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.”

A call for better access to abortions

International Women’s Day event shines light on the barriers women face for access to safe abortion services in many provinces.

Abortion services remain out of reach for many women in Canada, according to members of a panel at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, Sunday afternoon.

In recognition of International Women’s Day, the group discussed the barriers that continue to make it difficult for women to access safe abortion services in many provinces.

“Abortion was thoroughly criminalized in Canada until 1988,” said Dalhousie professor Archie Kaiser, who specializes in criminal and mental disability law. “The situation in Canada is not great now, but it’s improved significantly.”

Under the Canada Health Act, abortion is considered a medically necessary procedure, which means it should be funded by provincial health authorities and be equally accessible for women across the country.

Despite the legislation, Kaiser said it is challenging for many Canadian women to access the services they need.

He said the problems vary from province to province. In some parts of the country, few hospitals perform abortions, there are restrictions on medical insurance contributions when they are performed outside of a hospital, and there are few free-standing clinics.

Accessibility in Canada

A recent chart from the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada shows some regions are much better equipped than others.

Quebec provides the best access to abortions in the country. It has 31 hospitals and 36 clinics that perform the procedure.

British Columbia is the only province with bubble zones around clinics to ensure women can access the service without being harassed.

“I regret to say that in the Atlantic provinces, there are way fewer providers in our region than there should be,” said Kaiser.

According to statistics from the advocacy group Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, only four per cent of hospitals in New Brunswick, 21 per cent of hospitals in Newfoundland and Labrador, and 13 per cent of hospitals in Nova Scotia perform abortions.

One private clinic operates in New Brunswick and another in Newfoundland, but Nova Scotia has none.

There is no access for women in P.E.I., meaning women who need an abortion must travel from the island to New Brunswick or Nova Scotia.

Provincial governments fund out-of-province abortions but they do not pay for abortions at private clinics, where the procedure typically costs between $600 and $800.

 Accessibility in Halifax

Accessibility issues for women continue to be a problem even in provinces where abortion is available.

Kaleigh Trace, a disabled sex educator, author, and advocate for reproductive justice, lives in Halifax and had an abortion in Nova Scotia in 2011. She has written about it on her blog and spoke about her experience at Sunday’s event.

“I wasn’t unsure of myself. I was ready for it and I had a support system,” said Trace. “But with all of those things in place, it was still incredibly difficult.”

When Trace found out she was pregnant, she went to the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, an organization she had previously worked with, for an abortion referral. She said she was moved to the front of the list because of her connections.

“They bumped me on the list and I got to go in early. I experienced the privilege of knowing the right people and getting in on time.”

Despite that advantage, she found the referral process very frustrating. She was especially discouraged by the system’s need for her to justify her choice repeatedly.

“In abortion narratives we so often hear that someone’s single, young, poor, or disabled. I was all of those things, but those shouldn’t have to justify my choice. I could have made that choice if I was older, if I was married, if I was rich or able-bodied.”

Her experience at the Victoria General Hospital was generally positive, but she also said that the process was, at times,  lonely and scary.

“I was grateful for the kindness of the folks who work there, but because they have to protect themselves from the public, I had to be separated from my friends who came as my supporters. I didn’t know how to find them afterwards and you’re left alone at the end.”

Trace had her abortion at the same time that 40 Days For Life, an international group opposed to abortions, was running a campaign in the region. Because there are no bubble-zones in Halifax, there were protesters outside of the hospital on the day of her procedure.

“I think when you grow up experiencing systemic oppression, so if you’re disabled or a woman like I am, you can learn not to be ashamed of the decisions you make when society tells you they’re wrong,” said Trace. “But the force of people’s opposition to abortion is strong and I couldn’t not feel it.”

Trace felt she was better off going through the process than many women. She received a quick referral, lived close to the hospital, and spoke the same language as the doctors. Because of her disability, she was also used to navigating hospitals alone.

“I had all these points of privilege and still it was hard, which I think speaks to how hard it is.”

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Accessibility in the future

Trace said she believes education and more open and respectful conversations about women’s bodies could help create changes in the medical system and society’s treatment of abortion.

“If we started getting better sex education at a younger age, I genuinely believe access to abortion would be different and the way we understand women’s rights would be different,” she said.

 Kaiser said that the current flaws in the system are dangerous. He is concerned that accessibility could keep getting worse.

“The right to abortion in principle can be taken away by whittling away the access points at many levels,” he said. “Many countries at similar levels of development have seen attacks on the kinds of freedoms that women have won through their hard efforts here in Canada.”

Trace hopes that accessibility to abortion across the country only improves from its current state.

“It’s mind-boggling that if someone has a vulva, they are denied safe and easy access to reproductive justice in Canada. It’s embarrassing that something our grandmothers fought for is still something we are fighting for,” she said.

“Bodily autonomy is a human right. Your body, your choice is not a concept that should not be up for debate.”

The organizers

The organizers of Sunday’s event, members of the Dalhousie Feminist Legal Association (DFLA) and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), agree with Trace.

LEAF Halifax advocates for the equal rights of women in Canada. It reformed its dormant branch in April 2014 when the Morgentaler clinic in Fredericton announced it was closing.

“We wanted to use it as a platform to do action on reproductive justice and a lot has happened over the past year,” said Martha Paynter, LEAF Halifax’s co-chair.

LEAF Halifax tried to help the Morgentaler clinic stay open. When it closed its doors in July, the group helped raise $125 000 to buy the space and open a new private medical centre, Clinic 554, in its place.

“The other thing that happened was the election in New Brunswick,” said Paynter. “The Conservative government fell and I think abortion was a huge election issue. The new Liberal government has started to repeal some of the restrictions the province has had for eons.”

The changes in policy mean women no longer need the permission of two physicians to have a publicly funded procedure in the hospitals in Moncton or Bathurst.

Paynter said her organization and pro-choice advocates should celebrate the victories they have had over the past year, but she still thinks there is work to be done.

“The clinic that operates in Fredericton should be publicly funded and that’s just New Brunswick,” she said.

“There are also major access issues in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and we’re glad people are here to talk about it today.”