Connor McCanlus has performing and Pittsburgh ingrained in his DNA. Since his family returned to the area when he was three years old, McCanlus has lived in every corner of the city and could probably host the funniest tour of the city given the opportunity. McCanlus was destined to become a performer; His mother was a dancer and one of the founding members of Dance Alloy and his father is a veteran musician. Some of McCanlus’ earliest memories are of being backstage or sitting in bars around town watching his parents perform. “I honestly have no other skills; I was a bad student in high school because I didn’t care about anything but [art],” said McCanlus. “I gave 110% to the shows that I did at school, the shows that I did in more extracurricular programs…I would also create shows with my friends on our own, so I had no time for math homework because I was busy doing art.”
Photo Credit: Louis Stein Photography
Idleness is not something McCanlus can tolerate. He compares himself to a shark that is required to keep moving in order to keep living. “I create opportunities for myself,” McCanlus said. “If I don’t have a project, I make a project.” It was this drive, the need to be on stage learning and working on his craft, that led him to join Steel City Improv after he attended Clarion University. He took classes and worked his way onto a house team and all of a sudden he was performing a weekly improv show. This exposure led to him landing his first major role with Unseam’d Shakespeare, thus launching his career on stage. McCanlus has worked as an intern and assistant stage manager with several theaters where he received his introduction to professional theater. He actually worked as David Whalen’s dresser during PICT’s production of Doubt and now finds himself a costar to a performer he once learned from as a young actor watching from backstage.
Improv theater is something that McCanlus is truly passionate about. He has taught classes, been a part of house teams and is currently a member of two independent teams; Well Known Strangers which has been performing at the Cabaret since 2014 and hosts the Pittsburgh Improv Jam, and a comedy duo called Baby Grand with Missy Moreno. McCanlus is also directing an upcoming improv project called #TheMusical, a musical theater show in which performers take to Twitter for inspiration and content. #TheMusical will have a beta test or “soft-open” on July 28th during the Pittsburgh Improv Jam.
McCanlus is aware of the negative stigma that many people attach to improv theater and is working to change the minds of theater goers in the Pittsburgh area and would also like to bridge the gap between actors and improvisers. “I am actively trying to do my part to get improv a better reputation in this town,” said McCanlus. “A lot of the people that have that opinion went to see one show and didn’t laugh so they think that it’s not for them which is insane because if you went to the movies and you saw a bad movie you wouldn’t go ‘I’m never going to see another movie again’.”
McCanlus has held a love for comedy from a very young age, beginning with SNL skits and parody music. He enjoyed parody music so much that his first concert was Weird Al Yankovic and he would anger his friends by singing along to the Rent soundtrack with the lyrics from the Forbidden Broadway version; they were the only lyrics he knew.
Photo Credit: Louis Stein Photography
Comedy, for many, is also a defense mechanism and this is definitely true in McCanlus’ case. Connor came out as queer at a very young age, sometime around 8th grade. It was not an easy experience for him; as one of very few out students in the entire school district he was both verbally and physically bullied and even had to change schools at one point. “A lot of comedians were kids that were awkward in middle school. Not the most attractive kid, not the most popular kid, so you use comedy to compensate. When I realized I was funny, I used that to carve my own way,” McCanlus explained. “I wasn’t going to be the hottest guy, but I could be the funniest. Comedy is a defense mechanism. I think a lot of what I do now came from me forcing myself to love myself. There was a long time when I didn’t because I was this young queer kid…”
These struggles really came to the surface during his role as Carrie White in Bricolage Productions Company’s production of SCarrie in 2014. “Just playing the victim that she is and her journey is just so heart wrenching,” said McCanlus. “It was hard to go through every night especially because I was a kid that was bullied…everyone else was in a comedy, I wasn’t”. McCanlus says he misses that character every day, but was glad when the show ended and he could let go.
Even now, confidence and self-love is a continuous process for McCanlus. In his current role as Sir Henry Baskerville in Kinetic Theatre Company’s production of The Hounds of the Baskervilles that opens this weekend, he is required to be on stage in nothing but a towel, something that may have been a deal breaker for him two years ago. “It took me a long time to like myself and it’s still a process I’m going through,” said McCanlus. “It’s this weird thing where we tell people to love [themselves], it’s actually not love yourself, it’s allow people to love you, allow other people to see you.”
Even with the success that McCanlus has experienced here in Pittsburgh, leaving the region for the sake of work has never been an option that he has taken seriously. He is a person who grew up in regional arts and assigns great value to the growth and development of art in the area. “Cities like New York and Chicago and LA have great theater but they can’t be the only place theater exists and they can’t be the place where everyone with talent goes,” said McCanlus “Pittsburgh allows me to continuously be working because it’s got a big enough art scene that there are theaters for me to work in and it’s got a small enough art scene that I can make myself opportunities.” If McCanlus remains on the path that he has continued to forge for himself, we can, and most definitely will look forward to a future full of laughs from one of Pittsburgh’s favorite funny people.
For more information about McCanlus’ upcoming performance in The Hound of Baskervilles click here.
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Photo credits: Louis Stein photography