Celebrated theatre director dies aged 81

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The late Walter Learning.

ONE of Canada’s – and Canberra’s — most significant theatre leaders has died in Fredericton, New Brunswick aged 81.

Walter Learning was known at Canberra REP from the 1960s for his astute direction of plays ranging from American classics like Tennessee Williams’s “Summer and Smoke” and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Ken Kesey’s “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to light farces by English playwright Ray Cooney.

Praised earlier this week in Canada as “a bright man with a wicked sense of humour,” and “a natural storyteller,” when Learning first arrived in Canberra during 1963 to work on a PhD in philosophy at the Australian National University, he was already a committed theatre practitioner.

Born in 1938 in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland, he had gone in 1957 to study business at the University of New Brunswick, but quickly turned to theatre and philosophy rather than business after being cast in a play for the campus drama society by legendary lecturer and theatre identity, Alvin Shaw.

After receiving his BA, he finished an MA, but a Commonwealth Scholarship at the ANU proved hard to resist and he was in Canberra by the time his Masters was conferred.

Learning’s time in Canberra was characterised by an outpouring of creativity. This week, former fellow-actors here recalled his performances onstage in Jean Anouilh’s “Becket” in 1963 and Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons” in 1964.

But it was a director that he became best known here, and although he returned to his home country after three years, he had already cemented relationships which were to last until his death, returning every two or three years to stay with friends in Canberra while directing plays for REP and acting as a mentor to young actors and directors.

An interview with Learning became one of my regular stints as an arts journalist and we enjoyed many ferocious, robust discussions about theatre, during one of which he said, “If you had told me in 1963” that Canberra wouldn’t have a full time theatre company by now, I would have believed you.”

You always got the impression that if Learning had stayed here, things might have been different.

Learning’s career path was extraordinary. On returning from Canberra to Canada in 1966, he became a lecturer in Philosophy at Memorial University of Newfoundland, then the general manager of the Beaverbrook Playhouse in Fredericton, where in 1969 he founded Theatre New Brunswick, Canada’s only full-time touring regional theatre for 40 and one of the longest running regional companies in Canada.

Earlier this week a long-time colleague in New Brunswick commented: “In establishing the company, he made a career in theatre a possibility for New Brunswickers…Before then, nobody thought of becoming an actor or, if they did, it was something other people did.”

In 1978 Learning was appointed head of theatre at the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa.

After four years he became artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse, later returning to the directorship of the Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island near New Brunswick.

In the early 1990s Learning was a freelance broadcaster, writer, director and actor on stage, film and TV, but returned to Theatre New Brunswick as executive producer until 1999, after which he resumed his freelance career.

In June, 2019, he received an Order of Canada, for having “cultivated excellence in theatre across Canada” and for “embodying steady leadership.”

It is understood that learning had been ill for some time and was in palliative care at the time of his peaceful death on Sunday.

He is survived by his wife, Ruthie nee Muldrew, and son, Warwick.

Canberra REP will hold a celebration of Learning’s life and art at the company’s theatre in Repertory Lane, NewActon, on Friday, January 17, from 5.30pm to.

Walter Learning, November 16,1938 – January 5, 2020.


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