Sheila Callaghan doesn't just want to make you laugh. She wants to tickle you until you squirm.
The playwright behind Center Theatre Group's "Women Laughing Alone With Salad," opening at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Sunday, says she writes the kinds of jokes that make the audience work. She feeds off laughter, but the more laughs she gets, the less she trusts her material.
"I feel like if every single person is getting this joke, then it's not a very good joke," says Callaghan, who uses dark humor and a brightly caustic sense of feminism to dissect the endlessly complex subject of gender identity.
She came to her subject matter by way of an Internet meme made viral by the feminist website the Hairpin in 2011. Titled "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" and curated by Edith Zimmerman, the wordless post simply stacked images of ecstatic skinny women holding bowls of seemingly dressing-less roughage.
This explains why Callaghan's new play has some fun but oddball theatrical gestures to keep it aloft and spastic. One character's uterus falls out of her body at a high-end department store makeup counter, and pounds and pounds of fake salad drop from the sky and land onstage.
"They're healthy, they're mostly white, they're in tank tops — pastel colors — and they're laughing," says Callaghan of the women in the meme as she relaxes at her dining room table in the Silver Lake home she shares with her husband, a composer, and their 7-year-old son. "They could not be happier with this incredibly unappetizing giant bowl of iceberg lettuce."
As a thin woman — one who teaches spin and yoga in addition to writing for the stage and television — Callaghan knows all too well the pressures that gender roles place upon society. Particularly in Los Angeles, arguably the salad-eating capital of the world. She's not required to look good as a writer, but she knows if she shows up to a meeting in a flattering outfit, she gets a much better reaction than if she shows up in jeans and sneakers, as many male writers do.
Callaghan notices this double standard, along with the fact that female voices seem even more lacking in theater than they are in film and television, but she doesn't want to yell and scream about it. She attributes such problems to an unconscious bias, and she's attempting to address it by heightening cultural awareness through her work.
"Women Laughing Alone With Salad" staged its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., as part of the Women's Voices Theater Festival in September. The first thing Callaghan realized when writing it was that she didn't want to have a conversation about feminism without including men.
"I really wanted to talk about unconscious bias in men and how images affect women, and how women's behavior affects men, and so I made a character called Guy," says Callaghan, who is pretty, petite and angular with bright green eyes and dark hair sliced in a chin-length bob. Her talk is blunt and laced with merry obscenity. "The play is about Guy and the women in his life who haunt him."
The women — his mother, his skinny and yoga-obsessed girlfriend and a curvaceous dancer he meets at a club — represent three generations of womanhood and the ways these prototypes play out in society at large.
"There's a conversation in the play about salad versus cake, and then you realize the cake is fat-free and made with Stevia, and you realize the cake was a lie and the salad was a bad idea," Callaghan says, using food metaphors to relay how the play's themes unfold.
Born and raised in New York and New Jersey, Callaghan earned her master's degree in playwriting from UCLA before returning to New York to cut her teeth in the downtown theater scene among such notable female playwrights as Sarah Ruhl, Lucy Thurber and Young Jean Lee. With these women she founded the group 13P (Thirteen Playwrights), who, tired of the "endless readings and new-play development programs" that they feared were sapping the vitality from their work, took it upon themselves to produce one work by each member.
Callaghan found her way to Los Angeles thanks to playwright, feminist and television savant Jill Soloway, who sought Callaghan out when looking to stock the writer's room for "The United States of Tara," for which Soloway was showrunner.
Callaghan had just written "That Pretty, Pretty, or the Rape Play," which she says was a comedic dissection of misogyny in the media, and Soloway was looking for "a playwright out of New York who wrote rape funny and also had a feminist point of view." That was Callaghan. So for eight months she split her time between New York and Los Angeles, all the while toting her infant son and sharing a nanny with Soloway, also a new mother at the time.
Soloway wanted to make a safe space for mothers, Callaghan says, so it was the perfect job, "not just creatively but psychologically to be invited into a space that said not only is it OK to be a mother but 'we're going to help you,'" she recalls.
Being a strong working mother has informed much of Callaghan's work and her brand of feminism, which is focused on expanding opportunity for female playwrights through appealing to the industry gatekeepers: artistic directors. She is a founding member of the feminist group the Kilroys, which publishes extensive lists of plays penned by women and singled out as remarkable by theater and literary peers. The idea is to show the gatekeepers that the material is there, if they want it.
"The list is valuing these plays that were floating in the abyss without any attention," says Callaghan, whose own work is getting more attention. She also has her world premiere of "Bed" running at the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village and writes for Showtime's dark comedy "Shameless."
How is she so productive? She cites a malaise that affects both genders indiscriminately. She doesn't sleep.
'Women Laughing Alone With Salad'
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: In previews; opens Sunday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3.
Info: (213) 628-2772; www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes