Photos by Zoe Lepiano.
Comedian Daniel Stolfi has been performing his one-man show Cancer Can’t Dance Like This all over Ontario for more than a year, raising more than fifty-thousand dollars for various cancer foundations. Incredibly, this week’s run at the Pia Bouman Theatre is the first time Stolfi has performed his energetic show in Toronto on multiple dates, and with a clean bill of health: he scheduled past one-off performances in-between bouts of chemo and other debilitating treatments. We spoke with the seemingly indefatigable and now healthy actor earlier this week, after seeing the show.
Stolfi was twenty-five and an up-and-comer in the Toronto stand-up and sketch comedy scenes (with troupe Fade to Brown) in the spring of 2008, working on a one-man Fringe Festival show about a lothario named Bruise Portego, when he found out that his flu-like symptoms were being caused by a fist-sized lump over his heart, attributed to lymphoma. Cancer Can’t Dance Like This, where he assumes characters representing parts of himself that were affected by the treatment—his sex drive (Bruise Portego became that), his appetite, his strength—covers the first eight months of chemo and the changes the disease wrought.
Stolfi also reads selections from his very real “cancer journal,” detailing his mindset over the months. “I don’t cover everything,” he says, noting that while he doesn’t sugar-coat anything, some of what’s in the journal is too private. He tackles difficult subjects with grace and good humour, like his trip to bank sperm in case the radiation treatment left him sterile, but he doesn’t shy away from some pretty heavy realizations in those first eight months.
“It all got easier in the second year; of course, easier is relative,” Stolfi says. After all, he was fighting cancer. “But that first year…those treatments are tough.” It took him six more months to create the show with director Andrew Ferguson and designer Michael Chudnovsky, both initially involved in the ill-fated Fringe show, and who stuck with him through the difficult process. Performances began in May 2009, sometimes occurring just a day or two after treatments. “I’ve only been doing one-offs because I was too sick,” says Stolfi, sometimes taking two or three days to recover after a show.
Since he wrapped up his treatment in April, Stolfi has surprised himself at how he’s bounced back. “It’s unreal how quickly some things came back—my strength, especially.” He does indeed dance circles around cancer in the show, and it’s difficult to imagine how he could have performed it while undergoing chemo. Some things he’s still waiting on: “My hair—well, it’s there, but I’m still waiting on the curls to come back.”
All of the shows to date have raised funds for a handful of cancer research and support foundations. Stolfi, who saw the show as a constructive way to combat the disease, has also become passionate about encouraging others and working to help fund a cure. “Since my diagnosis, I’ve become friends with many people going through the disease as well, which was great, in that I had people who could relate to what I was going through. The flip side of that, though, is not everybody makes it. I’ve lost four friends in the last year, all young adults; these were healthy people…but cancer doesn’t discriminate.”
Now that Stolfi has a clean bill of health—he’s monitored monthly via blood tests, but so far so good—he has every intention of ramping up his performance schedule. “There’s a show in Mississauga for Lymphoma Foundation Canada on October 22. Young Adult Cancer Canada, who helped me through a lot of my treatments, has a conference in Newfoundland in November, so we’ll be doing the show there for survivors and people going through [treatment] now.”
We had one last question for Stolfi, who was finally showing some signs of fatigue after his spirited performance: had he compared notes with fellow Toronto-based comic Bruce Horak, whose show This is Cancer has toured Canada, and was featured on CNN? “I got in touch with him, to make sure the shows didn’t overlap”—Horak spends his entire show as a charming but loathsome character who personifies Cancer—”and he was very cool, totally supportive. They’re very different shows; mine’s how you go through it, the fight, while his is ‘spend an evening with cancer.'” Stolfi’s obviously got plenty of fight in him, and it shows most when he’s dancing for an appreciative audience.
Dan Stofli’s Cancer Can’t Dance Like This runs to Saturday at 8:30 p.m., with a Saturday 2:30 p.m. matinee. at the Pia Bouman Theatre (6 Noble Street). Visit the website for more details.