(FREDERICTON, N.B.) “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare observed, “and all the men and women merely players: / they have their exits and their entrances; / and one man in his time plays many parts.” From his birth on a cold November day in 1938 in Quidi Vidi, a fishing village on the Newfoundland coast, until his passing on January 5, 2020, in Fredericton Walter Learning played many parts.
In the summer of 1968, Learning produced a professional theatre season of four plays at The Playhouse. By the end of that year, he had founded Theatre New Brunswick, which presented its first production in January 1969. TNB was, and is, Canada’s only full time touring regional theatre.
Learning remained as general manager of The Playhouse and artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick for ten years. During that time, TNB produced more than 85 productions. In June of 1978, he left Fredericton for Ottawa to become head of the Theatre Section of the Canada Council for the Arts, where he remained until 1982 when he moved to the West Coast to become artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse. In 1987, he moved to Prince Edward Island, where he became the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival.
During his long and colourful career, Walter guest directed at many theatres, including the Stratford Festival, the Dallas Theater Center, Persephone Theatre, Festival Antigonish, Lighthouse Theatre, Bastion Theatre and others. He was also a frequent director at Australia’s Canberra Repertory Theatre.
From 1992 to 1995, he was a freelance broadcaster, writer, actor and director. Then in 1995, he returned to Theatre New Brunswick as executive producer. In 1999, he left that position to concentrate on freelancing as an actor and director.
Walter Learning made a significant contribution to the cultural life of New Brunswick and Canada, so much so that in 2018 he received the Order of New Brunswick. On November 18, 2019, he became a member of the Order of Canada.
In describing his many contributions, the Order of Canada wrote: “Newfoundlander Walter Learning has cultivated excellence in theatre across Canada. As founder of Theatre New Brunswick, he established a professional and accessible theatre company that toured all corners of the province. Embodying steady leadership, he has served as a respected artistic director, notably of the Vancouver Playhouse and the Charlottetown Festival. His body of work as a director, actor and writer has been seen from coast to coast, and his ongoing involvement in the field has nurtured the blossoming talent of many young thespians.”
Before arriving in Fredericton in 1957 to study business at UNB, Learning worked as a plumber’s apprentice, and a used car salesman, skills that he liked to say proved valuable when he settled on a career in the theatre. Combined with his Newfoundland upbringing, these skills also helped him connect with people from all levels of society. His many friends throughout Canada and the world will miss his positive approach to life and his sense of humour. He was well-loved.
At UNB, Learning met Alvin Shaw, a lecturer in the modern languages department, and faculty advisor to the UNB Drama Society. After Shaw cast him in a supporting role in a production, Learning was hooked. Shaw became his mentor, and the road to the young Newfoundlander’s future in the theatre opened up. In 1963, when he earned his MA from UNB, Learning was in Australia courtesy of a Commonwealth Scholarship working on his Ph.D. at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Walter is survived by his wife “Ruthie” and his son Warwick Leaning.