The Center Theatre Group Writers’ Workshop, a program designed to foster the next generation of great American playwrights, has generated approximately 70 new plays in the past decade. Many of these shows have gone on to acclaimed world premieres, but only two have made their way back to Center Theatre Group’s stages. The second is Sheila Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad, which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre March 6 through April 3, 2016. (The first was Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in 2007.)
Why this play, and this playwright? Women Laughing Alone With Salad is at once funny and urgent, relevant and ridiculous in its depiction of a young man (Guy) trying to balance the three women in his life—as they deal with the expectations placed on their bodies and behaviors. “There is a tradition-breaking, convention-breaking ambition at work here,” said Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Neel Keller of the play, which he will be directing. “This play uses brazen characters who say things that are shocking—they break convention in theatre and are unfiltered and true.”
Callaghan is an award-winning playwright as well as a screenwriter; she has been a writer and producer for Showtime’s Shameless for four years and was nominated for a 2016 Golden Globe for her work on the Hulu comedy series Casual. The Center Theatre Group artistic staff has been following her career for years. After collaborating with Callaghan as a dramaturg on Roadkill Confidential, which premiered off-Broadway in 2010, Literary Manager Joy Meads invited Callaghan to join the 2012–2013 Writers’ Workshop.
It turned out that the project Callaghan had already begun was a perfect fit for the Writers’ Workshop, which brings seven playwrights together with one another, outside experts, and Center Theatre Group staff to help them develop new works. Callaghan decided to expand a set of monologues she had written that were inspired by Internet memes featuring stock advertising photos of women holding bowls of salad and laughing uproariously, and of women spraying water onto their faces while holding their mouths wide open in suggestive bliss.
There is a tradition-breaking, convention-breaking ambition at work here.—Neel Keller
“I was excited to have smart people responding to the play and a more structured writing process,” said Callaghan. The play that came out of the workshop takes a sledgehammer to the memes it was originally inspired by, and to many conventional notions of gender—as well as to conventional notions of what a narrative should be. “Women Laughing Alone With Salad has an unconventionally structured narrative, so it’s sometimes hard to tell if it’s working,” she said. “Having other writers help in the creation of the play and hearing it out loud at the workshops was great.”
Callaghan also got support from the two experts she chose, UCLA feminist scholar Rhonda Hammer and Jake Swearingen, who was then the web editor for L.A. Weekly. Their approaches to understanding the relationship between gender and marketing fundamentally conflicted—which ultimately became the thematic crux of Women Laughing Alone With Salad. The play digs deeply into the complicated nature of marketing aimed at women, and women’s responses to it. “Women in the current generation have been taught to claim their power in society,” said Callaghan. “At the same time, advertising is telling you the opposite; it still attempts to shame you into buying products.”
At the end of seven months of work in the Writers’ Workshop, professional actors come in to read the plays for the group. This was the moment Center Theatre Group Director of New Play Development Pier Carlo Talenti began to feel a need for Center Theatre Group to produce Callaghan’s piece. “I was so shocked at how moved I was—I was nearly in tears at the end,” he said. “I thought, this is not just a clever or shocking play; it has real emotional underpinnings, too.” He added, “Women Laughing Alone With Salad does what I think all great theatre does: it makes me look at the world in a completely new light.” Talenti began to advocate for adding Women Laughing Alone With Salad to be produced in an upcoming season, making sure that Artistic Director Michael Ritchie and Keller both read the script.
I’m successful because of theatre. I make time for the other stuff.—Sheila Callaghan
Literary Manager Joy Meads was also an early champion of the play, as was Keller, a longtime admirer of Callaghan. “Her plays seem very true to who she is, and how she exists in the world,” he said. “That is something I look for.” Women Laughing Alone With Salad also intrigued him because it was not going to be easy to produce. “On paper this play is challenging in how to literally make it work,” he said. “It seems to be many plays in one, it calls for all these fantastical elements, and it changes radically between the first act and the second act.”
Callaghan is excited that Keller and Center Theatre Group are up to the challenge. Center Theatre Group’s support, both within and out of the Writers’ Workshop, has been crucial. Despite her many projects—she is currently writing a movie for Jeremy Renner's company, in rehearsals for the premiere of her play BED at the Echo Theater Company, and teaching spin and yoga classes in Silver Lake, all while in pre-production for this play—she said she “never feels the need to make time for theatre. That makes it seem like theatre is only worth doing if you haven’t found your path through other means. I’m successful because of theatre. I make time for the other stuff.”
Watch an interview with Sheila from Stage Raw below: