Scenes from the Climate Era – Q&A with playwright David Finnigan
To celebrate the publication of Scenes from the Climate Era, we (virtually) sat down for a Q&A with playwright David Finnigan to discuss how teachers can approach his work in the classroom.
What do teachers need to keep in mind if they’d like to stage Scenes from the Climate Era?
Staging this one should be comparatively straightforward, I think. Teachers are encouraged to pick and choose their favourite scenes, and assemble them in a playlist as they see fit.
My biggest note is that having a bunch of disconnected scenes is great fun for a while, but it becomes fatiguing for an audience as they constantly have to work out where they are and who’s who. For the Belvoir production, we made a hard limit that the show could be no more than 70 minutes. For a school production, I’d aim to keep it well under an hour. I’m sure they’re not going to be tempted to do all the pieces, but just in case!
One thing I’ve said to all the people producing this work (and any climate related work in recent years) is not to worry about trying to manage the audiences’ response. At this stage, everyone’s on their own journey when it comes to climate change – they’re sad, angry, nihilistic, numb, uninterested, back to being sad, and so on. In my experience, you get 100 people in a room watching a climate story, you’ll get 100 different responses, and that has more to do with where they’re at on their own journey than the material itself. The worst thing you can try to do is to create a ‘useful’ work that encourages people to take action – if people respond that way, they’ll respond that way, but otherwise it presumes a whole set of things about where the audience is at that are very likely not true.
Rather than trying to make it ‘impactful’ or ‘encouraging audiences to take action’, my focus instead would be on trying to make the work interesting. We picked those specific scenes to be in the final script because they were the most interesting stories – the most unusual, surprising or provocative examples of real things happening right now in the world. The goal of the script is to direct the audiences’ attention to these real world stories.
With that in mind, I’d recommend keeping the focus on sharing these stories in a clear and straightforward way, keeping it quick and avoiding big emotional swings. None of the scenes were really written to be performed at full tilt emotionally – you can go there if it’s useful in rehearsals, but I’d probably dial it back in performance. But that’s a suggestion only, follow your instincts!
Your earlier play, Kill Climate Deniers, is published in a unique style. Do you have any advice for teachers who are introducing this script to students?
The main thing to be aware of from a staging perspective is that the script started life as a scrapbook – actually a tumblr blog. One of the reasons that it took the form it took was that I’d been told over and over again by a few different theatre companies that no-one would ever produce it – so I thought, well, why not make the script as playful as I want it to be?
A script for me is often a set of obstacles and challenges for a director and a group of actors to overcome. I don’t know how to solve them myself, and I don’t even know if they can be solved. But watching a group of artists try to tackle those obstacles is part of why I write scripts instead of any other form. You can imagine each of those Kill Climate Deniers scenes as a different kind of challenge to be solved. There’s a straightforward solution (just ignore all the extra stuff and do the dialogue as it appears), but it’s always worth trying out a couple of experiments and seeing if you can find some unexpected way through it.
A play is also a mixtape – here’s me writing for Griffin about how I tried to structure the script like a DJ mix: https://griffintheatre.com.au/blog/in-conversation-david-finnigan/
If you’re staging a scene or two, then I’d suggest going crazy, throwing everything in the mix. If you’re staging the whole play, though, then I’d suggest pulling it right back. You can imagine the action film storyline (Gwen Malkin becoming a heroine politician) is kind of driving the story forward with a lot of momentum. All the other stuff (the Finig storyline, the footnotes, the provocations) are digressions, slowing it down. Every company that produces the play uses that action film storyline as the main driver of the plot, and they choose a few bits of other stuff to include. But if you include too much stuff, then it kills the momentum dead and the play drags on and stops being fun.
I’d say a hard limit for this show is 80 minutes, and it’s much more fun if it’s closer to 75. To get there, you’ll need to cut a lot of stuff. One thing that can get cut (though I love it) is the Remely character – her two scenes can be lost without the whole play falling over.
What about the direction in the Kill Climate Deniers script for all female performers?
No need to follow the all-female casting guideline for a school production, but it might be worth having a conversation about why we chose to make that requirement. Also I have no problems with male actors being used purely as support cast. There was one university production where they had a male actor who could do amazing cartwheels, so they had him as the stunt performer for a couple of the roles (played by female actors) – he would cartwheel on as them, and then vanish, and they’d continue as they were. This play is designed for that kind of chaos.
What are some must-read resources for teachers when they approach climate change with their students?
There’s obviously a huge amount of material out there on climate and global change, so I won’t throw a bunch of factual links at you. What I will do is just emphasise, over and over, that climate is an era and not an issue. It’s not a problem in itself, it’s the background to every other problem we face. This is a key reframing, and if there’s nothing else teachers can land in a module on climate, I’d push for it to be that.
Here are four pieces of writing that might be helpful context:
- The end of climate art – the history of ‘climate art’, how all art is now climate art.
- No new normal – climate change is not a disaster with a before and after, there’s no such thing as a post-apocalypse. Instead it will play out as a series of shocks that will keep escalating in size and speed, for the rest of our lives and beyond. We’re not heading to a new normal.
- Where’s the hope? – one thing people who work in climate are asked constantly is ‘how can we be hopeful?’ Everyone has a different answer to this question, or different answers on different days. Here’s me taking a stab at it.
- We gather strength as we go along – or a little more optimistic, if you like – an essay where I try to articulate how much we’ve already managed to take on board, how we’ve gotten stronger and will continue to get stronger.
A mosaic of snapshots capturing how it feels to live through this historical planetary transformation.
At the turn of the 2020s, the climate movement abruptly shifted into a new phase.
Governments and businesses suddenly escalated their climate commitments, while fossil fuel lobbyists swapped out denial for greenwashing tactics.
New activist movements initiated a wave of direct action – property destruction, rent strikes and attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure.
In science journals and academic conferences, radical solutions were debated and tested which would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
And everywhere, extreme weather and climate impacts hit harder and faster than expected. We’ve already hit major tipping points which have pushed us past a point of no return.
Through a series of 66 vignettes, Scenes from the Climate Era maps some of the strange and unfamiliar contours of this new world we find ourselves in.