Walter John Learning, CM, ONB
Walter John Learning passed away peacefully on Sunday, January 5, 2020, a glass of scotch by his side. He was predeceased by his sister Peggy, and by his parents Maud and E.J. He leaves to mourn his wife Ruth and son Warwick.
Walter Learning was born in 1938 in the small village of Quidi Vidi in the Dominion of Newfoundland. He studied at Bishop Feild College in St. John's, where was forced to repeat a year of high school due to the fact that he had forgone most of that year's classes to work on the professional wrestling circuit. Despite his promising debut as "The Masked Marvel", Walter's parents cut his wrestling career short. Walter consoled himself by concentrating efforts on his local teen radio show "Waxing with Waldo".
In 1957, Walter moved to Fredericton to pursue a business degree at the University of New Brunswick. Pursuit of an attractive fellow student led him to sign up for a Philosophy class. He didn't get the girl, but did embrace the subject and in his second year switched to a Philosophy major. It was at an audition for the UNB Drama Society that he met legendary professor Alvin Shaw, who cast him in a supporting role and became a theatre mentor.
After receiving his BA, Walter was awarded a teaching fellowship to pursue his MA. In 1963, he was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to work on his PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra. It was there that he began a professional relationship with Canberra Repertory Society that lasted more than fifty years.
Walter returned to Canada in May of 1966. He was Director of Drama at the UNB Summer Session, and in the Fall became a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he remained for two years. In May of 1968, he moved back to Fredericton to become the General Manager of the Beaverbrook Playhouse.
In the summer of 1968, Walter produced a professional theatre season of four plays in at the Playhouse. By the end of that year, he had founded Theatre New Brunswick which presented its first production in January of 1969. Walter 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.
During his tenure at TNB, Walter met, and became close friends with, prominent Canadian poet Alden Nowlan. The two collaborated on writing a number of plays including: Frankenstein, The Dollar Woman, A Gift to Last, and The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca.
In June 1978, Walter left Fredericton for Ottawa to take the position of Head of the Theatre Section of the Canada Council for the Arts. He remained at the Canada Council until 1982, when he moved to the West Coast to become Artistic Director of the Vancouver Playhouse. After five years, he returned back East to Prince Edward Island where he became the Artistic Director of the Charlottetown Festival. In 1995, Walter returned to Theatre New Brunswick as Executive Producer. He retired from the position in 1999 and afterward freelanced as an actor and director.
During his long career, Walter acted and guest directed at many theatres including the Stratford Festival, Dallas Theater Center, Neptune Theatre, Persephone Theatre, Festival Antigonish, Lighthouse Theatre, Bastion Theatre, Theatre Orangeville, Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Australia's Canberra Repertory Society.
In 2011, Walter was the recipient of the Playhouse Honours. This annual award recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to community life through their work in the performing arts. In 2018, he was made a member of the Order of New Brunswick for achievements in the performing arts and for contributions to the theatre community and industry. In November of 2019, he was appointed to the Order of Canada, one of our country's highest honours.
There will be no visitation. A celebration of his life will be held from St. Paul’s United Church at 2:00 pm on Saturday, January 11, 2020.