Dr. Christopher Layton Clark (theater doctor, not the useful kind) died Friday night, a little over four years after being diagnosed with ALS and two days after his 25th wedding anniversary. I feel a little presumptuous claiming to have lost a “good friend” when there are so many people who knew Chris longer or better than I did. He WAS a good friend, and we were close — but I’m much closer to his wife, Lisa Valentine Clark. She and I were in the Garrens Comedy Troupe together, and at first Chris was merely my friend’s husband. But Chris and Lisa were a package deal, and before long I loved him, too. They were one of the few married couples I’ve ever known where I genuinely enjoyed hanging out with both of them as much as I enjoyed hanging out with one of them.
I met Lisa in the fall of 1995, when I returned to BYU after my LDS mission (Philadelphia) and rejoined the Garrens, which Lisa had joined in my absence. We hit it off immediately and became “best girlfriends,” which was a jokey thing at the time because I was ostensibly straight. Lisa was newly married to Chris, who was never the least bit jealous. It wasn’t just that he intuited I was no threat, either: He was that way with all of Lisa’s male friends and castmates, even the few who were verifiably heterosexual and handsome. There was perfect trust and affection between them, none of the petty jealousies you see in sitcoms (and, if we’re being honest, in a lot of young married twentysomethings). Later, when I saw “The Thin Man” (1934) and delighted in Nick and Nora Charles’ similarly unpretentious marriage, I thought: Wow, they remind me of the Clarks!
My actual first introduction to Chris was Garrens-related. He wasn’t in the group (and kind of made fun of it), but he helped out a few times in those days. One such time, in November 1995, was when the Garrens had an “away” show at a church cultural hall in Orem (somebody’s ward activity?). They needed bodies for a particular sketch — spear carriers, basically, in theater parlance — and Chris and I were recruited. We met each other right before the show and then stood at the back of the stage together for that sketch, being henchmen.
What’s interesting about that incident is that I think it’s the only time he and I ever performed together. I was onstage a lot the next several years, and he was in some plays before directing dozens of them on his way to becoming a theater professor and head of the theater department at Utah Valley University, but I was never involved in anything he did except as an audience member. (I don’t think I ever reviewed a show he directed; he didn’t start doing that locally till after my stint as a theater critic was over.)
That’s why I’m envious of my friends who were in plays with him, who got to have all the fun experiences associated with slappin’ a show together. By all accounts Chris was beloved by everyone who worked under him, and many cast and crew members did multiple shows with him. I would love to have a trove of those memories for myself.
Then again, much of my friendship with Lisa developed because we’d hang out while Chris was at rehearsal. I remember once in about 1997 I was at their apartment, before they had kids, when Chris got home from play practice. We saw him out the window, saw him recognize my car, and somehow we all three had the same idea: to pretend that I was having an affair with Lisa. I hid behind the couch, Lisa acted exaggeratedly furtive, and Chris stomped around bellowing, “WHERE ARE YOU, SNIDER? I SAW YOUR CAR OUTSIDE!!”
Another time, a few years later, when I lived in the same condos as the Clarks, Lisa came bustling over one wintry evening for a Tivo-watching session. When I opened the door, she looked cold and lost, snow in her hair, bundled up in jackets and scarves and cradling her latest baby in her arms. Leaning into the character, she came hurrying in and said melodramatically, “I’ve finally done it! I’ve left him!” We laughed and laughed.
This running gag of Lisa’s and my affair continued, and continued to be hilarious, for the rest of Chris’ life, and is in fact still hilarious now. We joked often about this or that of their five children actually being mine. (This probably became funnier to other people once I was openly gay.) True story: Their third child was conceived, as near as they could pinpoint, during the few days that I was visiting them in Dawlish, England, in March 2002, where they lived for a year while Chris was getting his master’s degree. So I’m not that child’s father, but I was in the next room when it happened. (The perfect punchline to this is that the child looks exactly like Chris anyway.)
One thing I admired about Chris was his loyalty to his family. Joking aside, he took his responsibilities as husband and father seriously. When some of our cohorts were living off their wives while they “became” “actors,” Chris was working at places like Barnes & Noble to put food on the table. (Everyone who worked for him at B&N loved him, too. This is verified.) Later he fulfilled his dream of making a living in the theater, none the worse for having done it only his spare time those several years.
(A favorite B&N story of his was from the early 2000s. A grandmother type called on the phone asking for the new “Harvey Porter” book.
CHRIS: Do you mean Harry Potter?
HER: No, it’s Harvey Porter, I wrote it down.
CHRIS: Are you sure? Because Harry Potter is very popular right now, but I’ve never heard of–
HER: No, I’m looking for the Harvey Porter book! Do you have it?
CHRIS: Let me check. [checks] We don’t, sorry! [click]
To this day when I think of Harry Potter I often think “Harvey Porter,” too, said in Chris’s perfect imitation of a Utah grandma accent.)
I wasn’t in any shows with Chris, but I watched a lot of shows with him. He accompanied me to a 1999 production of the musical “Star Child,” the sequel to the also-LDS-themed (and much more famous) “Saturday’s Warrior,” which I was reviewing for a newspaper in Utah whose name escapes me. The production was terrible (it might be a terrible show anyway), but what was memorable for me and Chris was that the girl directly in front of us spent the whole show farting like a maniac. We didn’t hear them, but they made their presence known in other ways. At first we each assumed the smell was coming from the other, but through a series of silently exchanged glances and gestures we identified the culprit. During intermission we fantasized about picking her up and squeezing the rest of the farts out of her like a bagpipe.
Chris also joined me for a few days in 2000 in Cedar City for the Utah Shakespearean Festival. I covered it every year for the aforementioned newspaper and was glad to have a Shakespeare expert accompanying me this time. One of our most cherished memories was exiting “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and hearing a teenage girl say to her friend, “That was sad. I felt bad for Sir John Whatever” — referring to Falstaff, who is called “Sir John” in the play a few times and “Falstaff” about a thousand times, and who is definitely not a tragic figure.
Chris was the best at telling stories and amusing anecdotes. We semi-earnestly believed that God made bizarre things happen to Chris because He knew they wouldn’t be wasted on him. Stories from his LDS mission (Finland, so all the stories involve saunas and nudity), from his life (he got shot once, but only mildly), his work, his career, everything. He was so funny. One of the cruelest things about ALS was that it took his voice. Yet he adapted, applying his innate comic timing to his computer-voice and learning just the right moment to press “play” and break up the room.
He was also incredibly smart and well-read and compassionate and honest and multi-talented. I’d known him for years before I learned that he almost became a classical pianist before choosing theater. He hid his humility sometimes by being comically arrogant, demanding birthday festivities and whatnot in a way that was absurd enough for you to know he was (mostly) kidding (he was not kidding).
In July 2012, when he turned 40, Lisa threw him a big party in their backyard and invited some of the many, many theaters types who loved him to come perform. I lived in Portland then, but it worked out that I could be in town for the gala, so I wrote a song using a tune I’d come up with and had been looking for a place to use. You can hear the song here. I won’t try to explain all the inside jokes (that’s your problem for not being Chris’ friend), but I will mention that I reused the tune recently for my quarantine song. I worked hard on the quarantine song and obviously got much more use out of it than the niche birthday tribute, but when the music plays in my head, it’s still the Christopher Layton Clark version.
Chris was a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (he played the apostle Paul in some New Testament videos a few years ago, photos of which appeared in last year’s “Come, Follow Me” manual), but except for having been born and raised in Provo, he didn’t fit many of the stereotypes. He believed in astrology and palm-reading. He had a raucous sense of humor. He was a theater guy, you know? Things that needed to be treated reverently, he treated reverently. But what he often demonstrated was that the list of those things was shorter than you thought.
Of the few photos I have of me and Chris, most are actually of me and Lisa and Chris happens to be there. We took photos when he and I palled around London after that child-spawning Dawlish visit, but they’re almost all pics he took of me and vice versa, not of the two of us. The only exception I could find is this one, from the Tower of London, one of his favorite places in his favorite city. I don’t remember who’s in the painting, or why we chose to stand in front of him, but I’m sure we had a very funny reason for it.