Work Hard and Be Kind Part 2: Be Kind

“It’s simple: work hard and be kind.”

Chris was the first person to introduce this mantra to me. This algorithm may be the closest thing to a ‘secret to success,’ and in my experience the artists who employ it build successful careers. You can read Part 1: Work Hard here. 

When I hear most people say, “be nice to everyone” they usually follow it up with an anecdote about the industry being small and you never know who a job can come from. While that is absolutely true (I’ll spare you my anecdotes), obtaining future work from good professional relationships should be a biproduct of being kind, not the main motivation. And people can feel the difference.

What comes out of our mouths sticks with people. Flippant hurtful remarks that we may never think twice about can churn around in a person’s psyche, on a conscious or subconscious level, for years or even decades. Like if you had friends who casually made fun of your appearance and it made you self-conscious about your own smile in photographs indefinitely… just a hypothetical.

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk writes about how the trauma that we experience, stays in our bodies – that on a conscious or subconscious level, we carry with us the hurt we experience in this world. 

“People can learn to control and change their behavior, but only if they feel safe enough to experiment with new solutions. The body keeps the score: If trauma is encoded in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching sensations, then our first priority is to help people move out of fight-or-flight states, reorganize their perception of danger, and manage relationships.”

Bessel van der Kolk

Our words are a powerful tool to help heal each other from the hurt we accumulate in this world. Chris seemed to inherently know this. He knew that in life and especially when working as artists. As the classic Meisner quote states, “Acting is the ability to behave absolutely truthfully under the imaginary circumstances.” It’s vulnerable to be truthful and authentic. When that personal part of ourselves that we present is belittled, degraded or “negged,” we internalize it. Those words stick with us whether the perpetrator believes it or not, and whether we believe it or not. We withdraw, and we take a step further from reaching our best potential. 

Chris got the best out of people because he was always helping them move a step closer to their potential through kind language. And because kindness is also action and not just words, he helped people remove personal blocks through specific exercises as well as consistently offered people opportunities they would otherwise think they’re unworthy of. Kindness is crucial to collaboration and collaboration is crucial to creating magic*.  

The late Thích Nhất Hạnh beautifully writes about the importance of kind language in his book, The Art of Communication.

“Nothing can survive without food. Everything we consume acts either to heal us or to poison us. We tend to think of nourishment only as what we take in through our mouths, but what we consume with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, and our bodies is also food. The conversations going on around us, and those we participate in, are also food. Are we consuming and creating the kind of food that is healthy for us and helps us grow? When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Art of Communication

What we say, post, tweet, text or write either nourish love or poison. If our thoughts and words shape our reality, when we want to change something about our life, reviewing what we are nourishing on daily basis with our words is a great place to start. 

Every rehearsal with Chris was a masterclass in how to create a positive, safe, supportive atmosphere where everyone was valued and where everyone was comfortable to be themselves. And I’ve always noticed that the interpersonal interactions of a collaborative group follow the tone that the leader sets. 

What is not lost on me is how much effort it takes to create this environment. Chris’ thousands of hours of education in collaborative work aside, it required planning exercises that would get our group to this free space. It also required that he participated fully with the group, demonstrating he was willing to get just as uncomfortable as he was asking us to get. It took being intentional with every word; with the way feedback was given, the way he responded to people’s questions/fears/challenges. It took knowing when and how to push someone to be better. And most importantly it took setting the ego aside and focusing on what the group needed.  

I can recall times where I mentioned something that happened in rehearsal that I thought conflicted with where Chris was trying to steer the creative ship so to speak, and he would often explain… over a double-double and a diet coke or a Betos burrito and a diet coke or a diet coke and a diet coke… how it was more important to have someone buy-in to the process and give it their all than to get exactly what he thought was best. That releasing the need to get his idea often led to something no one person could have created on their own. I think anyone who participated in a show with Chris or even saw one of his shows can testify to the validity of this approach. 

Even though I always thought he was the smartest in the room, Chris consistently taught me that the smartest entity in the room was the group when it was properly nourished. This takes trust and again, putting your ego aside. If words either nourish or poison, the extent to which we consistently choose nourishment is how successful our endeavor can become. Whether that endeavor is a film, a play, a friendship, a partnership, or parenthood.

There are communities, cultures, or companies where being a jerk to each other doesn’t matter if the work gets done. And sometimes it’s positively reinforced to push performance. We’ve all worked in these environments or with these colleagues. Whenever I see this, it’s evident that the perpetrators of this culture think it demonstrates skill or power. But nothing about this culture and this persona is impressive. Here’s why: 

It’s. So. Easy. To. Be. A. Jerk. 

It’s easy to be negative. To manipulate others to get what you want. To make that uncomfortable joke you think no one else thought of, to judge that person for being vulnerable or trying something risky, or to shoot down ideas because they aren’t yours. In fact, sometimes this is our knee-jerk reaction and we don’t even realize it. That’s fear at the wheel. Someone who is driven by fear believes they have to put someone down to get a leg up. 

There seems to be a misconception in our society that the loudest, most loquacious, most aggressive most abrasive voice must be the most knowledgeable, skillful, or successful. It’s easier to reward style than it is to reward substance. 

But this misconception is also driven by fear. Because it takes courage to be positive. To use kind inclusive language. To support others’ ideas without keeping score. To give enough space for everyone to share themselves. To not laugh at that shitty joke even if everyone else is. To not make that shitty joke. To check on colleagues after they experience a micro-aggression. To care enough to notice a micro-aggression. To go out of your way to recognize everyone’s contributions no matter how big or small. Or to be the same person to your colleague’s face that you are when they’re not around. 

In the dawn of the tech revolution, Mark Zuckerberg famously promoted the “move fast, break things” mantra. But in the “move fast, break things” culture, the only thing we end up breaking is each other.

The characters on the show Succession or the speakers at Alpha-con might opine that people who demand kindness and respect, are too sensitive, just need thicker skin, or aren’t cut out for the big leagues. When people say this, that’s their fear talking. They’re afraid that without this type of culture to protect them, without this armor of negativity surrounding them, that we will see what they’re really made of. 

Because a kind colleague isn’t threatened. A kind person has an abundance mentality; they don’t live with the fear that they won’t be able to create more if they don’t get what they want. They don’t believe that they must tear an idea down simply because it’s different or came from someone different than themselves. When a colleague is kind and generous, it demonstrates that they’re secure about their skills and knowledge. It demonstrates that they care more about what the group is building than their personal agenda. And as Jim Carrey says in the classic comedy Cable Guy that was too ahead of it’s time to be fully appreciated, “When your love is truly giving, it will come back to you tenfold.”

That’s courage and strength. That is a culture that leads to great success. That’s who others want to be friends with, work with, and create with. That’s why everything Chris created was magic*. And that’s why everyone wanted to create with Chris.

A few years into Chris’ battle with ALS, I got a random text from him that felt like a good-bye. I panicked at the thought that it was the end. I selfishly thought, “you can’t go now, there’s still so much I need to learn from you.” In this selfish panic, I asked through text what his secret was to helping so many people and touching so many lives. He couldn’t speak or move anything but his eyes at this point, so I now imagine how he patiently blinked out a response through his eye-to-text software, letter by letter. It read:

“Do your eyes light up when you see them?” 

The reference is from this Oprah Winfrey interview with Toni Morrison in which these two incredible women discuss self-worth and the power of reaching out to others (which will hands-down be the best two-and-a-half minutes of your day if you take the time to watch it). 

In this moment Chris reminded me of the importance of having the presence and care to let your face communicate the kindness to others that’s in your heart. To simply not be afraid to demonstrate it. Because everyone needs it. The light we show for others sticks with them… on a conscious or subconscious level. And it’s one of the simplest and most powerful kindnesses we can do for each other on a daily basis. If you talk to anyone about Chris, they’ll mention that spark in his eyes that he had for everyone. 

I’m going to close this post out with a piece written by Chris’ former student and colleague, and my former cast-mate, Elizabeth Golden. It’s a story about Chris that beautifully captures the things I’ve written about today. It was performed by Liz at a fundraiser for the Chris Clark scholarship, which is a program that selects one student from the UVU Theater department each year to go abroad and study directing in London and Edinburgh. 


by Liz Golden

Hi Chris!
(waving through a window.)
Or should I say Dr. Clark now? 

I’m standing outside of Chris’s office. I’m a 33 year old college student. I had acting styles with him this morning, and he’s asked me to see him in his office. Shiii…
He’s not wearing his glasses so he’s squinting up at me from his desk.
He finally says
Liz! Come in! I only knew it was you because of your huge hair.
He gets up to unlock his door and lets me in.
I love Chris’s office. It’s filled with Playbills, and posters, lots of Shakespeare stuff. He did his Masters degree in England, and he talks about it all the time. How he left a job at a book store to chase a crazy dream to direct Shakespeare. He raised some of his little ones there. He loves England so much that he’s made me fall in love with it.
I’ve never even been out of the country. 

He tells me that another student has left the program, making a $3000 scholarship available.
He wants me to have it.
Three thousand dollars.
I have three little kids and I’m not working. This is like three months of mortgage payments. Childcare, groceries. 

Thank you. Really, thank you.
I want to make it easier for you to be here. I want to help you finish your degree. 

Chris really made an impact on my life. 

Then he says Why are you a theater education major?
Because I want to be a high school drama teacher.
No you don’t.
No, I do. I need a grown-up job. 

I can’t just be an actor. Look me in the eye Chris and tell me I can be an actor.

You can be an actor.

Ok. I’ll change my major tonight.

And just like that I’m an actor. 

Then he slides this script across his desk and says I’m directing this in the Spring, and I really want you to audition.
Vincent in Brixton? Never heard of it.
I saw it in London. I’ve been wanting to direct it for a long time. 

Rehearsals are amazing. I’m doing things in this room I never thought possible.
Chris is telling us about his own experience with depression, and why this play means so much to him.
And now he’s telling us a ghost story.
And now he and Eric are laughing hysterically about some inside joke.
And now we’re in LA, remounting Vincent for the KCACTF competition.
And now we’re magically in the same shuttle to LAX with the Kennedy Center Representative that saw the show last night.
She says I see about 180 college productions a year. I’ve never seen anything like what I saw last night. It looks like she wants to say something else, but doesn’t.
A couple months later Chris is pulling me out of class and finds a quiet corner and tells me that that woman has awarded me best actress in a college show, and I’m going to the Kennedy Center in D.C!
I’m crying and he’s laughing at me because I’m crying. And then just before we go our separate ways he says, And we won best ensemble, best scenic design and best costume design.
And I won best director. And then he walks away. 

Chris really made a big impact on my life. 

I’m living in England, first semester of my MFA. My family and I love it here as much as Chris told me we would. I’m outside of a rehearsal studio at school, freaking out, because I’m about to go in there and play Shylock in the Merchant of Venice.
Chris, talk me off the ledge. These dummies cast me as Shylock and I’m going on stage in thirty minutes. What am I doing here?!
They cast you as Shylock?! Of course they did! You’ve got the hair for it!
You’re right where you should be. I wish I could see it, you’re going to be amazing. Record it for me! 

And just like that I’m a classically trained actor. 

A few months later I’m standing on a platform waiting for a train to Edinburgh when I get the news of Chris’s diagnosis. When I get to Edinburgh I’m going to send him a picture of me trying to look up someone’s kilt. 

Chris made such an impact on me. 

I’m home from England. See my shiny new Diploma? MFA in Acting.
I wanna teach. I wanna teach at UVU.
Hi Chris! Or should I say Dr. Chairman Clark?
He squints up at me. Smiles. I let myself in. 

I’ve brought my resume and evidence of my application for an adjunct position. I have a good speech prepared, but I don’t need it because he says
Yes! I want you to teach here. Give me a couple of days to approve your hire. Remember the acting styles class you took from me? I’m giving that one to you. 

And just like that, I’m a teacher. 

Chris had a huge…
impact isn’t the right word. An impact happens and then it’s over, right? This feels more like… an inheritance. Currency I can use to fund every play I make for the rest of my life. Something I can turn around and pass on to my students. A currency that has offered me a chance to live a life I couldn’t have if I never met Chris…

I’m about to do a monologue from Vincent in Brixton, but I want you to know that I know 

I know Chris, that you wouldn’t want me to do this monologue here tonight.
It’s so sad.
But I only ever played three roles for Chris. A depressed woman, a grieving mother and… a grieving mother.
So really this is your fault so you’re just going to have to sit through it.
And you, too.
So. This is the depressed woman from Vincent and Brixton.