Daniel Stolfi reconsiders cancer through the healing power of humour

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Daniel Stolfi (photo by TJ Tindale)

Believe it or not, for Daniel Stolfi, cancer is a laughing matter. As a comedian and writer, he has a knack for mining humour from unexpected places . . . like cancer, of all things. In 2009, at the age of 25, Stolfi was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, an aggressive cancer that required equally aggressive chemotherapy. Within the darkness of the disease, Stolfi created “Cancer Can’t Dance Like This”, a solo show which used larger-than-life characters to portray what he had lost to cancer: his hair, his strength and his appetite – though not his creativity and candour. Ten years on and cancer-free, Stolfi is back with “Cancer Can’t Dance Like This – 10 Years Later”, a reflective revisit of the Canadian Comedy Award winning play which he debuted at The Second City Conservatory and performed across the country over the span of 6 years.

The new show combines storytelling, stand-up, music and physical comedy to explore surviving cancer, and it will take place at the Great Hall exactly 10 years (to the day) after the original production. Discussing the show’s genesis, Stolfi admits that it is still “incredibly difficult to even think about finding humour in something as heavy and tragic as cancer . . . But I’m a comedian, and even though when I was first creating the show, it wasn’t funny at all…” – even at a time that was “dark and heavy and real”, his natural comedic instincts wouldn’t be denied. The comedy “just sort of happened,” he recalls. At the time, he was meeting other cancer patients and survivors, and curiously, it seemed like they all had “this strange dark sense of humour” about the experience: “We laughed at some of the strangest things. Mostly, constipation! LOL.” In the midst of his ordeal, he recognized the need to laugh, and saw that it was healthy, “especially if it was coming from an authentic place”.

Cancer Can’t Dance Like This at The Great Hall (2015)

A native of Guelph, Stolfi has been working steadily since graduating from the University of Guelph’s Theatre program, and has acted in TV series such as Frankie Drake Mysteries, The Amazing Gayl Pile and Suits. His cancer now long behind him, he hadn’t planned to remount his show or do a new one. But as he looked back over the years, he realized that cancer remains a big part of his life, even after 10 years, which is a major mile-marker in the journey to cancer freedom. “I think about it all the time,” he admits.

After contemplating the idea of remounting the original show, “maybe as a celebration”, he thought about how much has changed, and how it could be interesting to “shine a new light on the show as a survivor”. So his new show will not retread the same territory as the original. Instead, it will answer questions like How have things changed? What’s different? And it will also share the other side of the story  – the positive ways that he has carried cancer around with him.

What inspired him most about creating this show was all the stories of other cancer patients that he encountered along the way: “I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only one who was going through the illness. There were so many like-minded people – young, healthy people – who were diagnosed at such a young age, and we were all fighting this thing. I wanted to help not only share my story, but theirs as well.” Stolfi’s aspiration with “Cancer Can’t Dance Like This – 10 Years Later” is that the audience gets a sense of hope out of this show. He wants audiences to see, “here is someone who fought through 2 years of chemotherapy, who thought at times that he wasn’t going to make it.. and now, here he is on stage, using humour to tell his story 10 years later! I hope that gives the audience a good feeling. I think, so often we hear about the tragedy and the struggle of cancer, so I hope this show can add a bit of… well… hope.”

Stolfi performed his original show more than 50 times from Newfoundland and Labrador to BC, raising over $100,000 to benefit cancer research along the way. Similarly, a portion of the proceeds from “Cancer Can’t Dance Like This – 10 Years Later” will benefit Young Adult Cancer Canada. And just as importantly, the emotional benefits to other survivors are innumerable. Many who saw the original  show thank him for “taking the words out of their head and putting them on stage for everyone to see and hear”. Indeed, “that was what kept me doing the show for as long as I did. If it could give hope to one person in the audience, then I was doing a good thing.” So he kept doing it . . . and now he hopes that this updated version of his story will have similar impacts.

“It’s a celebration,” he maintains. “We should celebrate!”

Cancer Can’t Dance Like This (2009)

News You can Use

What: “Cancer Can’t Dance Like This – 10 Years Later”, written and performed by Daniel Stolfi; Produced by Daniel Stolfi and Jennifer De Lucia of You & Me Entertainment; Music by Gerrard Suyao; Lighting design by Michael Chudnovsky; Directed by Andrew Ferguson 

Who: Audiences 16 years of age and older

When: May 30, 2019

Where: The Great Hall, 1087 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: thegreathall.ca 

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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