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Remembering Christopher Clark, deceased titan of Utah theater

ALS got the best of Christopher Clark, but Clark always gave the best of himself

Christopher Clark, who passed away on June 5 as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Clark was a prolific, revered member of Utah County’s performing arts community, where he taught, directed, wrote and acted.
Justin Hackworth Photography

PROVO — Ten to 15 seconds of stunned silence, then thunderous applause.

That’s how Dave Tinney remembers the premiere of Christopher Clark’s “Nosferatu” a decade ago. Clark’s stage adaptation of the famous 1922 silent film earned Clark a Distinguished Directing Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

From within that rapturous crowd, Tinney looked up toward the balcony, where a solitary Clark was standing, “just kind of silently crying and taking it in and being grateful,” Tinney remembered.

“(He) never bragged about it, never flaunted it,” Tinney continued during a recent phone interview. “He just watched his students succeed, and I know that’s why he was feeling emotional — not because he had succeeded, but because his students had.”

It’s a fitting image of Clark, who passed away June 5 as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The longtime Provo resident left an enormous mark on Utah County’s performing arts community — both before and after his ALS diagnosis — through his prodigious and prolific directing, writing, teaching and acting.

In the film “Xanadu” — which was among Clark’s favorite artworks — Zeus proclaims, “That is the greatest achievement any of you might hope for: to love someone else and to create art.”

Clark did a whole lot of both.

Christopher Clark in a production of the play “A Month in the Country.”
Trevor Newsome Photography

Accomplished, irreverent, sincere

As a professor at Utah Valley University’s Department of Theatrical Arts, and for a while as the department’s chair, Clark fostered a renaissance of sorts for the department, Tinney recalled. Clark was well trained, having received a master’s degree in directing Shakespeare from the University of Exeter in England, as well as a Ph.D. in education leadership and theater from Brigham Young University.

He showed up in a wide variety of projects, both on stage and screen, from adaptations of the aforementioned “Xanadu” to videos for the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where he played the apostle Paul.

For all his accomplishments, Clark wasn’t stodgy. Quite the opposite. During faculty meetings, he and Tinney would pass each other irreverent notes and drawings — “like we were in high school,” Tinney said. “And the best reward I could ever get was to get him to laugh. Hearing him giggle, it was like winning an award.”

Kacey Spadafora, one of Clark’s former UVU students who now runs Provo’s An Other Theater Company, described Clark as “an instant mood changer.”

“You couldn’t be in a bad mood around Chris Clark,” he added. “You just couldn’t do it.”

Clark wasn’t one for preciousness. Lisa Hall, who succeeded Clark as UVU’s theatrical arts chair, recalled Clark’s unabashed love for “Xanadu,” the otherwise panned 1980 musical film starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. Clark helmed multiple stage productions of “Xanadu,” including a string of shows to raise money for his ALS care.

“Xanadu” isn’t always the family-friendly kind of show that Utah County typically delivers, Hall said, but “it’s a testament to (how Chris) just kind of got away with everything. He got away with everything like a kid gets away with stuff. You could go in angry, ready to talk to him about something, and two minutes later you’re laughing.

“The thing about ‘Xanadu’ is it’s irreverent, and at the same time it’s sincere,” she continued. “And I think that’s a perfect way of describing Chris.”

Tinney remembers attending these “Xanadu” benefit shows and coming face to face with everyone Clark had impacted — an impressively broad, undeniably strange collection of misfits who had all shown up to honor their friend. It was then, Tinney said, that he realized Clark was like a real-life version of Edward Bloom from the novel and film “Big Fish”: a man whose friendships and tall tales were both larger than life and, somehow, inexplicably true.

Magical thinking

Clark was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. It began his journey toward a debilitating, degenerative, ultimately irreversible end — but a journey that Clark still filled with humor, meaning, purpose and creativity.

One of Clark’s sisters, Stephanie Nielson, recalled when Clark gathered his siblings together to tell them about his diagnosis.

“He was on my mind when he told us that,” she said, “and he’s been on my mind every second after that.”

Nielson said she felt a special bond with Clark throughout his ALS journey, as Nielson had survived a nearly fatal plane crash in 2008 that left most of her body burned and required extensive operations and physical therapy. In some ways, their respective circumstances were like opposite sides of the same coin.

“And I had to fight to live, and I got better,” Nielson said. “And he deteriorated.”

Lisa Hall remembers seeing Clark act in a production of “A Month in the Country,” shortly after his ALS diagnosis. He used a cane, but it wasn’t just a prop this time.

“Then it wasn’t the cane, it was the scooter. And then it wasn’t the scooter, it was a wheelchair. And then he could talk, but not that well,” Hall said. “At each stage, I think I truly convinced myself that he could be in that stage indefinitely. … So there was grieving all along, but I think there was also this magical thinking — like, certainly it won’t actually end. So it’s been heartbreaking to have it actually end.”

For Spadafora, Clark’s passing came as a shock, despite its inevitability.

“He somehow tricked us all into thinking he’d be around forever, even when he had a terminal illness,” Spadafora said. “And even now, it kind of seems like I don’t believe that he’s not out there on his wheelchair, making a joke right now.”

Indeed, Clark never stopped joking.

“I would see him incrementally, and each time I would see a deterioration, but never the deterioration of the mind or the humor,” Tinney said.

Christopher Clark with his family in Provo.
Justin Hackworth Photography

Unfinished business

For a while after his ALS diagnosis, Clark continued directing plays. “Jumpers,” an ambitious stage adaptation of a 2003 New Yorker article about suicide, was Clark’s final directorial work for UVU’s main stage in late 2017, and he directed a few other plays throughout Utah County in 2018. And at the time of his passing, Clark was planning two different theatrical productions and writing a script.

For Clark — and for most people who are diagnosed with ALS — the disease also meant a lot more time spent with family. But according to those interviewed for this story, family had always been Clark’s first priority. He leaves behind a wife, Lisa Valentine Clark, and their five children.

In a 2019 email exchange with the Deseret News, Christopher Clark said losing his ability to speak was particularly difficult, because he missed having conversations with his family. However, he thought his ALS diagnosis, and all the changes it brought, also helped him become a better father in some ways.

“So much of parenting is in what you say. And how you say it,” Clark explained in the email. “I have learned to listen better, and not to turn their concerns or decisions back on myself, because I can’t. I write emails and texts, usually after I have had time to think. My kids are wonderful and don’t need a lot of discipline, but I want to talk to them. I want to help them. I want to be part of their lives.

“I think I understand what being a father is a little bit better now,” he added. “Being a father means loving your people, being around for them, really hearing them. I can’t hug my kids or tell them I love them, but I think they can feel it. It’s an important feeling and it matters.”

According to Tinney, Clark had the gift of making everyone feel like his best friend.

“And there was this very tangible boundary that seemed very close to him, that was never crossed,” Tinney continued, “and I know that that was the place that he reserved for his family.”

For those who knew Clark, and witnessed his boundless creative energy and relentless good humor, the association leaves a mark. Tinney recalled one particular moment, from years before Clark’s ALS diagnosis, when he saw Clark on campus at UVU, literally running from one building to another, where he was due to teach a class.

“And I remember distinctly thinking, ‘Why is he in such a hurry? Why is he so busy with so much? Does he have to pack it all in for some reason?’” Tinney said. “And I guess he did have to pack it all in.”

Christopher Clark, who passed away on June 5 as a result of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Clark was a prolific, revered member of Utah County’s performing arts community, where he taught, directed, wrote and acted.
Justin Hackworth Photography