they reached Bill.
“If we had 50 years we could do it the way it shows in the movie – but we don’t have 50 years,” he said. “The speed and scale of the unraveling is much faster than we thought. We need to rally the people of the earth to reset the price of carbon, put a cap on it. We need legislation. We have a target – 350 parts per million – a number we didn’t have 18 months ago. We’re at 387 now, and rising, so this is not for the future, it’s for the present. We need a movement, a call to action before the Climate Conference in December in Copenhagen. My group, 350.org, is focused on the symbol of 350. Most powerful things are symbolic and we want to drive 350 into people’s hearts and minds. We’re working toward Oct 24th as a day of massive global demonstrations using all sorts of creative, imaginative ways to reach the most people.
“There’s no time – it is no longer possible one light bulb at a time. If we don’t solve it soon, we won’t solve it. We are unraveling creation, rapidly. There are reports of new harm: oceans turning acid, melts, drought, fires, floods, extinctions, all extreme and immediate.”
When I joined Classic Stage Company as the Managing Director in 1990, Carey Perloff was the wunderkind of the downtown theatre scene, even though the theatre she ran produced classic plays. In her years as the Artistic Director at CSC she’d gotten a lot of attention for her productions of Pinter and Ezra Pound. She was a gift to a Managing Director. She wanted a partnership, and she valued the tough work behind budgeting and fundraising and marketing and producing. She was a positive force for the intellectual power of good theatre, and she was (and is) a master at communicating her excitement for a production or a season to funders or board members, inspiring them to join in our quest. Carey had (and has) a particular way of smiling at you as she focuses all her attention your way. Her intensity is at the level of a tropical storm—all substance, all depth, all heart—pure energy, no fluff. Carey appreciated me, and I felt as strongly about her.
Classic Stage Company, a 160-seat off-Broadway theatre on East 13th Street, was exactly the kind of place I wanted to work at and help run. It had a small staff—which made it a real team effort— with a solid artistic mission. Artists were happy to accept our modest pay scale because they wanted to work with Carey, and they wanted to work at CSC. Despite summer days without air conditioning, winter leaks in the roof, and no extra money to throw at problems, we produced high-quality work by Brecht, Beckett, Moliere, Strindberg and others. The audiences came and the critics took us seriously. I loved hearing laughter and applause coming from the theatre as I worked in my cubby-hole just off the lobby. I felt well-used, and I was able to integrate my family with my work. My husband hung out with Carey’s husband. My four-year old son came with me to tech weekends. I started early, but left most days in time for preschool pick-up. I proved (to myself and whomever else) that I could have a full life in the theatre and find a real artistic home.
We were proud of what we accomplished out of nothing each season. It was a thrill ride—with lots of fires to put out, opening nights to reach and grant applications to submit. It was also exhausting. We were on the edge a lot, stretched. We had two artistically successful seasons in the black, but it couldn’t last forever. Carey told me she’d taken the top job at the biggest theatre in San Francisco on the same day that I told her I thought I might be pregnant again. We were continuing, but in new directions. I stayed at CSC for three more seasons, and it was worth it, but it was never quite the same as in those first few years.
Copyright © 2009 by Patricia Taylor