Dance & Physical Interview Musicals & Opera Interview

Chris Fonseca: Follow The Signs

By | Published on Tuesday 23 August 2022

When I heard about ‘Follow The Signs’, happening this week at Soho Theatre, I was immediately determined to find out more about it.

It’s a fully British Sign Language integrated gig theatre show, performed using BSL, rap, spoken word, movement and creative captioning, which explores the real life experiences of acclaimed dancer and choreographer Chris Fonseca, who lost his hearing in infancy. 

You may be well aware of Fonseca, as he’s worked extensively in the UK and overseas, and has appeared on your screens – most notably in a Smirnoff ad series and as a contestant on BBC’s ‘The Greatest Dancer’. 

He co-created ‘Follow The Signs’ with fellow creative Harry Jardine and they both perform in the show, alongside Gaia Ahuja and Raphaella Julien, while music is by Yacoub Didi.

I feel as though this show will be a really important and educational one –  as well as being hugely entertaining, of course – especially as it looks at how being on the receiving end of discrimination on account of being both Deaf and Black have affected the dancer’s life.

I spoke to Chris to find out more about him and the show. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what style of show to expect? How would you describe it in terms of a genre?
CF: ‘Follow The Signs’ is hip-hop gig theatre. Gig comes first. We want the audience to feel like they are walking into a club, not a theatre. We hope people will want to dance and join in, this is really important to us. We don’t want the audience to feel like they have to sit in the dark in silence, we want them to come and share this experience with us and get involved!

CM: What story does it tell?
CF: It is my life story. The show spans all the way from when I got meningitis as a two year old and became Deaf all the way up to the present day. It looks at the struggles and barriers I’ve come up against along the way, whilst also exploring the joyful moments.

CM: What themes are explored through the show?
CF: The show talks a lot about being Deaf and experiencing audism throughout my life. We also talk about race and the intersectionality of being both Black and Deaf. We aim to turn trauma into hope, joy and growth, whilst maintaining a raw honesty throughout.

CM: What was the inspiration for this? What made you want to create a show on this topic, these themes?
CF: When I met Harry Jardine in 2019, we had this instant connection. We’re both from South London and we knew we wanted to create something together. He’s a rapper and I’m a hip hop dancer so we wanted to try and combine our skills to make something raw and honest.

I’ve always wanted to talk about my life and the things I’ve been through but have never been offered an opportunity. I’m so grateful to the Soho Theatre for allowing me to create my own safe space that people can come into.

CM: I know it’s autobiographical, but is it entirely based on true events? Or is there some fiction amongst the truth?
CF: The show is entirely based on true events. There are certain moments where we have merged a couple of stories together, but there is nothing made up for dramatic effect – we wanted to be as honest and authentic as possible from the start of the process, so that the audience feel completely immersed in my experiences.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process? How do you go about putting a show like this together?
CF: Me and Harry wrote a ten minute version of this back in 2019. After that, we felt like there was so much more we wanted to say, so we drew up a storyboard of a full length show. 

During lockdown, we spoke a lot about my life and then we came together for a writing week in early 2022 to get it all down. I would sign in British Sign Language to Harry about my life and he would make notes, then he’d start writing it into verse and making sure it worked lyrically and rhythmically.

We had many deep conversations and always tried to approach the work from both a Deaf and hearing perspective to ensure the show can be enjoyed by all. Our ethos is to build a bridge between both communities and that’s what makes our collaboration so important. 

Our composer, Yacoub Didi, had already created a lot of the music, so we had a really clear idea of how the show was going to work quite early on. Our first week of rehearsal was focussed on BSL translation. We want to ensure this show is as accessible as possible so we had two incredible BSL consultants in the room, making sure all the sign language is clear.

Once we’d finished this process, we started getting it up on its feet and exploring the physical world of the piece. So much of the process is about us all making sure we are connected to each other as Harry is my voice throughout, while Gaia Ahuja voices for Raphaella Julien. We want this to be as slick and seamless as possible.

CM: Who do you hope to reach with this story? Is there an element of awareness-raising?
CF: There is something in this show for literally everyone. The aim was to create something that entertains, educates and provokes, and we’re saying some things that have not been discussed in depth or in public much before.

We urge everyone to come and see this in the hope that we can raise awareness but also demystify certain things.

We really want the audience to challenge themselves in a positive way to unlearn, relearn and learn new things with this show. The time is now and we hope people come with an open mind and heart.

CM: Can we talk about your past, now? What brought you to a career in the arts? Was it what you always wanted to do?
CF: I started dancing waaay back when I was twelve or thirteen.

I was the kind of kid that couldn’t sit still and so my aunty introduced me to the dance movie ‘Breakin’ in the hope it would inspire me to channel my energy into dance – she was right! The film was so visual with incredible dance sequences – I was hooked.

As a Deaf person, my relationship to music is different from most. I feel it first and the vibrations through the floor guide my feet. My feet lead and show the rest of my body what to do. I connect to the rhythm, tone and bass like wifi and I feel it deep inside me. This allows me to dance and choreograph as I use my instincts to translate what I’m feeling into dance moves.

I always struggled to find role models for myself. There were no Black Deaf male dancers anywhere, so it was hard to remain motivated. I hope that I can be a role model to people now, I’m keen to be the person I needed when I was growing up.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
CF: For me, booking the Smirnoff advert was a bit of a game changer – it took my career to another level and it was extremely important to me. Ditto with ‘The Greatest Dancer’, that got my name out there in a massive way and has allowed so many doors to open for me.

Without doubt though, this is the biggest thing I’ve done so far. Not just because it’s at the Soho Theatre, but also because it’s my life story. It feels incredibly vulnerable but also empowering – it has definitely reminded me that I am a human being first. I’m very excited about it.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
CF: We are already discussing ways in which we can grow this show. We’d love to tour it next year so that more people around the country get a chance to see it. We’d also love to make it much bigger with more cast members and more real-life stories being told. There is nothing confirmed yet, but definitely watch this space!

‘Follow The Signs’ is on at Soho Theatre from 23-27 Aug. Head to the venue website here to book your tickets.