“It was all a bit of a crazy idea’

Samantha Stevens onstage in the musical parody of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that she created. Photo: Heather Gershonowitz
What’s so funny about a dark, dystopian future? Ask the woman who created a musical parody of “The Handmaid’s Tale”
By Emily Mason

Samantha Stevens moved to New York from London in 2016 to continue her acting career and soon established herself here in the theater scene. She trained at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and eventually came up with an idea for a show — a musical parody of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” That’s right, Stevens looked around for something fun to work on and settled on Margaret Atwood’s relentlessly grim vision of the future. Humor takes several forms in the production, “The Handmaid’s Musical: A Dystopian Tale,” from one-liners to ironically chosen songs, such as “Stuck in the Middle With You” during the infamous ceremony (which we’d rather not describe in detail here). The female-powered production is back on May 31st at the Green Room 42. Stevens spoke with Straus News about her time in New York, the inspiration for the show, and how she made Atwood’s dystopia funny.

Did you have a moment when you knew you were going to stay in New York?

The first day I landed. Every time I come here I feel like I’m home and that’s a feeling I think I can safely say I’ve never had anywhere. I don’t know, just getting groceries at Trader Joe’s and not doing anything touristy and I was like yes, this is my life. I’m very happy here and the thought of having to get back on a plane is really heartbreaking, so just being a normal human in New York confirmed that this was definitely where I wanted to be.

How did you decide to make a parody of “The Handmaid’s Tale?”

It was all a bit of a crazy idea in my head, I’d read the book, and I moved to New York in September 2016 when everything changed in America and everything just kind of seemed a bit too scarily relevant. And then, being a theater person, I was like ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if Aunt Lydia started singing this song.’ And a group of my friends were like, ‘Oh that’s actually quite funny.’ And then they were like, ‘I think you’re kind of onto something.’ And it ended up going from there.

What kind of reactions do you get from people when you tell them you’re making a parody of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale?’

I think interesting is always the main word that comes up. And then the question is, ‘How are you going about turning something so dark into something that you can laugh at?’ And I just kind of say, ‘I don’t really know, but everyone has laughed at everything I’ve told them so far, so I’m guessing it is funny. But it very much relies on dark humor, the whole thing is very much dark humor and black comedy.

How does parody contribute to addressing big issues?

I think it just kind of forces us to think about something. When there’s nothing else to do, life still has to go on. And if you can’t laugh about something, then how can you move past it? I drew a lot of inspiration from shows like “Avenue Q” that I think were discussing things and topics that were pretty racy and touchy, but you went in and you laughed at it and it was kind of that sad realization of, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening and this is a thing so okay something needs to change or maybe we need to open up that door of communication.’

Can you talk more about your decision to make this an all-female production?

Well, I mean there is something intrinsic to the DNA of women that men just do not understand. And it is a woman’s story, it’s about women. And it was something that when I was writing I was like, ‘This has to be led by women.’ I can’t deny how many talented men there are in this industry, and there’s a lot of them that I would love to work with, but it just doesn’t feel right. It feels like it would go against everything the show stands for, having a man direct. There’s something that women can kind of come together with, it’s unspoken rules that we know about and understand.

How hard was it to parody such a dark tale?

For the majority it was pretty easy. I relate to that aspect of finding the light and the comedy within a bad situation. And I think being a Brit in America gave me a lot of help. It almost feels like this is a movie and can’t ever be true and then I read the paper and I see things on TV and I’m like, ‘Oh wow.’ So that kind of helped to find the irony and the satire within it.

Were you worried about the translation from British to American humor?

Fortunately, I think I’ve had a lot of America in my life, and everyone else on the team is American. So when I sent scripts to the director and the music director, I was absolutely open to change things if things aren’t funny, if they’re not playing or reading well. We haven’t come up with anything that’s been ‘Oh that’s a very British joke there, that needs to go’

So there are differences.

I think it is a big cultural difference. Generally speaking, I find Americans are a lot more optimistic and just open and happy to try and be of some assistance if they can, while British people, we are a bit more reserved. I feel like there’s a warmer energy in New York, even though everyone is really busy and there’s this urgency here. Even in an audition room you where have 30 seconds to prove your talent, everyone is still very happy to see you and generally enthused that you’ve taken the time to come and see them.

What’s one thing you want people to take away from the show?

That your voice will always be heard by somebody, a woman’s voice will always be heard by somebody.

What’s your favorite part of theater in New York?

Just the new writing. I think Broadway and New York especially are an amazing place for new shows to be given a space and a voice and the chance to kind of take off. I feel like musical is still a commercial industry. New York is definitely a magical place for great ideas, that aren’t necessarily based on something, to grow.

Interview edited for clarity and space. “The Handmaid’s Musical: A Dystopian Tale” will be performed May 31 at The Green Room 42, 570 Tenth Ave.