“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare observed in As You Like It, “and all the men and women merely players: / they have their exits and their entrances; / and one man in his time plays many parts.”
Walter Learning has played many parts since his birth on a cold November day in 1938 in a fishing village on the Newfoundland coast. Among his most significant roles and achievements, is as the founder of Theatre New Brunswick, which this year marks its 50th anniversary.
“I was born and grew up in Quidi Vidi, in the independent nation of Newfoundland,” Learning says, “with a father who didn’t just tell stories, but was a story, or rather a bunch of stories rolled into one.”
Today “Kiddy Viddy” is a thriving St. John’s neighbourhood and growing tourism destination. Back then it was as salty a North Atlantic fishing community as you could find — something right out of central casting. So much so that in 1930, an American documentary filmmaker named Lewis Varick Frissell, chose Quidi Vidi as the location for his film, The Viking, the first Hollywood style sound film ever made in Canada.
Unfortunately, things did not work out well for Frissell. Or his film. In 1931, while he and his crew were filming off the Grand Banks, their ship, trapped in ice, exploded killing 27 men, including Frissell. The tragedy still stands as the largest loss of life of a film production crew in history.
Things, however, would work out well for young Walter, who absorbed dramatic stories like this, and the thousands of others he heard growing up, deep into his imagination. But it was more than the stories; it was the people telling them — and the way they told them, or rather, performed them with their accents and colloquialisms — that would have the most significant impact on him.
Crammed with colourful characters, Quidi Vidi, was Learning’s first stage, a childhood theatre of the magnificent that not only inspired his love of performing but also his passion for living, and the colourful stories and characters that have always been part of his life.
Before arriving in Fredericton in 1957 to study business at UNB, Learning worked as a plumber’s apprentice and a used car salesman, skills, he writes on walterlearning.com, that would prove valuable when he settled on a career in the theatre.
But a business degree was not to be. In pursuit of an attractive fellow student Learning signed up for a philosophy class. Although he didn’t get the girl, he fell in love with the subject and in his second year switched from business to philosophy. Considering his many contributions to Canadian theatre, his influence on New Brunswick’s cultural life and the cultural life of Canada, switching to philosophy was a good idea.
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 PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra.
In May 1968, Learning returned to Fredericton to become the general manager of the Beaverbrook Playhouse. A few months later, he founded Theatre New Brunswick, which presented its first production in January 1969. Under Learning’s guidance as artistic director, over the next 10 years, TNB produced more than 85 productions. As one of Canada’s oldest and longest running regional theatre companies, TNB continues to create extraordinary theatre experiences that inspire, entertain and awaken the imagination of all New Brunswickers.
Another of Walter Learning’s most important roles is that of friend, of whom he has many. In April 1991, during the memorial service for Richard Hatfield, Learning spoke eloquently about his old friend and shared numerous experiences he and the former premier shared with their mutual friend, poet Alden Nowlan.
Reading from Nowlan’s poem, What Happened When He Went to the Store for Bread, Learning’s voice and Nowlan’s words lifted the spirits and opened the hearts of everyone who was in Fredericton’s Christ Church Cathedral that day. Even those who watched on closed-circuit TV had tears in their eyes.
” … there must be people in cities that I’ve never visited whose lives have changed, / perhaps not because of what I’ve written but because I wrote: / it might be that they didn’t like my play and so left early and because they left early something happened that would not have happened if they’d stayed – / I put it that way so as not to sound immodest. / God knows, / there’s not a lot to boast about when so much seems to depend upon the time of day a boy goes out to buy a loaf of bread.”
Thank you Walter Learning for all you have done to enrich the cultural life of New Brunswick including 50 years of professional theatre. A big round of applause for you! And, while I’m at it, a round of applause for Quidi Vidi, and your friends Richard and Alden too.