By Megan Delaire
Several members of the Algonquin community helped bring laughter to Sparks Street for the early publicity launch of February’s Cracking up the Capital four-day comedy festival on Oct. 11.
Cracking up the Capital had its humble beginnings in 2004 as as a single-day event, and continued this way for the following eight years. Last year the organizers experimented with a four-day roster of nightly comedy shows and saw success in a high level of attendance.
“We’re extremely pleased with the result we had last year,” said festival president and founder John Helmkay. “We had over 3000 people in attendance at our four events, which was pretty spectacular. We had a lot of engagement of the local community: our community partners and their clients, volunteers and supporters.”
This year marks Cracking up the Capital’s 10th anniversary, and its second year as a four-day festival. The festival will take place from Feb. 5-8. With its goal being to raise awareness and funds for mental health in the National Capital region, Cracking up the Capital has partnered with Royal Ottawa Hospital, Youth Services Bureau, Amethyst Women’s Addiction Centre, Dave Smith Youth Treatment Centre and Wabano Aboriginal Centre.
Last year, Algonquin became involved with Cracking up the Capital in a big way when it hosted one of the festival’s four events in its Student Commons Theatre. The sold-out improv competition, the Improv Games, featured teams from the University of Ottawa and Carleton and was hosted by Canadian comedian Colin Mochrie. Helmkay said it was one of the most successful events that year.
“We were particularly pleased with the response we had on our improv games. I think that theatre actually was the most sold out percentage-wise. We had like 95 per-cent of the seats sold on that show, which was the best of all of our four shows, percentage-wise.”
The Improv Games will return to Algonquin next February, this time with host Patrick McKenna of the Red Green Show.
While the festival is not an Algonquin event, a former professor and at least three students have each volunteered their time and skills to make it happen, from this month’s launch to show-time on Feb. 5 and beyond.
Susan Murphy is in charge of all social media for Cracking up the Capital. She is the woman behind the festival’s online presense. Murphy was teaching in Algonquin’s interactive multimedia program when she met fellow organizer Joe Holubowich and first learned how her skills could help the cause.
“I was teaching social media night courses and Joe, who is our sponsorship coordinator, was taking one of my social media courses so that he could learn more about it so he could promote the festival better. And just through conversations with him, then I met John [Helmkay] and I couldn’t resist. I was like, ‘Where do I sign up? I have to be part of this.’ The rest is history I guess.”
Holubowich’s daughter, Algonquin nursing student Stefania Holubowich, is another member of the core group of Cracking up the Capital’s volunteer organizers.
Algonquin students were also present in a very visible way at the launch on Oct. 11.
The event began with some stand-up comedy by Ali Hassan, of CBC’s Laugh out Loud. Following this, Mayor Jim Watson took the stage to announce the return of Cracking up the Capital in February. The event turned theatrical when Watson was interrupted mid-address by a booming Mary Walsh in full Spartan-warrior-princess costume as her alias Marg Delahunty. Flanking Walsh were Algonquin social work student Fil Szadurski and former Algonquin police foundations student James William, dressed as Spartan guards.
Szadurski wasn’t worried that the use of humour to raise awareness of mental health issues would be seen as insensitive or controversial.
“We live in a society where we’ve got to use the tools that work the best,” said Szadurski. “And to be honest, humour is a healing tool. But not only is it a healing tool, it gets people’s attention.”
Comedian Walsh expressed a similar sentiment in an exclusive interview with the Algonquin Times.
“What comedy can do is shine a light. And comedy is inclusive. It’s very inclusive and everybody comes into the tent,” said Walsh, adding that comedy could be a useful tool for helping the public face the reality of mental health problems.
“We will at some point stop the stigma against mental illness and addiction.”