Making the past come alive again today

Though he does not remember it, Portland playwright William S. Gregory told his father he wanted to be a poet when he was 3 years old. Thirty-one years later, he is fulfilling the desire to write that he forgot he had. Reluctantly.

“I have never wanted to be a playwright,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to be one at the moment.”

Despite this, his play “Child of Pleasure” is in the middle of a successful run at CoHo Theater. It is the first part of a trilogy based on the life of 17th century French courtesan and philosopher Ninon de L’Enclos. This is his second play to make it to the stage.

The first was 1999’s “Mary Tudor.” It received critical praise and won three Drammy Awards, an honor that recognizes the best Portland-area theater efforts of the year.

Gregory started writing plays in 1990, after he graduated with an associate of arts degree in theater from Southern Oregon State. It was his creative outlet. “I needed an art form I could participate in every day,” he said. “Art is expensive. Paper and pencil are cheap.”

These days, he does temporary clerical work during the day and devotes an hour each night to writing. This work ethic has produced 42 plays.

Gary Cole, co-founder of CoHo Productions, met Gregory in the spring of 1995. As the two became friendly, Gregory shared his script for “Mary Tudor.” Cole was impressed.

“He writes with a sparkle and a flair which is unusual and unique,” he said. “He uses historical figures effectively by taking characters who lived a long time ago and making them accessible.”

In “Child of Pleasure, Ninon deals with her feelings of abandonment when her father returns years after he deserted the family. Her salon, where the play takes place, is a place of witty banter, free-flowing wine and colorful friends. Ninon herself is a woman of warmth and wisdom.

Gregory came across the courtesan while doing research for other plays. Books and biographical information helped pin down facts about the era and characters, but the dialogue “is a fanciful, not scholarly, re-creation.”

“I write as though I were taking dictation,” he said. “I think each of the characters reflects an aspect of my personality. But they tell me what they’re going to say. I don’t tell them.”

Currently, Gregory is preparing to present “Voice of Courage,” a two-character play about Winston Churchill and the actor who impersonated him during World War II radio speeches. A reading will take place March 10 at CoHo Theater.

As Gregory works toward the day he can support himself from his plays, he keeps this in mind: “I strive not be bad,” he said. “I try to create a play where I feel I have wrung out all that’s not good … Hopefully what is left has merit.”

Though Cole doesn’t know if CoHo will produce the remaining plays in the trilogy, he has high hopes other theater companies around town will take notice of Gregory.

“It’s been a very special association for our company,” he said. “I really hope that the rest of the world will sit up and take notice.”

“Child of Pleasure” runs through March 15 at CoHo Theater, 2257 N.W. Raleigh St. Show times are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for general admission, and $16 for students and senior citizens. Tickets can be reserved by calling CoHo at 503-220-2646.