Margaret Fuller was a transcendentalist that everyone should (but likely doesn’t) know about. Fuller’s marginalization in the 1820s and 1830s is an interesting contrast to the ways in which women are still erased in 2019, with slights of language or the thousand cuts of microaggressions that result in the death of our “good humor.”
Fuller is also the subject of Kathleen Cahill’s Pulitzer-nominated play, “Charm.” The play, and Cahill’s visit to Portsmouth, NH, combined to be the impetus for a conversation that brought together seven women on a Friday morning in Portsmouth’s West End, for conversation and a coworking workshop.
Convened by New Hampshire Theatre Project, Feminist Oasis and the Dramatists Guild Foundation, the workshop was part of the Dramatist Guild Foundation’s Traveling Masters series, and was loosely structured around Feminist Oasis’ existing coworking sessions, “Feminists, Waffles, Work.” There was a (feminist) agenda, but true to feminist principles, it left space for the flexibility of the moment.
Seven women sat around tables assembled in the black box theater in front of five rows of empty seats. Introductions led into a discussion of the life of Margaret Fuller viewed through a present-day feminist lens.
How could a person so obviously significant to the transcendentalist movement be so amazingly absent from most writing about the era? No one in the room had ever learned about Fuller in school, in spite of several having been self-described enthusiasts or even “obsessed” with transcendentalist writings.
The conversation veered into Granite State schools and the American education system in general, which in turn became a conversation about the state (and personal experiences of) the US healthcare system. It rose to a burgeoning need to write, and all seven agreed it was time for writing.
The timer was set for 25 minutes.
From one chair to the next, “four pens and three laptops” (as written by one of the pens) scribbled and tapped. The timer went off, and each shared what came up for them. The first — a director wearing her playwright hat for the session — shared what she’d started writing about, and then another asked if the director-turned-playwright could read aloud a snippet of what she’d written. After a pause, she agreed and director-turned-playwright asked fellow-director-turned-scene- partner to read the just-written scene with her.
Then the magic that happens in a theater happened.
Back and forth, a cold read of lines born a dozen or two minutes earlier. In a theater on a Friday morning in front of five rows of empty seats. And one more empty seat around the tables, drawn up for a potential eighth participant.
Loneliness might have been a theme of these fresh lines, but the effect of hearing them read caused the opposite: community. And as each subsequent woman around the table shared what she’d written, thought about and worked on in her own universe of 25 minutes, the communion grew. Inspired by the same or different parts of the opening conversation, each had related universal themes or questions or creative experiments into their own work.
It took the rest of the session to unpack these seven separate 25-minute experiences. Care was considered and reconsidered. Years-long projects were rethought and reenergized. A superhero hung up his cloak. Universal truths were recognized. Food was ordered and eaten. Blocks of all kinds were examined.
At the end of the three and a half hours of this invigorating experience of listening, communicating and reflecting, Cahill was asked if there was a sentiment to close the session.
“We’re all channeling the spirit of Margaret Fuller right now,” Cahill said. And director-turned-playwright noted that we’d unconsciously saved the eighth chair for Margaret all along.