Samuel Beckett’s characters have one unifying characteristic: They are trapped—by their surroundings, their minds, their hearts, and their pasts. In every regard, Rick Cluchey, actor and artistic director of the San Quentin Drama Workshop, is the Beckettian antihero, moving ahead and never looking back.

For every actor, there is one defining moment when the dramatic impulse seizes him completely and there is no going back to a life without theater: “To be absolutely truthful,” Cluchey begins, “it was the moment in Waiting for Godot when Pozzo and Lucky make their entrance. Pozzo has a rope around Lucky’s neck. Everybody at that point, in this mess hall with 1,400 men, was laughing, because Pozzo might as well have been the warden with his rope around our necks. It was that factor of recognition that struck us. The play was a wake-up call, a reaffirmation of what I had to do in my life.”

The mess hall he speaks of would be the mess hall at San Quentin State Prison, California’s oldest and most infamous correctional institution. “When I first saw Godot, I wasn’t an actor, and I’d never been in a theater—not even to rob one,” Cluchey says. But at San Quentin, he adds, clearly amused, “There was theater every day. You just didn’t have to pay for it.”

When Cluchey brings the San Quentin Drama Workshop’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape to the Scena Theatre this week for its 1999 Beckett Festival, he more than makes up for lost time. Cluchey’s relationship with Beckett began in Paris in 1974 and continued until Beckett’s death at age 83 in 1989. During those years, Cluchey became Beckett’s protégé, assistant director, actor, confidant, and above all, friend: It’s part of the unlikely tale of how a budding actor and director scored an apprenticeship with the Irish playwright and Nobel laureate who embodied post-World War II existential angst.

Cluchey was a 23-year-old husband and father of two when he saw the San Francisco Actors Workshop perform Godot at San Quentin in 1957. He was serving the third year of a life sentence for “bodily harm while being moved under duress during an armed robbery.” He was arrested six months after a failed get-rich-quick scheme went awry and his partner turned him in.

“The play was about walls,” Cluchey says. “The metaphysical wall—the outer wall of the State of California—and the walls we build inside ourselves. One you wanted to tear down, and one you wanted to build up.” Cluchey and his fellow inmates were so impressed by the power of Godot’s poetry and imagery that several of San Quentin’s most influential inmates formed a drama group the next day.

The warden said, “‘OK, as long as men don’t play women’s roles,’” Cluchey recalls, “‘and the plays don’t criticize government or the police.’” Their first production? Twelve Angry Men. Over the next 10 years, the San Quentin Drama Workshop produced 35 plays, including Beckett’s Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, under the tutelage of directors and actors from the San Francisco Actors Workshop, led by Alan Mandell.

In 1965, Cluchey wrote his first play, The Cage, about his life at San Quentin: “We asked the warden for permission to perform the play, and he said, ‘Fine, as long as it isn’t about my prison,’” he remembers. Cluchey set the story in France, retitled it Le Cage, and gave all the characters French names. The warden responded by saying, “I had no idea French prisons were so bad.” Four years later, The Cage set box office records at Arena Stage before moving to Broadway.

The quality of mercy is not strained, but it sure as hell took its time getting to Cluchey. “Eleven years, nine months, and 14 days in prison, and 10 years of civil death: parole,” he recounts. “Twenty-two years in a system designed to keep you.” He was granted parole in 1966, and a number of his fellow inmate-thespians were also released. After working with Mandell and the San Francisco Actors Workshop, they began touring with The Cage as the San Quentin Drama Workshop, trading the big house for full houses all over the U.S., Europe, and Australia.

“When I was released, my life was taken over by trying to express what had happened to me in prison,” Cluchey says. “We went to over 200 universities in seven-and-a-half years, and at one point, three companies were performing The Cage in Europe and the U.S.” But Cluchey had reached saturation with the story: “I broke down and wasn’t able to continue doing the play. It didn’t satisfy me anymore; I came up dry. So I went back to Beckett.”

Beckett first heard about Cluchey from director Martin Esslin, who had been invited to see Cluchey’s work during his tenure at San Quentin. “An invitation,” brags Cluchey, “that very few turned down.” After seeing Cluchey perform, an enthusiastic Esslin promised, “I’m going to tell Sam Beckett about you.” In 1973, Cluchey had been living in Scotland directing an all-professional cast in his play The Wall Is Mama, when he wrote a letter to Beckett requesting permission for the San Quentin company to perform Beckett’s plays. “Sam said, ‘You can do any of them, any time, no royalties,’” Cluchey remembers.

Waiting for Beckett in Paris one year later, Cluchey was sitting in the cafe Les Deux Magots, the sacrosanct hangout of international literati. Enter Beckett: “You’re Rick?” From there, a strategic alliance was formed: director and actor, playwright and producer, mentor and protégé. Beckett invited Cluchey to be his assistant director for Krapp’s Last Tape at Germany’s Schiller Theater. Further collaborations ensued, and in 1977, Beckett directed Cluchey as Krapp, in the same production Washington will see at Scena Theatre’s 1999 Beckett Festival (coupled with Alan Mandell and Cluchey in Ohio Impromptu, and Mandell and Cluchey alternately performing in A Piece of Monologue).

Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-man, one-act play depicting a 69-year-old guy listening to an audiotape of himself recorded on his 39th birthday. This particular production of Krapp has a unique distinction: It is the world’s only production of a play directed by Beckett that is still being performed. “Nothing is changed,” says Cluchey. “Sam Beckett didn’t leave any chinks in the armor. It’s a very well-made suit,” he says. If he means to make a pun on the genre of the “well-made play,” he doesn’t let on.

The Cluchey-Krapp age gap is closing. “After my 500th performance as Krapp, I feel I can talk about it now,” jokes the 65-year-old Cluchey. “When we meet Krapp in the present, he is a 69-year-old failure. He is a failure at loving anybody. He is a failure at being a writer. He is an angry, bitter, caged man. He rejected love and religion and went in search of ‘higher things.’ The play is an anagram of light and dark. Beckett’s director’s note to me was, ‘Maybe this is the last night of his life.’”

Now our conversation seems almost a seance: Cluchey isn’t quoting Beckett from an unauthorized biography or Hildy and Brockett’s The History of the Theatre; he is recollecting one-on-one conversations. Over the phone, Cluchey is reading Krapp to me; the significance of the regret-soaked words is palpable: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago.” It’s hard to tell exactly who is talking: Krapp, Beckett, or Cluchey himself.

“Rick was redeemed through theater because of Sam,” observes Cluchey’s wife, Nora Masterson, who is an actor in the San Quentin Drama Workshop. “If he hadn’t stumbled on that particular production, his life might have taken a different course.” Masterson is as candid as her husband in talking about his hard time and the status he has attained as the poster child for prison reform. She believes it was probably the ex-con mystique that initially drew Beckett to Cluchey.

“Beckett loved the underbelly of life,” she says. “He lived across from a prison in France and would watch the inmates try to communicate with him using lights and mirrors. I don’t know if Sam would have paid as much attention to Rick in the beginning if he hadn’t known where he’d been. But Rick has taken Beckett’s work all over the world. He’s a Beckett ambassador and scholar. He did as much for Beckett as Beckett did for him.”

Cluchey’s past keeps some arrogant academics at bay, but he has nonetheless become world-renowned for his work as an actor, director, and playwright. The portrayal of Krapp he brings to Scena is considered definitive. “Rick can interpret and animate Beckett’s vision in a way that can’t be found in the commercial American or British theater, or in academia,” observes Scena’s artistic director, Robert McNamara, who worked with Cluchey when the San Quentin company presented Godot in 1990. “His international reputation places him with Irish greats like Jackie MacGowran and Pat McGee. We’re facing a dearth in the future of doing Beckett and great playwrights of that ilk, and Rick is one of the very, very few people capable of doing the roles well.”

Cluchey’s many professional and academic accolades include the Italian Primo Critica, an Obie for David Mamet’s Edmond, and the knowledge that his didactic play about AIDS and crack, The Shepherd’s Song, has helped many young inmates make sense of their existence.

Though it’s not just for ex-cons anymore, the San Quentin Drama Workshop is in no hurry to escape the shadow of the “Bastille on the Bay,” as its members call the prison. In fact, the group’s logo depicts two hands clutching the rails of a room at the Grey Bar Hotel. “In practice, what happened to me in prison left such a lasting mark, I never get away from it. I’m condemned to that, you could say,” Cluchey says.CP

Scena Theatre’s 1999 Beckett

Festival, presented in association with

Le Neon Theatre, runs to May 23.

Call (703) 684-7990 for details.