Social Reality On Stage



How a theatre company sparks social change | An interview with Anja Meinhardt

ArtSocially #1

By Yong Li Chuan | 12-03-2018 |

 

People fight for social justice in many different ways. Some get involved in communities that are victims of injustice; others go into the street to join a demonstration. What may seem more unusual is fighting for social justice through performing arts, like Justice in Motion  does.

Justice in Motion is a professional Physical Theatre company that produces thought-provoking theatrical performances to raise awareness on issues of social injustice, and create the impetus for social change amongst its audience. Some of the social issues explored in Justice in Motion’s performances include migration and human trafficking. Besides creating art with a social impact, Justice in Motion also organises workshops and events to inspire and mobilise the wider public to fight against social injustice.

We interviewed the Artistic Director of Justice in Motion, Anja Meinhardt to discover more about the power of performing arts to tell complex stories and to mobilise for social change.

 

Using theatrical performances to fight social injustice is certainly an innovative and creative idea. Where did it come from and what is the concept behind Justice in Motion?

Pablo Picasso once said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth…” – I believe that the Arts are a very powerful tool to initiate positive social change. They take people on a journey, tell a story, touch their hearts, and in response can transform their minds.

In fact, many theatre makers, like myself create work that is political, or socially relevant, while being entertaining, engaging and enjoyable for the craft itself. The thing is that artists often see the world from a different perspective, and envisage how things could be.

Justice in Motion is a physical theatre company that through a dynamic blend of dance, theatre, aerial acrobatics, projection, and music, offers a theatrical experience that is entertaining, sometimes humorous, and always thought-provoking. Our work aims to raise awareness, encourage debate, inspire action, and impact positive change.

 

What does Justice in Motion mean to you personally?

The name itself carries the notion of movement, an integral part of our performances, yet it also indicates the inspiring of others into motion, to take a stand and make a difference.

I always felt passionately moved by injustices, and desperately wanted to do something about that, but felt myself utterly inadequate as this ‘one little voice’… what difference could I possibly make? Then I realised that if I combine my passion for human rights with my skills in the performing arts, I actually have an opportunity to give a voice to those unheard, bring to light what remains in the darkness, move people towards a greater understanding and empathy, while inspiring them to find their own way of tackling injustice.

 

What do you think is the role of art in the struggle for social justice and in the portrayal of social reality, and what can performing arts contribute in particular?

Art is a fabulous way of reflecting our society, of changing perception, and of challenging opinion – it speaks right to the heart, and engages people on a personal level, allowing them to invest themselves emotionally in the journey, and away from just the cerebral brain.

It can challenge the status quo, by holding up a mirror, while offering another possibility of how life could be lived, and how we relate to each other, a ‘what if?’ that allows us to envision another world.

 

What are the most important considerations you make when conceptualising a performance? How are the specific social justice issues that you tackle in different performances chosen?

Usually the topics emerge quite organically and are at the back of my mind for a while. We then do months and even years of research before we actually bring a performance to the stage. Sometimes I read an article, or hear a survivor’s story, which impacts and inspires me to create a piece.

There are  so many injustices that I want bring to  light – we’re unlikely to ever run out of topics… Anything that is relevant really, that impacts our society and humankind unjustly.

 

 

You have engaged your audiences on pertinent social issues like migration, expat women and human trafficking through Justice in Motion’s performances, respectively “Kaiho”,“Contained” and “Bound”. How would you say your audiences have responded to these performances so far?

We get very different responses to the various performances – Bound certainly takes people on an emotional rollercoaster, a thrilling journey from desperation to hope, from violence to kindness. Audiences usually leave though-provoked, enlightened, and compelled to do something about modern slavery. Kaiho takes audiences on a very different journey – one through history, and one’s own memories. Whereas Contained engages people in a dialogue, challenging them to assess their perceptions, and response to migration, as well as questions everyone’s own choices that we make in life.

 

How do you engage the protagonists of your performances such as refugees, expat women or human trafficking victims when preparing/researching for your performances?

We don’t necessarily work directly with affected communities as such, even though that is very much in our hearts. However, all our work is based on true accounts and research we conduct over a significant period of time, and includes interviews with those that directly work and engage with survivors. Their stories are the inspiration of our work, and although we won’t necessarily portray one person’s real story as such, we merge various stories together to paint a picture that carefully and sensitively portrays the issues, while also picturing the dignity and strength of those in that face of adversity.

At the same time, all performers in Kaiho are expats themselves and brought their experiences to the table, and most of the cast of Contained comes from a migrant background and have shared their experiences. We also engage with affected communities through our open and inclusive dance classes, and will soon offer restorative workshops, as well as a CPD training programmes for organisations, universities, councils and their staff.

 

Are these groups ever part of the public? If so, is there a reaction, something they said that left a profound impact on you, something you would like to share with our readers?

I’m certain they are – it’s often the victims that are in plain sight, and we just don’t know or notice. Many people, especially from migrant backgrounds, and expat communities have been affected by our work, mostly being able to relate and remember their own journeys.

Once I performed an excerpt of Bound on the streets of Oxford, and one lady that stopped to watch it came to me afterwards, still with tears in her eyes, and just gave me a hug – without her saying a word, I felt that I had just told her story, one she perhaps wouldn’t have been able to share herself. Another time I had a group of teenage boys from Serbia stop and watch an excerpt. At first they were whistling and wooing as my character takes off a pair of knickers, then the second pair comes off, and a third one – by which point all had fallen silent, and the group stood for about 5 min afterwards. Their teacher approached me to say they had just been talking about human trafficking, and this just really hit home and brought it to live visually and viscerally.

 

Apart from migration issues, what other topics are close to your heart?

Anything to do with violence against women – whether sexual exploitation, abuse, or rape. That’s not to say that men aren’t equally abused and exploited. I guess it’s just slightly easier for me to understand what’s going on in a woman, being one myself, and create work from there.

 

What was one of the toughest moments you experienced when establishing Justice in Motion? And what was the best moment or the biggest satisfaction?

I guess the toughest part often was, and still is, the lack of funding – all the things you want to do and create, and there is just not enough financial support. When a tour you had carefully planned and organised over months needs to be postponed or even cancelled because you simply haven’t got the means and resources of making it happen… that is tough.

But then you do get to take the work out and on the road, and people stop you in the streets months after, saying how much the work had impacted them, stirred to the core of their being, inspired to make a difference in this world to create positive change. Lives are touched and transformed. People come to our dance classes, because that’s the best part of their week and fills them with joy and purpose… that’s why I do it, and why it’s worth it.

 

What other plans can we look forward to from Justice in Motion?

We are currently working on a new outdoor production that we are developing alongside the CIOB (Chartered Institute of Building) and other key players within Construction, which will tackle especially the issues of Modern Slavery within that industry. This will be an exciting collaboration with Paweł Szkotak, director of Teatr Biuro Podróży from Poland and a cast of international Parkour athletes. A first preview will happen in June 2018, with the full performance ready in Summer 2019. We also continue to tour Bound this Autumn and look to develop Contained further, implementing new ideas and game designs, to create a more participatory experience.

 

 If there is just one message you would like to send our readers, what is it?

Go and learn about the world, and others – engage in dialogue, and be inspired to find your own voice in tackling issues of social injustice.

 

oh… and join our mailing list! 😉 www.justiceinmotion.co.uk

 

                                                                                           Anja with her favourite Thraedable’s t-shirt: Speak Up!