Kendra Augustin on Saints and Stigmatism

Kendra Augustin discusses her new play The Astonishing and The Lily, premiering this weekend as part of HERSTORY 3 at the Institute Library. Interview by Natalie Osborne.

Q: What drew you to Christina the Astonishing and Saint Dymphna?

A: One of the playwrights was writing about nuns and it made me want to write about nuns, but somehow researching nuns led me to researching saints and I found Christina the Astonishing. Her story sounded insane and unreal, but it turns out, she, like Jesus, are real people whether or not people believe in the events that happened to/around/because of them. Saint Dymphna was by accident. I told my friend about Christina, but she said Dymphna was the patron saint of mental illness and she would know because Dymphna was her patron saint. But, the end of December came along and I didn’t know what angle I wanted to take with Christina, and I was having a holiday lunch with two fellow artists, one also a 365 writer, and she made a joke about Dymphna and Christina fighting about their title and that’s how the play came to be.

Q: In the play and in real life, Christina was the one who lived with the stigma of mental illness, but it was Saint Dymphna who was recognized by the Church, can you talk more about the importance of this? 

A: The importance of this is that Dymphna is the one that is recognized. Like when I said my friend corrected me that Dymphna was the rightful patron saint that meant that when Catholics give their children saints to protect them they’re likely not doing it with Christina. They probably don’t know Christina which reduces her to a fairy tale/forgotten character in history.

Q: What do you think writers can do to challenge the stigmatism around mental illness that exist in our society today?

A: I notice a lot of stories are about how hard it is to deal with people/be related to people who have a mental illness, so I think when writers write about what living with mental illness means that can help destigmatize. And I know in the theatre we like DRAMA but sometimes you can be “normal” but still be depressed. If we show mental illness, not as just this thing that is so obvious and over the top SO ALL THE WORLD CAN SEE, but something that’s almost like the beating heart in The Tell-Tale heart then maybe audiences will get it. For example, if we can stop showing OCD as people who are just germaphobes that can help. Because it’s much darker and borderline psychosis!  Or show that not all depressed people are not just walking black clouds. Then people will stop saying, “oh, but she seemed so happy.” after someone ends their life. Maybe it’ll inspire people to check up on their friends who make too many jokes about suicide, or seem too pessimistic, or seem too isolated.  I like to think mental illness is like cancer in that you can be in remission and then it can come back. And then it can go. And come back.

Q: Can you talk more about your relationship to Catholicism (or religion in general) and how that shaped your approach to this play?

A: I guess you can say I’m Catholic if you believe that we inherit the religions our parents also inherited. But, I don’t consider myself Catholic. But, I did get into church (of the Protestant variety) at 16 because I wanted to go to summer camp (and I wanted friends). And that want allowed me to have friends, to have a social life, to learn social skills, and I went to church like 6 days a week because it was where my “family” was!  But, anyway I think being culturally shaped by Catholicism, joining the Protestants for a few years, and living with Seventh-day Adventists my first few years in NYC shaped my approach to this play because when I was peak “mentally unwell” I went back to religion and did not feel better. It’s commonly known that it’s tough, if you have some sort of mental health issue, to be around religious people because you’ll be told to pray or to seek God, or whatever and if you don’t feel better then you end up feeling worse and slipping further into mental unwellness. So, I think that’s what inspired the debate between Dymphna and Christina about what it means to go through mental illness and what it means to heal people who are suffering from mental illness. Another thing that inspired me is that that sometimes, I think mental illness is a good thing that is treated like a bad thing because other people (what some call “neurotypical” ) aren’t as in tune with what “mentally unwell” people are in tune with so they seek to fix them. I mean people do drugs to trip and some of us trip just by being alive.

Q: One part of your play that I found the most thought-provoking and challenging was the conflict between spirituality and religion, can you speak more about this?

A: Don’t get me wrong, Christina is recognized, she has a memorial day, people pray to her, but the Catholic church has not officially approved her and I think it is because she’s a bit more scandalous. Dymphna is lauded for her virtue (she died at 15 though) whereas Christina probably sounded like a nut because she talked about speaking to God, and was horrified by human flesh when she returned from her death and lived a life of no possession legend tells. People, even now, think you’re nutty if you do that. Because it’s that thing about being different from what’s perceived as normal or good. Dymphna lived scandal-free, but again she died at 15! Christina lived till she was 77. It’s like how we learn about Rosa Parks, and not Claudette Colvin because Rosa had the cleaner image. I learned about Claudette, by a random woman on the street while leaving the public library. And of course I thought she was a nut, but she was just telling me a story I hadn’t been told and I think that’s Christina’s thing.

But back to religion and spirituality. I know many Christians who will say I don’t have a religion I have a relationship with Christ. Religion is the rule and relationship is the thing that saves you. If you do believe in heaven and if it is true, your relationship with God is gonna save you and not you attending Church to look good. Somewhere in the Christian bible, God says that there will be people who think they’ll get into heaven, but I’ll say to them I don’t even know you.” Of course, it’s written in a classier way than I wrote it here!

But, I’m glad you asked this question. Dymphna is akin to the model Christian. The reason many people fear going to church is that they think it’s a place for perfect people. But the motto is always: “church is a hospital for sinners.” But, then Christina is the person who actually knows God, but she’s not perfect. She’s “strange” but she has that personal relationship. I like to think of the people on the streets who look homeless, and start speaking about God are actually in tune, and maybe we’re the crazy ones!

Q:  Where would you like to see The Astonishing and The Lily go after HERSTORY?

A: Churches and colleges because why not!

Q: Are you working on any plays for 365 Women a Year 2018? 

A: Yes, this year I claimed Fredi Washington (Peola in Imitation of Life) a Harlem Renaissance era film actress who could have passed for white, but chose not to and that made her career tough!

I also chose Virginia Woolf because this year we can choose women who have already been written about, and I wanted to choose between her and Sylvia Plath the first year, but she was already taken. I know nothing about her really, but I’m excited to learn more about her. I am unfortunately a sucker for female creatives who ended their lives.

I was gonna add Viola Spolin to the list, but I can’t handle that much writing in one year. But, maybe in the next five years, I’ll write about the woman whose book was my textbook for improv in college. Since I am involved in the comedy scene I see Del Close is considered the improv master, but they don’t know about Ms. Spolin except maybe those who took improv in college?

Q: What advice do you have for writers who are writing for 365 Women a Year for the first time?

A: Jess is cool because she doesn’t need it to be the perfect format, she just needs you to write. I say do that. Even if it’s 3 pages, even it’s 320 pages just do it and then also submit it on time. I remember when I was writing about Sylvia I had to stop because I…uh… wasn’t doing so well, but I made it my mission to finish that play by December 31st and by, George, I did it!

Come see Kendra’s play, and the other plays in our festival, Friday and Saturday evening at 7pm. Reserve your tickets ahead of time here.

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