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Walter Learning, founder of Theatre New Brunswick, has died at 81

Walter Learning, of Fredericton, N.B., is invested as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, November 21, 2019.
Walter Learning, of Fredericton, N.B., is invested as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Thursday, November 21, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Wattie

The founder of Theatre New Brunswick, Walter John Learning, was still acting despite being legally blind. He had a computer that could speak his lines to him, and he would learn his part that way.

“He loved to play Santa Claus,” said David Johnson, a friend and former student of Learning. “He was a wonderful Santa.”

After a lifetime dedicated to artists and theatre in New Brunswick and across Canada, Learning died peacefully in Fredericton on Sunday night at the age of 81, according to longtime friend Ilkay Silk.

Learning founded Theatre New Brunswick – the province’s leading professional anglophone theatre company – in 1968. He was also an actor, writer, director, producer, and mentor.

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“I spoke to him a few days ago and I knew he was ill, but he seemed in very good spirits. He had problems with his lungs,” said Johnson.

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He said Walter gave him his first job in theatre.

“He started theatre in New Brunswick at a time when no one else in the country was doing it,” Johnson said.

According to the New Brunswick government, Learning’s vision was to create a theatre company that toured all over the province. Before Theatre New Brunswick, professional theatre companies only visited New Brunswick every few years, meaning only amateur productions provided opportunities to experience live theatre.

Under Learning’s leadership, the Theatre New Brunswick Young Company was established to bring live theatre to schools and to give young actors the opportunity to develop their talents.

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Learning also served as artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick from 1968 to 1978 and again from 1995 to 1999. In the years between, he served as the head of the theatre section of the Canada Council in Ottawa and as artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse and Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Centre of the Arts.

In 2018, he received the Order of New Brunswick in honour of his achievements in the field of art and theatre. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in November of 2019.

“He was very modest and quiet in his wonderful Newfoundland way about his accomplishment,” Johnson said of the Quidi Vidi, N.L.-born Learning.

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Among many celebrated productions are his collaborations with the late Governor General’s Award-winning poet Alden Nowlan, with whom he wrote plays including The Dollar WomanFrankenstein: The Man Who Became God and The Incredible Murder of Cardinal Tosca. The plays have been produced many times by companies across the continent, and The Dollar Woman is currently part of the Grade 11 English curriculum for anglophone school districts in New Brunswick.

Silk, one of the founding members of the Theatre New Brunswick Young Company, met Learning 49 years ago. Silk said Learning made theatre and acting a “legit profession” for people in New Brunswick.

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“We’ve created a lot of directors and theatre designers,” said Silk. “It made New Brunswick part of the professional theatre culture of Canada.”

Silk has now retired, but she’s currently the chair of the TNB Foundation, which is an organization that raises money for Theatre New Brunswick.

“He loved telling stories, and I think the theatre was an extension of that personality that was truly interested in people and in their stories,” she said.

“It didn’t matter what walk of life they came from. He was truly interested in humans and he had a wicked sense of humour, which we all had to match.”