From prison to stage, courtesy of Beckett

While residing in Paris, Samuel Beckett’s wife attended a performance of «Endgame,» held in his honor at the American Cultural Center. She liked what she saw and the next day Beckett called the director, Rick Cluchey, and arranged a meeting. From this meeting arose a collaboration and friendship that changed the life of Cluchey, an award-winning actor, director and playwright who continues to propagate Beckett’s work far and wide. Today and tomorrow Cluchey is in Athens playing «Krapp’s Last Tape» at Anna Kokkinou’s Sfendoni Theater in the context of the theater’s Samuel Beckett Festival. «I’m here because I found a kindred spirit in Anna [Kokkinou] and it’s rare to find someone who has the same love affair with Beckett that I do,» Cluchey said in an interview. Even in rehearsals Cluchey slips into the role of Krapp in a fluid transformation, as if slipping on a comfortable worn coat. His body, erect in repose, stoops with the weight of the character’s angst. His face, normally animated and bright, becomes one of a bitter old man with a huge chip on his shoulder. «It is a giant of a play. It is so well constructed and so full of the times of a person’s life,» he explains. Cluchey has been performing Krapp, among other Beckett roles, since 1962, when he first tried it on as an inmate of the San Quentin Penitentiary in California where he was serving a life sentence. His involvement with acting – «I had never even been to a theater before, not even to rob one,» he quips – began after he witnessed its power in a performance of «Waiting for Godot» held by the San Francisco Actors Workshop at the prison in 1956. The following year he and a group of fellow inmates initiated the San Quentin Drama Workshop (SQDW), known then as the Barbed Wire Theater, staging plays for inmates and the prison workers. Cluchey also wrote a play of his own, «The Cage,» which refers to the hardships of prison life. The means of his spiritual freedom also became the means of his physical freedom, and his activity with theater gained him parole and later a pardon. He continued his activities with the SQDW, taking plays to prisons across America and hiring recently released prisoners as actors. Hard times struck the project when the Reagan administration pulled the plug on funding, so Cluchey moved it to Europe. He first tried his hand at directing Beckett with «Endgame» for the Edinburgh Festival in 1974 and the following year his effort won him his introduction to the playwright. The SQDW is the only American company with which Beckett himself worked as a director and in the 40 years of its existence Cluchey has toured three continents with the writer’s works. In what can best be described as a tribute to Beckett, Cluchey has put the playwright’s first novel, the 1938 «Murphy,» on CD, with readers Colm Meaney and Fionnoula Flanagan. The entire six-CD set will be on sale (40 euros) at the theater. Following tonight and tomorrow’s performances Cluchey will hold a discussion with the audience. Samuel Beckett Festival, Sfendoni Theater, 4 Makri, off Dionysiou Areopagitou, tel 210.923.5842, to October 31.