We are sad to report that Rick Cluchey, the performer, playwright, and famed Beckett interpreter and collaborator, passed away on the evening of December 28, 2015. From his first experience with Beckett's work, while serving a life sentence in San Quentin prison, Cluchey remained a prolific theatre artist, founding the San Quentin Drama Workshop briefly following this theatrical encounter.
Cluchey was in his third year of a life sentence without parole for the carjacking and armed robbery of a Los Angeles hotel courier when actors came to San Quentin State Prison in 1957 to perform Waiting for Godot. The existential play struck a nerve, and inspired the creation of a drama workshop at San Quentin.
For Cluchey, a pugilistic convict considered too great a risk to even attend the play, it changed his life. He listened from his cell to the lines over the public address system. His cellmate returned from the performance struck in particular by one character, Lucky, who was led about with a rope around his neck.
Right there, Cluchey later recounted, “we knew the score.”
Samuel Beckett had captured the essence of imprisonment.
And in Cluchey, another playwright was born.
The brawler from Chicago joined the new theater troupe at San Quentin and from his cell started writing plays. The first was The Cage, a prison drama about inmates putting one another on trial. That play, along with a letter from his sentencing judge, made the case for then-Gov. Pat Brown to commute Cluchey’s sentence to allow parole, and his eventual release in 1966.
Cluchey became a leading interpreter of Beckett’s work, and spent most of his career traveling the world to perform in his plays. He signed on as an assistant director to Beckett in a Berlin performance of Godot. Later, Beckett directed Cluchey as an actor, in Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame.
Rick Cluchey was set to perform Endgame, running March 24–May 22, 2016 at the Douglas, alongside Alan Mandell, also a prolific theatre artist and Beckett collaborator. Mandell performed in the production of Godot at San Quentin in 1957 that inspired Cluchey. He also aided Cluchey in the creation of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Mandell said:
Rick was one of the most courageous, decent, intelligent and generous people one was fortunate enough to call a friend. I introduced him to the work of Beckett when he was in prison. When he was eventually paroled, he introduced me to Beckett. Remarkable!!
Center Theatre Group's Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, who was particularly excited to work with Cluchey on Endgame, said:
Rick, for good reason, was recognized across the entire theatrical community as an "Actor's Actor." He was equally invested in the premise of the play, the perspective of the playwright, the process of discovery...and ultimately, and finally...in the performance for the audience.
Cluchey was a fantastic artist, crafting performances, plays, and a remarkable legacy that will continue to inspire the theatre.
Below, Cluchey performs a selection from Krapp’s Last Tape in 1998 in Paris: