Life

Popular local director, professor discusses family and faith

2012-09-30T00:25:00Z 2013-04-03T15:59:39Z Popular local director, professor discusses family and faithKimberly Christenson - Correspondent Daily Herald
September 30, 2012 12:25 am  • 

Christopher Clark has done some impressive things in his 40 years. He performed at the famed Globe Theatre in London. He has mingled with movie stars like Steve Martin, Jennifer Aniston and Jude Law, just to name a few. He has directed 33 plays, some of which have made him nationally renowned as a forward- thinking director who reinterprets scripts (Shakespearean and otherwise) into unique, captivating productions. But despite his laudable achievements, "stuffy" could never be used to describe someone like Clark. He's 5-feet, 10-inches tall with a clean-shaven head and artsy, rectangular black-rimmed glasses. His greeting is an energetic hello and a genuine smile. His calm, warm demeanor puts anyone in his company at ease and with his natural humor, you'll inevitably be laughing together within minutes of meeting him.

When he isn't donning his director's hat, "Topher" is a lot like any other Latter-day Saint family man. He loves going to the movies with his wife, spending time with his five children, and he calls himself an "NFL freak."

Now, as the new chair of the theater department at Utah Valley University, Clark spends the bulk of his time planning and directing productions, teaching classes and traveling to London once a year to show his students the diversity of London theatrics. And although he is also an actor, professor, blogger, producer and voiceover professional, Clark considers himself primarily a director. Clark directed his first production at Sundance this summer, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," and is now directing "Vincent in Brixton" at Utah Valley University.   

Chris's own love for acting is inherent -- he said he doesn't remember a time in his life when he wasn't interested in theater. He has early memories of doing plays with his sisters in the front room and directing plays he wrote for his history class in sixth grade.

"He's a born storyteller," says Clark's sister, Courtney Kendrick (a professional blogger). "When he's not creating, directing or writing stories, he's telling them, always to an adoring audience. You'll never meet someone who doesn't love him. But he's also very private, and quiet, tenderhearted and intelligent. Just because he easily attracts attention doesn't mean he always likes it. I would say most of the time he avoids the limelight, which is why it's such a mystery how the limelight always seems to find him."

Clark took a detour from the limelight of his theater scholarship at Brigham Young University and decided to switch his major to English while serving a mission in Helsinki, Finland, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I had this sort of sense that I was being impractical," Chris says, "that going into the arts or theater specifically was being impractical -- that I couldn't raise a family."

It was a good move, because Clark met his wife, Lisa Valentine Clark, during a Biblical pageant play in the English Society -- Clark was the devil and his future wife was a chicken on Noah's ark. Talk about romantic.

After receiving his English degree and spending four years in the retail management industry, Clark decided it was time to get back to what he was passionate about. Grateful for his wife's support, Clark moved his family to England and got his degree in directing Shakespeare from the University of Exeter, where he was able to spend time performing at the Globe Theatre.

"One thing I love about the Globe is they have this really strong emphasis on original practice, doing Shakespeare the way Shakespeare wrote it in his day," Clark said. "There is a very particular performance style that we've lost over the years and they are trying to retain that at the Globe. For example, everything is very audience-interactive. You talk directly to the audience. You can touch the audience and you can pull them up on the stage. There is no fourth wall. It wasn't stuffy. It wasn't snooty. They wanted their audience to have a really fun, enjoyable time at the theater."

The insight Clark gained in England served him well when he returned to Utah to earn his Ph.D. in educational leadership and started directing BYU's Young Shakespeare Company -- a traveling group of BYU students that performs Shakespeare plays adapted for younger audiences.

"It was a huge challenge to re-imagine the show for that audience," Clark said. "We made things very visual, because it's a very visual generation. They are used to TV and video games. I also found that it was dangerous for us to ever talk down to the audience. If we tried to dumb things down for the kids, they weren't very responsive. They were on to us."

Reinventing existing plays into innovative performances has become Clark's forte.  

"I love taking things that already exist then sort of recreating them," Clark says. "I don't love jobs where I have to just take a script and deliver it as it is written. If there is nothing I can do with it, I'm not really excited to work on it. People don't keep repainting the Mona Lisa in the same way. Theater is a living art! So it's my job to keep it alive, or to breathe new life into it. It's hard when audiences have certain preconceived expectations. But if I can show them that their favorite pieces can be done in new and interesting ways, I feel really happy about the experience."

One production Clark has received recognition for is his stage adaptation of the 1922 silent black-and-white film, "Nosferatu," a German adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Clark set up the production as a live film shoot -- actors were filmed on stage in real time while the production was projected on a screen as a finished film.

"On stage, it was like watching a film shoot," Clark says. "There were all these different set-ups happening, so you could watch that and when you watched the screen it looked like a movie. So you could choose to watch the process or the product. We recreated 'Nosferatu' shot by shot. If you were to watch that movie and our movie at the same time, you would see that it was identical. It was an enormous challenge, but so much fun to work on." 

Clark has also directed plays for the Utah Shakespeare Company, the Hale Center theater locations (both in the Orem and West Valley) and Sundance.

"People were so surprised with the show at Sundance," Clark said. "Some people would say, 'That was Broadway quality. Those actors were Broadway quality.' And I don't think they were exaggerating. We have a lot of local talent that's as good as anything we will see in the bigger cities. And you can chalk that up to the [LDS] Church -- a lot of people do because the church pushes art -- but I think parents here encourage their kids into the arts in a way they don't in other places. I just think it's exciting the way the arts are flourishing in Utah. We're very, very lucky." 

If you are lucky enough to see one of Clark's performances today, chances are, you won't see him there.

"I don't go back to performances very often once the show is going because I feel like my job is done," Clark says. "I have to be happy with what I deliver on opening night and stick by it. I also think it's dangerous for directors to go to every performance and give notes to the actors because the actors don't get a sense of completion. They never get a sense that they created something. It's important for directors to turn the show over to the actors and say, 'OK, this is your show now, take it and do what you are going to do with it.' "

This actor-centered approach to directing is something Clark's students appreciate about him. Eric Phillips, a senior at UVU majoring in performance for stage and screen, says he felt like his career turned a corner when he took Clark's Acting II class.

"He has helped me in so many ways, not just as an actor but as an artist," Phillips said. "He is so personal when he is helping me and each of his students. There's no generalizing in his teaching -- it's all genuine, personalized and focused on you and helping you be the best you can possibly be. It's like he has a knack for giving you an 'actor's diagnosis' or something -- what you need and how it will help you."

With every production he undertakes, Clark's goal is to create a palpable connection between the actors on stage as well as the actors and their audience. This philosophy was born when Clark did a six-week intensive workshop with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

"One thing I learned with them is that if acting is going to be good, it can't be selfish. If I'm on stage and I make everything I do about me, the audience can sense that and they're turned off by it," Clark said. "If I am trying to give a gift to them or if I am really listening and responding to the person I am on stage with and helping them create a beautiful performance, the audience can sense that as well. I used to have the sense that acting was getting on stage, learning some lines and sort of showing off. But that's really only exciting for the person doing it. The more actors learn how to get out of themselves and give freely to other actors on stage and share things with the audience, the better their performances are going to be. I feel like it's our job here at UVU to train actors that way."

Another important component of Clark's process of creating a powerful production is being open to inspiration.

"I think a lot of my work as a director relies on inspiration," Clark said. "Some people might call that intuition, but I sometimes feel like I am spiritually inspired to do certain things on stage. And I know that might sound shallow to some people who think that maybe the Spirit doesn't care about my 'stupid play,' but I think theater is such a great tool for teaching and for helping people improve their lives that I absolutely think that God can inspire me to have certain ideas or give certain direction so the show will sustain the Spirit."

When asked what motivates him to undertake each new project, Clark says his naturally creative personality never tires of it.

"Each new project is exciting for me," Clark says. "I need breaks between projects, but I am already looking ahead at these shows I am doing next year -- how I want them to look and how I want them to feel and how I want them to sound. It's just the way my brain works. I am always excited to be creating something. I feel very lucky I get to use my talents as my living. And that's a huge motivation for me -- I'm given opportunities and I don't want to waste them."

Clark's talents have in no uncertain terms been wasted on his students and spectators from the time he started directing his sisters in living-room plays.

"Utah Valley and Provo, in particular, is seeing a renaissance of culture," Kendrick says. "We have nationally and globally celebrated artists, musicians, chefs, bloggers, writers and entrepreneurs. I see my brother carrying the banner of theater -- he's leading the front for that genre. And he couldn't do this without a supportive wife and family, his genius and his ability to lead. I am so proud to be his sister that it takes all I have not to stand up at the end of the production, reveal myself to the crowd and yell, 'That's my brother!' "

As he continues to influence the community, his students and the future of the theater program at UVU, Clark's mantra is well summed up in his favorite line from Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing": "Serve God, love me and mend."

"It's kind of our job," Clark said. "Serve God, love each other and mend any problem we run into."

Clark's next production, "Vincent in Brixton," which is based on the unexpected, true love story between Vincent van Gogh and his landlady, runs through Oct. 6 at Utah Valley University.

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