He is neither a scientist nor a formally trained theatre maker.
But Canberra-born David Finnigan was being briefed by leading Australian climate scientists long before he penned a satirical play that outraged right-wing media pundits with its premise of climate change-denying federal Parliamentarians being taken hostage and facing execution.
Sitting now in a café in Surry Hills on the eve of Kill Climate Deniers opening night at Griffin Theatre, Finnigan exudes youthful nervous energy. Pen in hand, he’s constantly moving his arms, fingers and palms to make detailed, passionate points about the planet’s future.
He has a well-filled A4 notebook on the table, and turns to a blank page to draw a tent-pole diagram of circles and spokes to illustrate the issues in his play, which is set to an pumping techno score in late 80s-early 90s style and has an all-female cast.
It is more than three years since News Corporation columnist Andrew Bolt spluttered fury over Arts ACT’s funding of the play’s script development, sparking a chain of indignation all the way to the United States via Fox News and the online Breitbart news service.
As a result, the playwright and the indie Aspen Island Theatre Company, which commissioned the play, held off staging the show, given its limited financial resources to potentially defend the play against anti-terror laws as well as to protect the cast from social media abuse.
Instead, Finnigan kept reworking the play, folding the media and political fallout into the narrative. Lawyers then vetted Kill Climate Deniers for the theatre companies.
His methodical approach is a reflection of a childhood in Canberra.
There were a lot of science books on the shelves in the Finnigan home. His father is a CSIRO micrometeorologist, whose expertise is wind flow over low-lying plant canopies. “He was able to point to a couple of people and say, ‘Chat with that person, and that person’, and that’s how we began,” says Finnigan.
Wanting to become a writer of some sort throughout high school, Finnigan helped form a theatre collective called Bohemian.
Canberra’s arts scene is small, Finnigan says. “It’s a DIY community, and you learn everything on the job.” Its members attend one another’s plays even when outside audiences are close to non-existent. “Theatre brought together the rigour of having a deadline, but also a fierce, no-holds barred critique of your work, and I got hooked on that very quickly.”
In 2006, the collective, its moniker shortened to Boho, began collaborating with climate systems scientists, “the main engine” for Finnigan’s work in the last decade. Boho members pursued long residencies in research institutions, working closely with network theorists, game theorists and complex systems scientists.
“Arts has had it comparatively lucky in the past five years,” says Finnigan. “The Abbott and Turnbull governments have been a nightmare for the CSIRO. I can’t think of many scientists I’ve spoken to who expect there to still be a CSIRO in meaningful sense in 30 or 40 years.”
Finnigan’s mother is a primary school teacher, and is a “very avid” critic of his work. “Dad supports the work, although he questioned the title. My mum questioned the title. They both thought – and they’re completely right – that calling it Kill Climate Deniers would switch off a whole section of people that might otherwise engage with the work, because they make assumptions about the work that are not true.
“Giving it a more lukewarm title would open it up. Of course, the sad reality is this has gained a level of attraction of focus that other works about climate change don’t. And I don’t know what to do with that information.”
I suggest changing the title now would be seen as a capitulation to the controversy. “Oh yeah, changing the title was only an option before Bolt heard of it. After that, it would be ‘The play that was called Kill Climate Deniers until they didn’t have the guts to stand by it’.
“But whether in the first place you should do a really objectionable, offensive, click bait title, that’s such an open question. I will be judged on it, but I can’t be the judge of it.”
How did he feel during the controversy?
“It was very distracting,” admits Finnigan. “I was in the middle of another project, and it’s hard to concentrate when your name is popping up all over the place. There were some personal threats, but not significant.”
Threats to his life?
“Just, ‘What about, Kill David Finnigan?’, ‘What about, Run David Finnigan Over with A Truck?’, ‘What about, I’m waiting for you and I’m going to kill you’. Stupid shit like that.
“A lot of these people quite reasonably think it’s hypocritical that ‘the left’ has an objection to hate speech; the left has an obsession with what you can and can’t say, and now the left is saying this. And of course, I don’t speak for the left, but that’s how I’m read.
“This week it’s been, ‘Isn’t this the same as George Christensen posing [with a gun] for a stupid [Facebook post]?’ They’re saying that, and I have to agree with them, actually. That is completely fair.”
Climate change deniers sometimes acknowledge the problem but are more scared of the solution, Finnigan says. “They see it as the leading edge to socialise the world. Communism under a different name. So, they would refer to a climate change activist as a watermelon: someone who’s green on the outside but red on the inside.”
What are Finnigan’s own politics?
“I don’t have anything sophisticated enough on that front that I’d want to have it quoted,” he says. “Where I think [the deniers are] right is everything will change. At the moment, new technology is emerging, massive shifts in solar and wind and renewable energy, which offer a green capitalism. But essentially that’s not going to be enough when we hit the real crunch points. Everything will shift.”
So would he call his politics Green-Capitalist, perhaps?
Finnigan laughs. “What would be my label? I’m afraid I wouldn’t use that label either.”
But surely he is somewhere on the political spectrum? Progressive?
“Let’s say liberal progressive, yeah.”
Finnigan’s website bio lists part-time pharmacy assistant, though he left that job 12 years ago. He’s been working as a freelance theatre maker full time for the last few years, moving between cities and abroad to the UK and the Philippines, sometimes applying his skills to real-life ends: last month, he had a Boho collaboration with the Earth Observatory Singapore, to help create an evacuation scenario in the face of typhoons and volcanoes.
Finnigan feels no animosity for his critics, though he does have a measure of pity.
“There are so many elderly people, retirees who have been fed this diet of outrage, and who are isolated and will post these long, thousands of words screeds, have these huge websites that nobody looks at, and pat each other on the back at how bad the youth and the left and the liberals are.
“But it’s deeply sad, this sense of isolation and loneliness and fear. A lot of my reaction is, I just hope I don’t end up like you.”