What’s so funny about salad? Nothing, really. And that’s why the stock photography trope — you may have seen it in advertisements or illustrating health stories online — is so absurd. Picture an ecstatic woman with glowing skin, salad bowl in hand, fork perfectly poised, leaning forward and laughing.
When a feminist humor site published a curated photo selection of Women Laughing Alone With Salad in 2011, an Internet meme was born. And ever since, salad has been unquestionably funny — at least as a sardonic symbol of clueless marketing. Four years later, it’s the inspiration behind Sheila Callaghan’s play of the same name, part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
“Nobody likes salad that much; it’s not built for that,” said Callaghan (also the author of “Fever/Dream,” which was staged in Washington in 2009). “And the notion that you’re supposed to feel that way — [salad] will never be that kind of satisfying.” Advertisers who use the image, the playwright said, are “saying something more about how we should be feeling about the things that are good for us as women versus the reality of it. That feels funny.”
Callaghan, who lives in Los Angeles — possibly the salad-lady capital of America — was in town recently for her play’s premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. We met at Sweetgreen in Dupont Circle in hopes of observing the mythical women laughing alone with salad in their natural habitat. Customers from a nearby spin class were streaming in. Callaghan ordered the watermelon and feta salad.
“I don’t actually go to these places often,” she said. “No matter how creative you get with salad, it’s still [expletive] lettuce and vegetables, right?”
The play uses a lot of [expletive] lettuce and vegetables — about 6,000 pieces of fake lettuce, to be precise, and some real, edible veggies, too. Much of the latter is consumed by the three women at the center of her play: Tori (Meghan Reardon), a rail-thin aspiring yoga instructor; Meredith (Kimberly Gilbert), an assertive dancer; and Sandy (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a woman obsessed with anti-aging treatments. Each represents an aspect of Callaghan’s personality, as does the plagued-with-indecision man in their lives, Guy (Thomas Keegan).
Callaghan said she wrote the play “from a place of subconscious curiosity.” The meme and its sinister implications — that women can be happy only if they’re depriving themselves — got stuck in her head, she said, and the play came from wanting to “give these objectified, tank-top-wearing women an inner life, and see how that works.”
Like the meme, Callaghan pushes her characters to the point of absurdity in service of a conversation about the way women are portrayed in the media. Think “Inside Amy Schumer” and its subversively feminist humor.
“As far as pushing buttons, I mean, when you’re uncomfortable, do you just accept that emotion, or do you follow through with it, like, ‘Why am I uncomfortable?’ . . . That’s when the real conversations happen, and you’re not just talking about the play anymore,” Callaghan said.
“This play is going to disappear in like, a day, because it’s based on an Internet meme. It’s built to vanish,” Callaghan adds. “I don’t need the play to have a lasting impact, but I do need the people who see it to have a question that they get to walk away with answers for, or at least more questions.”
Questions such as: What do these images say about our expectations for women?
And: Why salad?
“I don’t think salad’s the villain in the play, I think shaming is the villain,” Callaghan said. “These pictures are using salad to shame women.”
Besides, how could salad be the bad guy? “I like salad,” she said.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre,
641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.
Dates: Through Oct. 4.