Man of Many Illusions
By Amy Weaver
Photos by David Parrott
Douglas Stafford is soft spoken and cerebral. He speaks deliberately, sometimes using his hands to reach for harder-to-grasp ideas, bringing his fingers back to rest in a soft arch in front of his face.
He is the archetype of a philosophy student.
And yet, his business card reads “entertainer.” When this interview is over, he and his bag of props are taking their weekly trip to the Hotel Chelsea in Atlantic City. His act—“Cirque D’Penombra”—is described as the “twilight between fine art and entertainment.” On stage, he plays with fire—throws it spinning in hot circles. Juggles it. He lies on nail beds, tosses cigar boxes through the air and between his legs, stooping gracefully to catch them—each element moving as one fluid body.
In these performances, he is charismatic and light—the antithesis of the man who sat, seconds before, contemplating the choices that brought him to this moment.
Stafford enrolled at Drexel under the GI Bill as a veteran of the Navy. Though untraditional, his reasons for joining the military were straightforward: he was chasing a girl. After some pause, he says more directly: “I was without my own path, so I followed someone else’s.”
His time in the military was unromantic, to say the least. He learned more about who he was not than who he was, and left with complex emotions but no language to describe them. Two years later, he found Drexel and the philosophy program, and although they alone were not his “calling,” the words started to come.
Philosophy is about self-awareness, he says, an attribute he seems to value above most others. It’s also about spirituality—something Stafford has been exploring most of his adult life.
Two years ago, the search brought him to a spiritual retreat in Maryland. On his first day there, he looked down at the schedule and saw a class that piqued his interest: Intro to Fire Spinning. Though he had “absolutely no coordination” at the start, Stafford soon discovered he had an affinity for what he calls the kinesthetic arts—dance, movement, object manipulation. For the first time, he felt he was heading down a path of his own, a path that provided him with a new understanding of people and of his place in the world.
“Performing has helped me recognize that there is an essence to who I am,” he says, “a potential.”
Since that trip, his talents and passion have evolved to include other arts—stranger arts, by civilian standards. Like poi, which Stafford describes as a form of dance that involves juggling fire on the end of long chains. And then there are the nail beds and the rope darts and the Devil Sticks.
Recently, he’s picked up a more intuitive art of manipulation: mentalism. Or, “the art of bullshit,” as he calls it.
Although Drexel is certainly no school for the circus arts, Stafford says he’s found countless opportunities to grow his act here. In addition to the University’s many vaulted ceilings (paradise to a practicing juggler), he has honed his craft through stand-up comedy and social psychology courses. The latter, in particular, has helped him understand the psychology of groupthink: the way people behave in crowds, the way they influence one another.
“When you’re a performer, there’s an artificial wall between you and the audience,” Stafford says. “I want to break down that wall.”
This philosophy, this wall, is the motivation behind his senior thesis— an argument he’s building against art critic Arthur Danto. Danto, Stafford explains, believes that any object can be art, and so, any object can be imbued with any meaning. “Have you ever been on the outside of an inside joke?” Stafford asks. “To me, Danto’s view makes art an inside joke: I don’t have access to the meaning and you don’t have to share it. I think this is a weak notion, especially in my area of work. The moment you take entertainment and accessibility out of performance—the moment you take the responsibility off of the artist—you put up a wall.”
Stafford has great respect for the relationship he creates with his audience, but he’s received some criticism for his approach. Illusionists are a surprisingly delineated group, he says, with distinct personalities drawn to each area: juggling, fire performance, mentalism and so on.
“I get a little flack because I tend to take a little bit from everything,” he says. “I add some juggling here, some mentalism there, some sideshow over there. I don’t have a ‘specialty’ outside of being an entertainer. I just want to create the most vivid and memorable experience for the audience.”
For Stafford, performance is about eliminating barriers. It’s about making people think and question and smile. And though he’s still fine-tuning his act, he is finally tapping into his own potential, his own essence. No longer following the path of another, he’s instead blazing his own—in fire, no less.