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Anja Meinhardt - Code Interview

Told with the energy and excitement of athletic choreography, and incorporating mesmerising bike stunts performed on a specially constructed outdoor set, CODE tells the story of how drug dealers are using children to operate their trade, under our noses, within our communities, outside our knowledge. This is a new show from physical theatre/dance company Justice in Motion, a company fast establishing itself at the forefront of creating large scale physical theatre, focussed on tackling vital contemporary social issues. 

CODE will be performed outdoors at the Kensington and Chelsea Festival in August, with many more dates to be announced over 2023-24.

I caught up with Justice In Motion’s Artistic Director Anja Meinhardt to chat about the show and the company. 

Let’s go back to when you first founded Justice in Motion, what led you to that point and how did you approach starting the company?
I never planned on setting up a company to be honest, but somewhat out of frustration this journey began. I had trained as a performer, albeit not in one of the acclaimed dance schools, which meant that I didn’t get a lot of opportunities to audition for the dance companies I was interested in. I got to perform in short or one-off productions, which were great, but didn’t actually give me much time on stage doing what I loved to do. I knew my calling was to be an artist, yet hardly got to be on stage.

At some point people kept asking me – why don’t you make your own work? Well, I had 101 reasons not to… I didn’t think I had any ideas, I’d never directed before, I don’t like working on my own, I didn’t know how to lead on a creation process, nor how to manage other people. Eventually though, I created a short solo dance piece, called ‘Dare to Dream’, and from there realised that, even though I was a solo performer on stage, I worked with a bigger team including a photographer and a composer, a musician, a lighting designer, a costume designer and a poet, and so it was really interesting to actually collaborate with others on a piece. 

Apart from that, I had also interviewed people about their own experiences and whether they were following their dreams. This was really insightful, and an interesting process which Icame to really enjoy. From there onwards I had some support from Oxford Dance Forum, to develop this into a full-length solo show.

It took me about 10 months to get back into the rehearsal space, having faced a total creative block. Then suddenlyIknew that this show would no longer be about the positives of dreams and promises, but a question of what if those dreams and promises which should give you life, are the very thing that break your neck?

That let me down the pathway of human trafficking, where so many women, children, and men are drawn in by the promise of a better lifeof a better future, and then are forced into slavery, abused and exploited.

That then inspired me to create BOUND, which I developed with two more performers and creative team. It became apparent very quickly that this show wouldn’t be a one off, but the first of many performances and projects around social injustice issues I wanted to make, and so Justice in Motionwas formed.

Setting up Justice in Motion allowed me to combine my skills in the performing arts with my passion for human rights. It’given me a platform to speak about those issues I really cared about, and a voice to so many that are not being heard, in an attempt to make a difference within our culture and society.
In the 10 years since you began Justice in Motion how do you think the theatrical landscape has changed? 
We first started off as an indoor theatre touring company and then in 2018 went into the outdoor arts sector, which werealised is even more relevant for the sort of work we create. Indoors, we are almost preaching to the converted, with audiences either interested in the artistic expression, or the theme – and there is a most valuable cross-over  but really only people that can afford to buy a ticket were able to see it. Also touring indoors has proven almost impossible financially – since companies need funding to make and tour their work, and theatres need subsidiesto keep their doors open… making ticket prices almost unaffordable. That is simply not a business model that works, nor is it sustainable. The touring model overall is pretty broken.

For us as a theatre companytouring outdoors makes much more sense therefore – as we are paid a fee by the bookers,making the performances completely free and accessible to allaudiences. But also, we have a greater opportunity to reach those we hope to engage with, bringing our work directly into the public realm.
Now since the pandemicoutdoor arts have of course been on the rise, since it had been safer for people to attend performances during that time. Still, indoor theatre hasn’t quite recovered from that period, and audiences are less likely to see work indoors.
There’s been another shift since the pandemic – many freelancers have left the industry to take on other jobs, based on their transferable skills, which during that time gave them more security and stability. It has therefore become much harder to recruit into positions within the industry. Due to this staff shortage, and further cuts in funding and subsidies, it has also become much harder to keep theatres and venues open, and there has been a significant number of artistic directors that have recently left their positions, since running a theatre is hardly viable.

Additionally, we have noticed a significant shift in the funding landscape – this is largely due to the government’s levelling up agenda, which in itself is a good thing of course to try and bring more art to places that haven’t got as much culture and art. However, the infrastructure isn’t there yet, and it isn’t necessarily the best decision for companies to simply move to another place, when they have built their networks over years in certain places, just to access what is already very limited funding.

There has also been a shift towards more diversity within companies thankfully, and more diverse-led companies are being supported, which is leading towards a much richer arts scene. 
Can you tell me a little bit about what audiences can expect from CODE and what you’d hope they take away from seeing the show?
Audiences can expect big jaw dropping stunts on trials bikesand parkour, that are exciting to watch. They can expect beautiful, intricate storytelling that is emotional and touching. They can expect a very real, honestand authentic depiction of the topic we explore, namely county lines and knife crime.They can expect some kick-ass lyrics from rap artist Marcus Smith aka ‘Matic Mouth’, and excellent performances from all cast members, especially our young protagonist, 14-year-old Esra Marmet.
CODE, in the words of our audience members, is entertaining, thrilling, visceral, brutal and real’. It is ‘ground-breaking, delivering both a thrilling and emotional charged show’.

What research did you have to do when developing the show?
We have done a lot of research over the last two years – we have collected a multitude of case studies, watched documentaries, researched the stats and figures, engaged with youth workers, police officersand safety partnerships
We talked to organisations that work in the areas of knife crime or county linesand those working with families where a parent is in prison. We met people with personal experience – those with a sibling involvedpeople that used to run their own county line, many young people, and parents of children that have almost overdosed on drugs.

We have also talked to Sky News reporter Jason Farrell, who’s written the book ‘County Lines and did a lot of research in all aspects of society. Jason came into our rehearsal process where we had an opportunity to discuss with him directly
The show touches on themes such as exploitation and knife crime which remain ever poignantly relevant. How important is it to use theatre as a way of reaching a younger audience to both entertain and educate?
I think theatre is ever so important, especially to reach people with themes and topics like thatbecause we can hear stats and figures, and maybe case studies as well, yet it seems somewhat removed. If you watch a piece of theatre, it becomes much more real, and people can identify with it. You follow the journeys of the characters and can understand the struggles they face, the reasons for some of the decisions they make, as well as the choices they have. Watching a story unfold before your eyes, makes it much easier to relate to – as it could be you, your child, your friend, or your sibling. 
Theatre, dancemusic, and movement speak language that goes beyond the cerebral brain. Once it drops those 18 inches from head to heart, and people are emotionally invested and moved, they are much more likely to engage in a topic, which might affect their attitudes, and in turn can lead to changed behaviours

So, we really hope and thoroughly believe that theatre and the arts can make a huge difference in tackling issues such asknife crime or violence or county lines.

Using slightly more unusual art forms such as parkour, trials bike and rap music engages younger audiences in particular, as that is a language they understand and are excited about. One young audience member told me he really liked the show, because of all of the different elements, but also because it had a message and because he never usually managed to sit still for that long! And truly – audiences will sit in rapture and watch the show for 45 minutes, gripped, mouth open, eyes on the scenes. No matter their age.
We keep the narrative simple and clear enough to follow, so people can easily understand processes like grooming e.g., what happens when someone gets drawn and enticed into this world, and how hard it is to get out of it. The show itself is quite educationalwithout being preachy.

But alongside that, we also give additional information - in this instance through our App / our digital programme that people can download. There, people can access various relevant helplinescase studiesfacts and figuresand find out about several support organisations. In the app we also have a slang dictionary and the Rap lyrics from the show, as well asinformation about the cast and crewthe making of CODEand of course information about county lines. 
How do you approach the use of various forms of physical theatre and in particular for CODE, how does using that aid the storytelling? 
The theme and content always determine the art forms we are working with. Physical theatre is a given, then we then look for people with specific skills in the various disciplines, and train them in physical theatre and storytelling. So, when we reach the point of us touring the show you won’t be able to tell who’s a trained actor and who isn’t.
We always start from the theme, then do a lot of research to understand first what the show is about and what the environment has to be. Then we begin the work on the storylinedefine what the visual and physical language is, andthe techniques of storytelling we want to use.
With CODE, we knew that we wanted to work with parkour again, which has somewhat become our signature, yet we alsosaw bikes in it, since for a lot of young people that is their mode of transport.

But then also bikes metaphorically are quite interesting, as it gives an idea of how easily someone can fall under the wheels or get dragged along once caught in the wheels. Bikes can also be quite intimidating, particularly when it’s a whole lot of them. So we discovered trials bikes, and started looking for trials riders for this show.

Additionally, we also knew that in order to be authentic, we needed to have Rap and Drill music in the show, as it is one of the ways the young people in that environment express themselves – so we recruited rap artist Marcus ‘Matic Mouth’ Smith, to narrate the story through live rap. Skateboarding needed to be in the show, because a lot of the grooming happens on skateparks, or on the Estates – hence the set (designed by Celia Perkins) which resembles this urban environment.
Once we have all of the elements together – we go into the rehearsal space, where we explore how the different artforms can work together, and how they can tell the story. Nothing in the show is arbitrary as you will find – every detail has its function, to aid the storytelling and authenticity of the work.
What keeps you inspired as an artist and creative?
What keeps me inspired as an artist is seeing lots of different performances, and works by other artists, as well as engaging with different art forms that can inspire in unexpected ways – whether that is seeing visual art in a gallery, going to a gig, or watching a movie.

But also, being out in nature and soaking up the beauty of creation all around me, inspires me greatly. And then specifically for our work with Justice in Motion, it is hearing stories of social injustice that inspire and urge me on to make shows about it. 

I make this work, because I’m passionate about people, about human rights and social justice. And so, whenever I hear peoples stories and testimonies around any injustice - that is what inspires me, and indeed what gets me up every morning
Can you describe CODE in 3 words?
Spectacular, Moving, Thought-provoking.

But also jaw-dropping, relevant, extraordinary, poignant and powerful.

CODE will be performed Outside The Chelsea Theatre, World's End Place, London SW10 0DR
26 August, 2pm & 5pm

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