All Classical Radio James Depreist

In memoriam: Michael Griggs, Andrew Harris, Cai Emmons, Guy Swanson

Oregon loses compelling voices in theater, comedy, fiction, and photography. An appreciation of four who made a difference.

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Michael Griggs. Photo: Owen Carey
Michael Griggs. Photo: Owen Carey

Michael Griggs, director, teacher, administrator, and one of the most admired people in Portland’s theater and performance communities, died Jan. 24, 2023, in a respite care facility. He was 76.

Michael came to Portland in 1985 to take over as artistic director of the old New Rose Theatre, a classically based company that performed in a small basement space in an old Masonic Temple building that is now the Mark Building of the Portland Art Museum. He had peripheral vision artistically – he saw large pictures and made often brilliant connections – and over the years he played many other roles in Portland.

He started and ran an invigorating international performance festival at Portland State University, taking advantage of connections to Eastern European, Hispanic, and other companies and performers. He was for several years executive director of the Japanese drumming and performance troupe Portland Taiko. And he taught for several years at the professional theater school The Actors Conservatory, whose founding artistic director, Beth Harper, recalled that he “directed me in two of my favorite theater experiences: The Cherry Orchard (New Rose) and A Texas Romance (A.R.T.) … but, most importantly, he was my friend and I shall miss him with all my heart. He was the best of us.”

“Michael was a visionary – a talented director, producer, administrator and actor,” his brother Andy said in a Facebook post. “He made a mark wherever he worked, and has built a far-ranging community of friends, colleagues and collaborators in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz, CA, Portland, OR, Omaha, NE, and internationally.”

Michael loved the often unseen or ignored corners of the performance world, where he found a wealth of worth, from puppet theater to subversive comedy to agitprop to the international offerings of Boom Arts to overlooked classics by Brecht and Ibsen and others, including one of his first shows for New Rose, Federico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba – “13 women and one Michael,” as performer Marilyn Stacey fondly recalled. “It was a fantastic experience to be guided by him. He was a completely caring, creative person.”

He directed independent projects that appealed to him, including a couple of plays by Oregon writer E.M. Lewis: Apple Season, in the Fertile Ground festival of new works, and last year’s Song of Extinction, which he co-directed for Twilight Theatre with his friend Kathleen Worley. And always, he considered the social and political aspects of the projects he worked on. He believed that theater ought to reflect both the aspirations and the sometimes harsh realities of the “real” world.

Michael graduated from Antioch College, earned an MFA at Boston College, and in 1974 moved with his brother Andy to Santa Cruz, California, where they founded the Bear Republic Theatre. Their brother Tom also acted in a few of the company’s productions. “We produced classics and original plays—always with a social justice awareness, for over 10 years,” Andy Griggs said.

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Michael and I were friends, and would meet regularly for breakfast and general catching-up, often at the old Helser’s Café on Alberta Street or the Cadillac Café or somewhere else. He liked to meet people for breakfast, lunch, or coffee, sharing something nourishing for both body and spirit. Our meetings were often a mix of business and pleasure. When he worked at Portland Taiko he recruited me to the company’s board, where I learned a good deal from him and others about the inner workings of not-for-profit organizations. Later he joined the board of Oregon ArtsWatch, providing valuable counsel and experienced advice on such matters as writing grant proposals.

He was an extraordinary man: quiet, perhaps, but deep, and widely read, with a fine intellect, a gentle and well-tuned sense of humor, and a kind of fierce generosity of spirit: He would do what needed to be done, and what should be done. As his health failed I became one of a team (often led by his good friend, the Portland State University theater teacher Richard Wattenberg) who would take him to and from doctors’ appointments and visits to hospitals. He faced his physical challenges, many of them brought on by diabetes, with bravery and determination.

“The past several months had been difficult for him health-wise: in hospitals, skilled-nursing facilities, and most recently a respite care facility,” Michael’s brother Andy wrote. “Apparently, he died soon after a visit/discussion from a caregiver who came back into the room 10 minutes later to find him unresponsive and not breathing. Several minutes of CPR failed to resuscitate him, and he was declared dead at 3:01 p.m.”

It was a passing that took a great and generous spirit; a man who wanted his community to be the best that it could be. “He seemed to always be in the audience no matter what I was seeing, which goes to show what a staunch supporter of Portland theater he was,” the playwright Sara Jean Accuardi wrote in a Facebook post. “He was intelligent, generous, and — most importantly — endlessly curious about the world and the art he loved. I’m very grateful I had the opportunity to learn from him during my PSU days. His loss is deeply felt.”

***

Andrew Harris.

Andrew Harris, a longtime Portland performer and sketch writer who excelled at sketch comedy and was perhaps best-known for his long membership in The 3rd Floor sketch comedy troupe, died Jan. 24, 2023, after suffering a cardiac event two days before. Harris was a brilliant comedian known for his irreverence and his ability to invent pop-cultural parody riffs (as in the outrageously amusing Weekend at Bernie’s: Live Onstage), and his death came as a shock to his many friends and fans.

“Our sweet, hilarious, charming, ultra-talented, insanely lovable Andrew Harris has passed,” his longtime creative partner Ted Douglass wrote on Facebook. “The long and the short of it is that he suffered a cardiac event early Sunday morning that caused a loss of oxygen to his brain for a prolonged period of time, and he did not survive. He has been on life support with hopes of a miracle, but today the doctors called it.

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“As many are and will be, I am truly devastated. He was one of my very very best friends, my comedic muse, my partner in performance and production, and, most importantly, my brother. I will miss making each other laugh over truly stupid things. I will miss writing things for him to spin into something even better. I will miss marveling at him as he would make a room full of people double over in laughter. I will miss talking about Star Wars with him. I will miss arguing about things we agree on just for the sport of it. I will miss so many things that will sting when they occur to me for the rest of my life. I can’t list them all, because so much of my world has involved him over the past … Jesus … 28 years.

“He was always the first person I thought of and my first call when I would have an idea for a sketch, a show, a play, a short… whatever. … His loss leaves a very big hole in my life and in the creative community in Portland.”

The 3rd Floor dominated Portland’s sketch-comedy scene for two decades, and Harris’s ability to leave not only audiences but his fellow artists convulsed in laughter was legend. As Todd A. Robinson noted, “The first time I ever saw Andrew Harris in action, I was a grip on a shoot for a Rosie Awards Show bumper starring Andrew and Ted Douglass as young advertising executives. It was some of the funniest improv acting I had witnessed. So funny, in fact, that I nearly ruined a take by snort laughing and was asked to leave the set.”

And as Sarah HM Schmidt commented, also on Facebook: “Oh, Andrew, what a lovely human you were … while you made so many laugh and truly feel freedom to do so, you also took the time to say hello and ask genuinely how a person was. Thoughtful, heartfelt and truly, as Ted [Douglass] said, ‘A magic human.’”

***

Cai Emmons, Eugene novelist, playwright, and teacher who received one Oregon Book Award and is a finalist for another for her newest novel, Sinking Islands, died Jan. 2, 2023, at age 71. She had been diagnosed in early 2021 with bulbar-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and chose to die on her own terms under Oregon’s Death With Dignity law.

Emmons, whose 2004 novel His Mother’s Son won the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for fiction (the same category in which Sinking Islands is one of five finalists for this year’s prize), dipped into the worlds of film and television, theater, and fiction, as well as university teaching. She earned a B.A. from Yale University, and M.F.A.s from New York University in film, and the University of Oregon in fiction. She taught fiction and screenwriting at the University of Oregon from 2002 through 2018. Her plays have been produced at Playwrights Horizons and elsewhere, and she wrote several teleplays for the CBS series The Trials of Rosie O’Neill.

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Sinking Islands is a sequel to her 2018 novel Weather Woman, the story of a meteorologist who discovers she can change the weather, and must learn to deal with the implications of having such a power. It combines fantasy and adventure with a deep look at the world’s ecological crisis. Of Sinking Islands, fellow novelist Diana Abu-Jaber wrote: “This prescient tale of a not-too-distant eco-dystopia will have readers on the edge of their seats. Shifting between vivid characters and far-flung settings, Sinking Islands spins a potent story about what happens when the unbelievable becomes reality, when the earth goes mad and takes all of us along for the ride.”

Through her illness Emmons kept a blog describing her process, both physical and emotional, in several posts. As Lorraine Berry wrote in the Los Angeles Times story What novelist Cai Emmons taught us about how to die, in a late November 2022 post Emmons described taking a guided psychedelic mushroom trip to help her become comfortable with the process of dying. “When the mushrooms took hold,” she wrote, “I imagined shedding my body, wriggling out of it like a worm offloading a thick skin, then hovering above as I watched myself being carried away.”

In her final blog post, on Dec. 28, 2022, Emmons wrote: “I wanted to devour the world, do it all, even with the end in sight.”

***

Guy Swanson.

Guy Richard Swanson, who founded the pioneering Photographic Image Gallery in downtown Portland, died Dec. 26, 2022, at 79. He had been living for several years in the wide-open country of Central Oregon that he loved, near the Jefferson County town of Culver and Lake Billy Chinook. While there he turned to writing, researching and publishing the book Finding Hope, “the absolutely true story of Hope Nance, the last surviving member of Grandview in the Lower Desert of Central Oregon,” who had been born in a homesteaders cabin in 1917.

The Photographic Image Gallery flourished from its founding in 1984 to its closing in 2006, filling an important role in the city’s cultural world by staking a claim for photography as fine art and by representing international figures and regional photographers alike.

Guy, the son of Swedish immigrants who referred to himself on his website as a “jack of all trades,” was part of an older Portland–a big town transforming into a small city and setting the stage for the city of today. He started Photographic Image when he realized that, even though Oregon was a hotbed of photography, there were few gallery outlets for either local or national and international work. Blue Sky had begun a few years earlier, as a room inside another gallery (it has since grown into one of the country’s preeminent photographic centers), and the Portland Art Museum was still building its now strong photography department.

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He set up shop downtown, initially showing work by the likes of Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Brett Weston, and Minor White, as well as local and lesser-known photographers, and was a warm and welcoming figure, usually available for a chat about just about anything if you dropped in to the gallery space.

He got involved in civic things, too, including Bud Clark’s first mayoral campaign, which came at about the same time Swanson started the gallery. “When Bud was running for Mayor we held several poster signings at the Photographic Image Gallery to raise money for his run,” Swanson recalled about a year ago, and referring to Clark’s famous “Expose Yourself to Art” poster. “Always kept a beer mug in the freezer for Saturdays when he stopped by on his bike.”

Swanson had been in poor health for some time, suffering from kidney failure and heart problems. He is survived, according to his website, by “his two brothers, Steve and Tom; two daughters, Megan and Heidi; five grandchildren, Michelle, Alex, Andrew, Hannah, and Harrison; and an army of cousins, chosen family, and friends.”

A celebration of Swanson’s life will be held 1-3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at McMenamins Kennedy School Gymnasium, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave., Portland. If you’d like to attend, please send an RSVP email to guy@guyswanson.com.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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One Response

  1. Thanks so much for this, Bob! It means a lot to have this shared widely among the community Michael so dearly loved.

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