When the members of the San Francisco Actors Workshop went to San Quentin prison one day in 1957 to perform Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for the convicts, it's doubtful they could have anticipated the reception they received. Rick Cluchey, who was serving a life term at the institution for a (nonlethal, and, he says, accidental) shooting in a 1955 armed robbery, recalls that the revolutionary 1953 avant-garde absurdist comedy, which had been selected because there were no women in the cast, unexpectedly hit home with the cons.
"Out comes this guy [Pozzo] leading another guy [Lucky] with a rope around his neck," recalls Cluchey. "I was one of hundreds in that mess hall, and we all doubled over with laughter. I totally identified with Lucky. And Pozzo, if he wasn't the fuckin' warden, who was?"
It's even less likely that the San Francisco Workshop actors could have guessed that they were providing the impetus for a significant chapter in American theater of this century. Cluchey, a veteran of "orphanages, reform schools and the like," had, as he likes to say, "never been in a theater, not even to rob one."
"I was goin' to hell in a handbasket, and that was too slow, so I was takin' the express train," quips Cluchey, by phone from Washington, D.C. Seeing Godot, however, inspired the young man to found the San Quentin Drama Workshop. The company's success within the prison led to Cluchey's life parole by then-governor Pat Brown in 1966, and then to his pardon by another former governor, Jerry Brown, in 1977. Since then, Cluchey has won a Tony as part of the ensemble in David Mamet's Edmond on Broadway. But his principal professional focus remains the SQDW, now an L.A.-based international touring company devoted almost exclusively to Beckett--though Cluchey's own play The Cage is sometimes on the bill.
After his stint in D.C., working with Robert McNamara's Scena Theatre ("We got a great review in the Post today--fooled 'em again," he chortles), Cluchey is scheduled to bring the company to the Valley this weekend at Arizona State University's Second Stage West. Along with his wife, Nora Masterson (with whom he has a son, Jamison), and Kevin McCraw, Cluchey performs Beckett's Women, a bill of three of the Irish playwright's austere short works--Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe! and Footfalls--which feature strong female presences.
SQDW's authority as the leading U.S. interpreter of Beckett comes from the late writer himself, who endorsed the company by working with them on several occasions. Cluchey's approach to the material, he says, is to "find the poetry, and the music, and the rhythm, and don't bring anything to the dance--don't bring any color to the dance. 'No color, please!' was a frequently repeated instruction from the master."
The greatest pleasure of working so regularly on Beckett, says Cluchey, is "serving the cause of good theater, getting it right, and having it seen by an audience who finds it accessible. You want to bring the work of a major artist of the 20th century to as wide an audience as possible, but you don't want to put it on the table if it's rough, 'cause it turns people off." His wife, Masterson, puts the satisfaction more succinctly: "The language. His language is so beautiful that, as an actress, that's the delight for me."
--M. V. Moorhead
San Quentin Drama Workshop's production of Beckett's Women is scheduled to be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, April 23; and the same time Saturday, April 24, at Second Stage West, located in the University Center Building on the Arizona State University West campus, 4701 West Thunderbird. For ticket prices and other information, call 602-543-2787.