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Cluchey, Beckett — unlikely collaborators forge friendship, stage works

Playwright Rick Cluchey will joShattered Globe Theatre present eight performances  'An Evening Beckett: 'Krapp's Last Tape' 'Sam Rick.' '

Playwright Rick Cluchey will join Shattered Globe Theatre to present eight performances of "An Evening of Beckett: 'Krapp's Last Tape' and 'Sam and Rick.' " | RICH HEIN~SUN-TIMES

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An Evening of Beckett: ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ & ‘Sam and Rick’

♦ May 1-12

♦ Shattered Globe Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont

♦ Tickets, $28

♦ (773) 327-5252;

Updated: May 28, 2013 7:25PM

This is the story of an inquisitive prisoner and a legendary playwright who would become unlikely friends and collaborators.

San Quentin State Prison seems the last place one would expect the avant-garde plays of Samuel Beckett to be appreciated. But Rick Cluchey is living proof that they were. He first encountered the Irish playwright’s classic “Waiting for Godot” in the mid-1950s as a 23-year-old inmate serving time for robbery and kidnapping.

It was the first play Cluchey had ever seen, and it changed his life. Performed before an audience of inmates by the San Francisco Actors Workshop, it inspired Cluchey and Kenneth Whelan to co-found the San Quentin Drama Workshop, which would lead Cluchey on a path out of prison to a life in the theater where he would forge a working relationship with the reclusive Beckett.

“There were a number of careers, including working in the dental lab and assisting the prison chaplain, before I found this one,” Cluchey said in an interview from his Los Angeles home. “In the San Quentin workshop, we did 35 plays and seven different stagings of Beckett’s work. It set me on a course for the rest of my life.”

Cluchey, who grew up in the scrappy world of Chicago’s South Side, served 12 years in prison before having his sentence commuted by then-California Gov. Pat Brown. He would go on to become a Beckett protege and a master performer of the playwright’s classic one-man piece “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which he brings to Shattered Globe Theatre along with world premiere of “Sam and Rick,” a solo performance chronicling his unique relationship with Beckett.

“I love the music, I love the poetry, I love the choreography of Beckett’s words,” Cluchey says with conviction. “You can see his plays over and over and come away with something different every time.”

Cluchey, a playwright/director/actor, had been corresponding with Beckett when in 1974 he took a production of “Endgame” to Paris after critically acclaimed runs in Edinburgh and Berlin. He invited Beckett to the performance at the American Cultural Center but the playwright sent his wife as a sort of spy. The next day the phone rang and the Nobel laureate agreed to meet Cluchey for coffee.

“A very thin, gaunt, ghostlike figure came walking down the street,” Cluchey, 79, recalls. “I had on a bowler hat like the one Godot wears in the play. He looked at me and said ‘Do you always wear that hat?’ ”

As luck would have it, both Cluchey and Beckett were both headed to Berlin, and when Cluchey’s project fell through, Beckett, who was directing “Waiting for Godot” for the first time, hired him as an assistant director. He and other members of the San Quentin company, which was now established outside the prison, would continue to work with Beckett until the playwright’s death in 1989.

Cluchey says it got to the point where all he was thinking about was Beckett’s work. That’s when he suggested Beckett direct him in “Krapp’s Last Tape” at Berlin’s Academy of Arts. A tour-de-force for one actor, the play is a character study of a “failed writer, lover, alcoholic who can’t find any success in his life and is on a treadmill of failure.” Krapp sits in a darkened room listening to a tape recorder that tracks his existence. Cluchey recorded the tape under Beckett’s precise direction and still uses it today.

“As soon as I hear the tape, I instantly go back to Berlin in 1978,” Cluchey says. “I’m drawn to Krapp like a magnet. And Beckett is always there with me. We had a great relationship, and I can never give up that ghost.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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