Walter Learning was born in 1938 in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland. The father of anglophone theatre in New Brunswick. Walter Learning founded Fredericton’s Theatre New Brunswick in 1969. He served as its artistic director until 1978 while co-writing plays with Alden Nowlan. Learning was also the theatre officer at the Canada Council for the Arts (1978–82), the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company (1982–87) and the artistic director of the Charlottetown Summer Festival (1987–92). He received the Order of New Brunswick and was a Member of the Order of Canada.
Walter Learning received his BA (1961) and his MA (1963) from the University of New Brunswick. He also studied philosophy at the Australian National University, Canberra, from 1963 to 1966. He returned to Canada in 1966 and taught philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland for two years.
Learning began his career in professional theatre as the general manager of Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Auditorium (1968). There he founded Theatre New Brunswick (TNB) in 1969. The company dedicated itself to touring its professional productions throughout the province. Its Young Company, founded in 1975, brought theatre to the province’s schools.
Walter Learning remained as TNB’s artistic director until 1978, mounting more than 85 productions. During his years in Fredericton, he co-wrote three plays with Alden Nowlan: “Frankenstein: The Man Who Became God” (1974); “The Dollar Woman” (1977); and “The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca” (1978). These plays were produced both in Canada and internationally. “The Dollar Woman” was included in the high school English curriculum in New Brunswick.
After his tenure at TNB, Learning wrote and directed for CBC Television and edited an anthology of stories. In 1978, he was appointed theatre officer at the Canada Council. During his four years in that position, he was responsible for all activities related to not-for-profit theatres across Canada. He also oversaw the introduction of the Venture Capital Fund for commercial theatre projects and administered a budget that increased from $7.9 million to $13 million.
As artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company (1982–87) — a job described as “a real monster” by his predecessor, Roger Hodgman — Learning came close to doubling subscription sales. He eliminated an inherited deficit by selling a property owned by the company and acquiring a new fully equipped production centre. He continued to use the civic-owned Playhouse facility for his mainstage series and developed a series of alternative productions at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and the Waterfront Theatre.
Learning moved to the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown in 1987. As artistic director of the Charlottetown Summer Festival, he immediately injected a note of controversy into the placid Confederation Centre with his production of “Are You Lonesome Tonight”?. He also made changes to “Anne of Green Gables, The Musical”. He remained in that position until 1992.
During the next three years, Learning worked as a freelance actor, director, and broadcaster in Canada and Australia. He introduced Australians to the work of popular Canadian playwright Norm Foster.
In 1995, Learning returned to Theatre New Brunswick as executive producer. He revived a theatre encumbered by a large deficit, declining subscription rates, an aging facility, and a community far less interested in theatre than during his earlier tenure. He remained at TNB until 1999. Learning continued to practice his theatrical craft internationally, acting into his later years even though he was legally blind.
Learning received the Order of New Brunswick in 2018. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2019 for having “cultivated excellence in theatre across Canada.”
Walter Learning died January 5, 2020 in Fredericton.
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