This article was written by Kianna Turner
Conner Christmas is a 2017 graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Arts program from the University of Lethbridge. He started his stand-up comedy and acting career in Lethbridge. Since graduating, he has performed theatre internationally and been on TV series featured on Netflix, Spectrum TV, CBC, and Disney+. He has been all over the country to perform stand-up. Conner will be performing his first headline weekend at Goodtimes Comedy Club in Lethbridge on March 4th & 5th! By doing this interview, he hopes to inspire and encourage other fine arts students and spread the word that there is a bustling comedy club in Lethbridge that brings in nationally touring comedians.
What made you choose the program?
My parents wanted me to go to school, and if I was going to go to school for anything, it would be for something that, you know, I enjoyed doing. So, fine arts and performance was something that I really enjoyed but didn’t really get until high school because I grew up in a small town. It was like, Let’s go for it. Why not?
How involved were you in high school drama programs?
I grew up in High River and went to middle school in Cayley, a small hamlet. We didn’t have much in the way of drama courses then. I think the first thing I ever did was in grade eight. Our vice principal taught our English class, and she was far too busy to teach us drama, so she got a bunch of parent volunteers. We did a musical. It was this weird 50s themed fairytale musical, and I got really involved. I chose to stay at recess to choreograph everything, change lines, the whole shebang. I would be like, “can we hold on for a minute, Miss Hawfort? I think we should do this instead.” I got really bossy about it. And then, in high school, there was an actual drama program. I got to do that and started with improv, which led me to comedy.
How did you find your experience in the U of L program overall?
I really enjoyed it. It was a smaller faculty, so you get more one-on-one time and smaller group time with your professors. And, of course, this was pre-pandemic. So we were in the studios, and you know, rolling around on the ground, doing all the weird drama stuff. You got to explore a lot in the drama program. The faculty at U of L emphasized and encouraged your own creation and your own artistic voice, which I don’t think a lot of acting programs usually do. So, I thought it was an excellent program to grow. There are a lot of other performing programs that offer a specific acting style that they want you to adopt, but the artistic freedom in this program seems to be the main difference between the other ones. Other programs in Alberta seem focused on specifically acting and not as much on creating your own material. In Lethbridge, we got to do scene study and devised creation work where you get a good group of collaborators and make something based on collective inspiration.
What else do you learn in the program that you think is worth sharing?
I find it so funny that this is in university, but I got to do a full course on clowning taught by Gail Hanrahan. It’s not like a circus clown. It’s a style of theatre clown. It has actually influenced a lot of my stand-up, which I’m getting into more at this point in my career. But yeah, that was a ridiculous class. We got to do so many fun things!
What was most valuable about the program that you got out of it?
I would say the facilities, the availability of the professors, and then the people you’re around. You get to kind of “grow up” through the four or five years, however long it takes. But yeah, I think you’re just surrounded by artists or whatever faculty you’re a part of. Those connections are really valuable.
Do you think there would be anything lacking in the online versions of the courses compared to the in-person experience?
I think so. Having that group of people around you is important for it, especially for an arts program. In a lot of our classes, we had attendance mandates. So if you didn’t show up to three classes without a doctor’s note or valid excuse, then you failed the class because you’re doing group projects with people. If you’re not there to rehearse, then, you know, that’s letting them down as well. So now that you can’t even be in a studio is, it’s pretty wild.
Do you think online learning provides less accountability and less networking?
Yeah, I think so. A lot of the drama program at U of L is theatre-focused and stage-focused. That togetherness within a room is integral to a lot of the growth and exercises you do.
What is something you wish you got to learn but didn’t?
As soon as I was on my way out, they stopped offering the film acting for the camera class. I ended up retaking a course that I already took just as a filler. But yeah, I hope they would go back into some film techniques and learn about that side of things. In Alberta, that’s how you will be making money, as an actor specifically. Theatre is a great base for your acting training. I think any actor says that, but there is a different skill to film because it’s so much more in your face. It’s much more visual, more subtle. In theatre, you have to play to the people in the back row, but everyone has that front row seat in film. So I think they should also focus a little more on that just because Alberta has a robust film scene growing.
Do you think it was valuable to complete the program to gain employment in the entertainment industry?
I’ve seen some people in the program who left and just went in on the ground floor trying to get work, and some are successful in that way. However, schooling helped me personally. It helped me mature into taking what I was doing seriously. In my last few years, I used it to transition into doing professional work. I worked with Jay Whitehead, who’s a tenured professor there. He has a theatre company in Lethbridge that produces queer work and features local artists in many of his plays; I worked with him a lot. I also got to go to the international Dublin Gate Theatre Festival and perform in Dublin at the Trinity University where Oscar Wilde went, so that was pretty cool. So I think yeah, it was very valuable for my career. Personally, it helped me gain employment, but that’s not for everyone.
What made you interested in comedy and acting?
If TikTok were a thing when I was a kid, I probably would’ve been posting lip sync videos and doing sketches and stuff like that. My interest in performing was always there. I always liked to play make-believe as a kid at recess, like invisible bad guys and things like that. And then, as soon as I got a class where I could focus on that, I think it channelled a lot of that energy. I started doing improv and stand-up around 2014, and it gave development to my comedic voice and allowed me to take risks in that way.
Was it nerve-wracking at first when you started doing acting and comedy?
Oh, yeah, for sure, comedy especially. Being alone on stage in stand-up comedy is the hardest thing to do. I did my first set at a drama event. It was a toonie theatre; it was so bad. Every bad thing that could happen as a performer did. I mean, you have to push through those barriers, and then you grow from those experiences. I’m also very stubborn, so I wanted to prove them wrong. It’s still nerve-wracking now, depending on the show, for sure. And I’ve started acting. It’s more of an exciting kind of nerves. I’ve learned to turn it into that with stand-up too. Lately, I’ve been doing some shows that are getting a little nerve-wracking. I’ve started to go out to many different small towns within Alberta and British Columbia. When doing stuff like that, you never really know the demographic you’re playing for, so it can be a little daunting to wonder if they will like me and my jokes.
Do you have any tips to combat feelings of anxiety when performing?
As an expression, if you turn the opposite side of the nerve coin, the opposite side is excitement. So I think learning to turn it into daring to go again rather than backing down is crucial because anxious feelings will happen. You go on stage, and you have to do whatever it is, stand-up or improv. Once they say, “it’s call time, the show starts now,” the nervous feeling is going to happen, so you might as well make the show good regardless.
How do you handle the situation if you mess up a line?
It’s good with comedy because you can make fun of the fact that you mess up stuff or something wasn’t funny. And then with acting, if you’re doing something more dramatic, it’s much more challenging to recover from. Still, you have to relax into it. Trust that people have your back and go with the flow as long as you have people there. I’ve been in a lot of plays where we had to jump ahead pages of dialogue but then end up circling back and going through it, making it not very noticeable. There’s a lot of trust there. And then when you’re doing stand up, you have to rely on, you know, charm, I guess. I always say, “you fail with grace.”
You have performed internationally and across the country; where are some of the places you have performed?
In Dublin, I got to do the theatre festival. I have also performed in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto. I have performed in Lethbridge quite often, all around Calgary and other places in Alberta, and now I’m starting to venture into the British Columbia scene a little bit. So a lot of travel, I like travelling. I think it’s a great perk of the job. You get to meet everyone from all these small communities, and everyone’s super friendly for the most part. I love being able to say, “Hey, I’m going to be in this city,” and text a bunch of friends and see them when I’m there.
What TV series were you involved with?
I’ve been on a couple of different series. The first Canadian major network was the Fortunate Son on CBC. It’s a 60s drama about people draft-dodging across the border during the Vietnam War. I was on season two of Black Summer, a zombie TV show on Netflix, Paramount, plus I did a little thing on Joe Pickett. There will be another streaming on Disney+ (2022/2023), but I can’t say the name right now due to nondisclosure agreements. So that’s pretty exciting.
How do you find your roles? Do you have an agent, or do you find them independently?
It’s a little bit of both. With the major networks, that’s mainly through my agent. She has a relationship with the casting directors, although I know many of them now. But then there are independent projects that I might find or be approached for, and I’ll sometimes do those as well.
Is it hard to find an agent?
It depends. I think Calgary is a good place to find one out of school. You can get an agent fairly easily because there’s a lot of work here if you don’t mind starting with background work, then that can get you going right away. If you want to focus on getting smaller roles with lines or reoccurring characters, then telling your agent to focus on that only can get a little harder. There are fewer of those roles for local people in Alberta, which kind of stinks. All of those big American shows filmed here will often bring in actors from elsewhere for the main characters.
What would you like people to know about your upcoming headline at Goodtimes in Lethbridge on March 4th and 5th?
You should come! It’s going to be a lot of fun. I will be making jokes that I’ve been working on since I lived in Lethbridge five years ago that have changed and grown, plus I’m going to be doing a lot of new stuff. Even if you have seen me before, still come out. I have some excellent friends and really good commenters on the show. It’s going to be a blast, and the university is on strike, so you don’t have anything else to do. Students definitely need a good laugh right now.
What tips would you give to people starting their career in stand-up or acting?
Just commit to it. Find the time to make it happen. Often, once you get an agent, you will get an audition that’s due in two days. So you have to find the time to commit to doing it. I would also say keep up all of the stuff you have to do in your courses. Do all of those stretches and the breathwork. Do the things that you don’t think you’ll have to do after school. Keep doing it because it’s going to help you for sure. It keeps you in that mind state of “I’m an actor, this is what I do.” It’s like anything. If you’re a bodybuilder, you have to go to the gym; so if you’re an actor, you have to do those voice exercises, you have to do those stretches, you have to make sure you can move. You are an artistic athlete.