Brian MacQuarrie: comedian, actor, human

MacQuarrie is best known for his work with Picnicface, but what happens when a comedian has a ‘ mental breakdown’ and has to pick up the pieces?

The small crowd at Toothy Moose applauds as Brian MacQuarrie approaches the stage, Moleskine notebook in hand. He opens it to the page his routine is scribbled on, rests it on a stool sitting in the spotlight, and grabs the microphone. He chuckles. “OK. I’m going to try some new stuff and some old stuff. Hopefully you guys are on board with this.”


“I like the idea of performing a show and everybody misses out on it,” MacQuarrie said while preparing jokes for tonight’s stand-up routine. “The best word I’ve ever heard in performance is turn-away; how many turn-aways did we have? How many people wanted to be a part of that show and missed out?”

Born in Antigonish, N.S., MacQuarrie has been doing improvisational theatre and standup comedy since 2003 when he was accepted at Dalhousie University. Since then, he has found success as a comedian, overcome a mental breakdown and is making a career as an actor.

Joins Picnicface

In 2003, MacQuarrie became captain of the University of King’s College improv team and met Mark Little, Evany Rosen and Kyle Dooley. Together, they began doing sketch comedy under the name Picnicface.

In 2007 the troop released its video, Powerthirst, on YouTube and it went viral. Many members came and went in the early stages of Picnicface, but once their video went viral the quick jump to stardom solidified the official eight members — one of them being MacQuarrie.

“We originally started with four, five people in the audience, then we got to the point where we’d just see this lineup of people going around the block. It was like, ‘Really, you guys want to see us?'” says MacQuarrie. “We’d do a show, have some drinks … it was the best ever.”

The group quickly became recognized by big names such as Disney, CollegeHumor and FunnyOrDie. They were also invited to the YouTube Canada launch in Toronto, and began making an independent film: Roller Town.

Soon after the completion of Roller Town in 2011, The Comedy Network decided to give Picnicface its own show.

“It was the coolest experience in the world. I wrote a television show with my friends,” says MacQuarrie. “Fans were coming up to me saying they were fans. It was great. It was jarring.”

Picnicface was in the midst of shooting its TV show and was about to release its film when MacQuarrie began struggling with mental illness.

“Then something just sort of unhinged for me … I ended up having a mental breakdown,” he says.

MacQuarrie has a history of depression and anxiety. He was flying to and from Toronto and Halifax and was barely sleeping. He says he was purposely trying to gain weight. He was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, as well as marijuana, and disconnected himself from the other members of Picnicface.

“My brain just went clunk.” MacQuarrie mimics the noise and quickly twitches his head. “I lost my mind. Absolutely lost my mind. I rented a hotel room for three months. I would walk around the hotel in my underwear all the time. I was out of my mind. Several days without eating food. Just drinking glasses of water. I lost my mind.”

 

In the midst of his breakdown, MacQuarrie received a phone call saying that his TV show had been cancelled.

“I hated the idea of the show being cancelled. Some people were like, ‘Did Brian drive the show into the ground?’ Um, no. Even if I was out of my mind, I was signed up with so many contracts … if they wanted a TV show they could have made me do it.”

Picking up the pieces through teaching

After his show was cancelled, MacQuarrie says he apologized to everyone he could and began teaching students and people affected by mental illness. He volunteered at Dramafest, a three-day theatre festival held at Dalhousie for high school students, taught at Improv U in Quebec, and ran his own mental health improv classes at Dalhousie. Teaching these classes helped MacQuarrie cope with his own mental illness.

“I believed that I could change the way people thought about mental health. My manager said to me, ‘This is career suicide. Kiss comedy goodbye.’ And it was just like, ‘I don’t think that’s true. I need to do this for myself.’

 

“It was really humbling to have these moments with these people and I got to see their development as people. So it was one of the best things that I ever did.”

MacQuarrie met a firefighter at one of his classes and began to work out with him, which resulted in MacQuarrie losing a lot of weight. He tried to audition for the role of Lex Luthor in the upcoming Superman film, but was not hired. He moved to Toronto, but moved back to Halifax less than a year later.

Current projects

After doing small acting roles for a while and doing standup regularly, MacQuarrie was cast in the Halifax film Relative Happiness. MacQuarrie plays Gerard, a failed love interest of the main character, Lexie.

“I got a call and was asked to do a reading for [Relative Happiness]. So I did. They said, ‘Well, it’s close to what we want’ and I was like whatever you want, I’ll do it. I’ll spend the days working on a character and you’ll have something that sort of stands out.”

MacQuarrie was also cast in his first lead role since Picnicface in the feature film Your Wife or Your Money, which is currently in post production. MacQuarrie plays Warren, a role specifically written for him, who has “this kind of unstoppable force who would do anything for his girlfriend.”

“Maybe no one will want to see it, but maybe people will see it in England. Maybe people will see it in L.A. or New York.”

MacQuarrie also acted with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara on the series Schitt’s Creek.

He has been applying for grants in order to write his own movie scripts and is currently writing an “anti-romantic comedy” television pilot with Petra O’Toole.

With the help of friends, MacQuarrie has also been working on a new animated series called Eric the Pillager, an adult comedy about vikings. MacQuarrie does the voice of Björn, a less than intelligent man who provides comic relief. MacQuarrie is most excited about the fifth episode because he came up with the episode idea all on his own. They are currently trying to get a deal with Teletoon for the show.


 

 

“That’s why I had a mental breakdown. I wasn’t living the way I wanted to. The people I’ve met I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t lose my fucking mind. I wouldn’t be working on this pilot that I like. I wouldn’t have got the movie,” says MacQuarrie.

“Yeah, the world is a terrible place, but it’s also incredibly beautiful. Life is fucking amazing … It’s taken a while to rebuild, but I’ve never been more confident than I am right now.”

Small stores stay open during storms

While many stores decided to close for the day during Sunday’s snowstorm, Jubilee Junction and Triple A convenience stores chose to stay open for those in need of supplies and snacks.

As a winter snowstorm rages and the snow continues to pile up outside, Elias Habib welcomes customers at his store in south-end Halifax.

“It’s just a regular work day,” ​said Habib, owner of Jubilee Junction, a dairy bar and convenience store on Jubilee Road.

Halifax suffered another snowstorm on Sunday, adding 15 to 30 centimetres to the remaining ice and snow from previous storms this winter. Because of the dangerous driving conditions, many businesses shut down for the day, including the Halifax Shopping Centre and the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. But many small business owners like Habib chose to stay open.

Habib standing behind the counter at Jubilee Junction waiting for customers. (Photo: Teri Boates)
Habib standing behind the counter at Jubilee Junction waiting for customers. (Photo: Teri Boates)

“If you live close enough and can open, open,” he said.

Habib says that how busy his store gets during storms depends on how quickly the roads and sidewalks are cleared, and until people are able to drive safely, the store only receives foot traffic.

“You’re going to get busy from people that live right next door to you because they don’t really want to go too far, but for anybody to hop in their vehicle … if it’s not safe for them to be on the road, it’s better just to stay home,” said Habib.

Habib drives himself to work every day from his downtown Dartmouth home in a 4×4 vehicle in order to get to work on time regardless of the weather.

Also located and open on Jubilee Road is Triple A, a family-owned convenience store, pizzeria and mini-bakery frequented by students living in the nearby area who use walking as their main mode of transportation.

“We know what students go through,” said Rita Amyoony, owner of Triple A Convenience. “Most students don’t have a car, they all walk. So for them we remain open.”

Jubilee Junction open and ready for business during Halifax's snowstorm on Sunday. (Photo: Teri Boates)
Jubilee Junction open and ready for business during Halifax’s snowstorm on Sunday. (Photo: Teri Boates)

Both stores were open during their regular hours through Sunday’s storm (Jubilee Junction: 8:30am-12:00am, Triple A: 9:00am-12:00am) so that people within walking distance could purchase supplies and snack foods, a bestseller during snowstorms. “Chips and pop,” said Habib. “We sell more snacks.”

Jubilee Junction and Triple A are open every day and plan on staying open even if Halifax is hit with another major storm before the winter is over.

Amyoony recognizes that there are many students living in the neighbourhood by her store, and being the mother of four students herself, she says that she likes knowing that they are being taken care of.

As long as the students are happy and satisfied,” said Amyoony. “It’s called a convenience store, right?”

CS Day encourages students to consider a degree in computer science

The Dalhousie Computer Science department opens its doors to junior high and high school students for a full-day of workshops and speeches in hopes of encouraging them to consider a degree in computer sciences.

A large group of students from across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick gather at the Goldberg Computer Science Building with one question lingering in each of their minds: do I want to be a computer scientist?

“Anyone who signed up for the GEM Lab, we’re going to the Mona Campbell building, so you’ll be following me,” shouted a volunteer to the group. About a quarter of the group stands up and follows the volunteer, hoping that the lab would get them one step closer to the answer that brought them here today.

Students and their parents trying on Oculus Rifts, a virtual reality headset. (Photo: Teri Boates)
Students and their parents trying on Oculus Rifts, a virtual reality headset. (Photo: Teri Boates)

The Dalhousie Computer Science department held its annual Computer Science Day, or CS Day, on Feb.28. CS Day is a free event open to junior high and high school students who are interested in computer sciences. The event allows students to explore different aspects of a degree in computer science and gives their parents the opportunity to hear from alumni and academic advisers.

“CS Day is kind of our initiative to get in touch with the high school students,” said André Tremblay, a fourth-year computer science student and volunteer.

“We try to get them interested in computer science and show them what we do here as a degree, what we do in the program and see if that’s something that would interest them and give them a chance to ask us some questions.”

Upon registration, students were able to sign up for two out of the four available workshops including:

  • a visit to the GEM Lab which allowed students hands-on experience with interactive computers and devices
  • a session on network security
  • a scavenger hunt engaging students with smartphones and augmented reality
  • a robotics lab where students had the opportunity to learn how to fly a drone.

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“It gives them the opportunity to go into different research labs and see what [computer science students] actually do,” Michael Shepherd, the dean of computer science, said.

“Too many young people have the idea that in computer science you’re just a programmer. You sit in a cubicle and you push code all day and that’s absolutely not the case.”

Approximately 60 students and 25 parents registered for the event. Along with the workshops, attendees were able to hear speeches from alumni, professors and the dean. Attendees were also taken on a campus tour and ate at residence meal halls.

“We look at it as an opportunity to promote the field of computer science and our two degrees: computer science and informatics, and really help parents understand what its all about,” said Allison Kinecade, alumni communications officer in charge of enrollment and recruitment.

“It’s an opportunity to try out a couple sessions and see whether it may match a passion that they have.”

Kinecade said that the robotics session continues to be a favourite among the students, because of the variety of different robots made available each year. CS Day tries to offer at least one session involving human interaction every year, but this year students who registered to visit the GEM Lab were taken to the Mona Campbell Building to see many different demonstrations of human-computer interaction. This year was also the first year to feature a scavenger hunt.

“It’s definitely a growing field and it’s definitely interesting,” said Tremblay.

“The goal is just to encourage people to take a look at it, even if they don’t come to Dalhousie; to make them consider looking into it a bit more, or even consider it to be fun.”

Stratton performs Deserter at Bus Stop Theatre

Willie Stratton rocks to his latest album ‘Deserter’ at the Bus Stop Theatre and talks about the journey it took to get there.

Willie Stratton steps up.

*stomp*

His heavy cowboy boot hits the small elevated stage in the cramped Halifax theatre. He grabs the blue electric guitar that has been waiting for him in its stand since the previous band’s departure from the stage. ‘Willie’s’ is painted on the guitar head in curly black cursive writing which closely resembles loose rope thrown on the ground.

Stratton dresses similar to a cowboy: Salmon coloured long sleeve button up top with metal clasps on the collar, decorated with fine thread detailing on the chest, tucked into a pair of dark wash jeans being held up by a thick leather belt with an oversized silver buckle, and finally, no cowboy is complete without a pair of cowboy boots. Tonight, he’s dressed up for a special occasion. Stratton is playing a show at the Bus Stop Theatre.

“Yippee-ki-yay.”

Stratton, 22, is an up-and-coming musician and songwriter. He frequents the Halifax bar and live performance scene solo as well as with his band Willie Stratton and the Boarding Party. Having recorded his second complete album in 2014, Stratton has been enjoying all the new experiences he’s had since its release.

“I played coffee houses in high school. I didn’t play any originals, just played like covers like Jimi Hendrix and stuff,” Stratton says, “Then with my own stuff, after I graduated I found out about the Open Mic House on Agricola Street and that was kinda the first place I played [original songs] in front of anybody. Then shows right after at the Company House. It kept going from there.”

Three other men wearing button-ups step up and join him, as well as a woman. All are wearing cowboy boots. Grace Stratton, Willie’s sister and bass player, picks up a cherry red bass guitar and stands by Stratton’s side.

A red light on the stage illuminates his face while a blue light shines behind him, lighting up the drum kit and a large disco ball hanging from the ceiling above his head.

“I want everyone to dance. Do you know the twist?” Stratton says into the microphone using his speaking voice, a much different voice when compared to his guitar strumming, performance alter ego.

“I sing from my butt,” Stratton says in a manner that suggests he’s only half joking, “that’s what I tell everyone.”

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They begin to play. Music spills from the amps and into the air, filling the small theatre venue. Grace’s bass bounces off the walls and into the ears of the audience, who soon stand up to fulfil Stratton’s wishes. Stratton and the other two men playing guitars turn and stomp their feet so loudly to the pound of the bass drum that the drum beat sound is almost non-existent.

*Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp*

Stratton stops his stomping. He turns to face the gyrating audience and puts his mouth to microphone. Out pours an eerie, deep, blues inspired song. Stratton closes his eyes. The sounds of a man experiencing deep pain in his soul, followed by him half screaming the next lines.

Rough.

Loud.

Pained.

Stratton crinkles his forehead to get the lyrics out. Anyone else would have damaged their vocal cords, but not Stratton.

The small sea of audience members shake, twist and jump to Stratton’s music, which is best defined by the band as Cowboy Surf.

“I think it’s catching on,” Stratton adds, “or maybe folk, rock, blues, country, punk, surf?” he says with an upward inflection followed by a moment of hesitation and then a small laugh, “Yeah.”

Drops piano for guitar

Stratton started developing an interest in music at a young age when his parents enrolled him in piano lessons, an interest he picked up from his grandfather.

“I was always screwing around with keyboards and whatever we had on hand. Whenever I went to my grandparents’ house I always played on the big piano. Piano was always around me.”

Not long after, Stratton quit piano because he found he was much more “obsessed” with guitars. After saving all his birthday money, he bought his first guitar when he was 12. He says he was inspired by guitar players from many different genres when he first started learning.

“I was super obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, and from that I got into blues players like Muddy Waters, and I was also really into The Beatles. Some more psychedelic stuff like The Doors and also just songs of the time like cheesy Green Day stuff,” Stratton says with a chuckle, followed by a sigh.

In 2014 Willie Stratton and the Boarding Party released Deserter, they’re sophomore album. Recorded in Stratton’s Bedford home, the band used fewer instruments when compared to its self-titled predecessor.

“The first album is all acoustic, so there isn’t a single electric instrument or keyboard on it . . . [Deserter] was more of a typical kind of like, country rock band set up. We had drums and electric bass and electric guitar, and acoustic guitar as well. Like, on the first album we packed as much instruments on as we could on the album just because I was curious and kind of experimenting, but on Deserter it was kind of more stripped down and more sounding like the band.”

Stratton says the success of Deserter hit him when it was released for sale on vinyl. Being a vinyl collector himself, Stratton feels like vinyl is “more physical” than a digital copy, or even CDs.

The band ends their song. The audience stops dancing. The room once filled with music is now filling up with applause and whistles.

“Are we out of time?” Stratton looks off into the darkness of the theatre at an unseen figure. “We’re out of time,” he answers himself. The audience begins hollering for more music. Stratton looks over his shoulder at his band mates, shrugs, and continues to play his cowboy surf.

“Yippee-ki-yay.”