Walter John Learning

Walter John LearningPhoto:
Walter John Learning

Walter John Learning (director, playwright, artistic director, producer, and actor) was born in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland on 16 November 1938. His father, Edwin James Learning, was a contractor for plumbing and heating, and was also a war veteran. His mother, Maud Maheal, was a homemaker. Growing up, Walter had one sibling, Margaret “Peggy” Learning; she worked in the service industry in the Arctic Circle managing hotels and bars. Peggy was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which prevented her from being able to continue working.

When Walter was eleven years old, he and 321,000 Newfoundlanders became a part of Canada. His education began at the St. Thomas grade school in Newfoundland for grades one and two. He then spent grades three to eleven at Bishop Feild College in St. John’s. He became seasick on a fishing excursion, leading his parents to agree that he was better suited to scholarship. Walter missed some time at school, however, due to his short career on the professional wrestling circuit. He was a ring valet for the famous “Gorgeous George,” who had been touring Newfoundland. Although his wrestling career was short-lived, he did have a brief debut as “The Masked Marvel.”

As a teenager, Learning had a teen radio show on CJON from 1955 to 1956 called “Waxing With Waldo.” He played rock and roll hits, including those by his favourite artist, Elvis Presley. He was also in a quartet named “The Four Notes,” where he received the nickname, “Sour.” The group played at local bars, clubs, and restaurants.

After graduation, Learning moved to Fredericton to attend the University of New Brunswick (UNB) business programme. The indoor pool on UNB campus, he said, won him over; there was only one indoor pool in Newfoundland at that time. He very much enjoyed the Beaverbrook Reading Room in the UNB Library. To defray tuition costs, he worked briefly as a used car salesman and as a plumber’s apprentice. In 1957, he took a Philosophy class, in pursuit, he said, of an attractive female classmate. He was so intrigued by Aristotle and his works, however, that in his second year of study he changed his major from Business to Philosophy. He received his BA from UNB in 1961, his MA in 1963, and, in 1978, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate, sharing that honour with Anne Murray, another well-known UNB graduate.

In 1963, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to Australia to pursue a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. His experiences there proved to be a turning point in his life. He viewed a theatre production called “Ballad of Angels Alley.” He later auditioned for a small part while in Australia, and he succeeded, acting all three years he spent there. He had an ongoing relationship with the Canberra Repertory Society, and made plans to return to Australia in September 2011.

He returned to Canada in May of 1966 and was a Director of Drama for UNB’s summer session. In the fall of that year, he returned to his birth place for two years to be a lecturer in Philosophy at Memorial University. In May of 1968, he returned to Fredericton to be the General Manager of the Beaverbrook Playhouse, a gift to the province from the Beaverbrook Foundation in 1964. In 1968, near the end of the year, he established Theatre New Brunswick. At the time, TNB was Canada’s only full-time touring regional theatre, having its first premiere in January of 1969. For ten years, Learning was both the General Manager of the Playhouse and the Artistic Director for TNB. During this time, he was part of more than eighty-five productions.

In June 1978, Learning left TNB to become head of the theatre section of the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa. He stayed there until 1982, moving to Vancouver for five years to become the Artistic Director of the playhouse located there. In 1987, he moved to PEI to be the Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival, also working for CBC on the morning and afternoon shows. For the next five years, he was Artistic Director of Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, then he went out on his own as a freelance actor, broadcaster, writer, and director, while also President of Learning Productions. In March of 1995, he returned to Fredericton to become executive director/producer of TNB, where he remained until 1999. Until his death on January 5 2020, he had been freelancing as an actor and director.

Learning was the editor of Gifts to Last: Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland (1996, anthology). He collaborated with his friend, Alden Nowlan, on the plays Frankenstein (1974, gothic melodrama) and The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca (1978, mystery/thriller). They co-wrote A Gift to Last, which was based on the teleplay done by Gordon Pinsent, and also, La Svengali. Another of their collaborations was The Dollar Woman (1977, drama).

Learning had a number of influential people in his life, the first one being his high school teacher, Charlie Grant, who, he explained, told him to “Straighten up and go to University in order to better yourself and pursue a career” (Interview with author). Once at UNB, he met two other mentors: Dr. Millam, who helped him to improve his writing, and Alvin Shaw, whom he met at a UNB drama society audition. Professor W.F.M. Stewart sparked Learning’s interests in philosophy with his lectures on Aristotle. His UNB professors were important in bringing him to Aristotle’s ideas, which became essential to his work. Aristotle’s view that what defines a person is what he does, and not what he says, had become Learning’s career beacon.

Walter Learning’s involvement in TNB is still acknowledged today as being important to New Brunswick. Throughout his profession, he received several awards, including a Lifetime Canadian Theatre Research Association Award. Theatre New Brunswick has likewise received many accolades, particularly for staging theatre that exposed “generations of school children to that magic which is live theatre” (Robb D11). Learning was appointed to both the Order of New Brunswick and Order of Canada in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Until his passing, Learning continued to do freelance work.

Amber Dunbar, Spring 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Learning, Walter, ed. Gifts to Last: Christmas Stories From the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions Ltd., 1996.

---. Personal interview. 5 Mar. 2010.

Learning, Walter, and Alden Nowlan. The Dollar Woman. Ed. Patrick B. O’Neill. Ottawa, ON: Borealis Press, 1981.

---. Frankenstein. Toronto, ON; Vancouver, BC: Clarke, Irwin & Co. Ltd., 1976.

---. The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca. Fredericton, NB: Learning Productions Ltd., 1978.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Carr, Tracy. “Learning’s Life Still Busy, but It’s Not as Stressful; TNB’s Founder Says Theatre Company Will Continue Despite Past Financial Difficulties.” Telegraph-Journal 22 Feb. 2005. 13 Apr. 2010

Dunfield, Kari. “The Odd Couple; TNB's Picasso at the Lapin Agile Tells of a Meeting Between Einstein and Picasso in Paris.” Telegraph-Journal 19 Oct. 2001. 13 Apr. 2010

Fuller, Cam. “A Gift to Last: Persephone Gets Into the Spirit of Christmas With New Play.” The StarPhoenix 26 Nov. 2003. 13 Apr. 2010

---.“Persephone Play Hits All the Right Notes.” The StarPhoenix 28 Jan. 2003. 13 Apr. 2010

Robb, Edith. “We Need TNB to Fuel our Imaginations.” Times & Transcript 14 Oct. 2006. 13 Apr. 2010

Smith, Mary. “English Drama in New Brunswick.” A Literary and Linguistic History of New Brunswick. Ed. R. Gair. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions Ltd., 1985. 189.

Toner, Patrick. “If I Could Turn and Meet Myself; An Excerpt From a Biography of Poet and Journalist Alden Nowlan.” Telegraph-Journal 13 May 2000. 13 Apr. 2010