First Person Singular: Learning About Learning

The Mysterious East 1.9 (August 1970): 22-25.

A low, beige brick neocolonial structure, the Playhouse is widely resented among the citizens of Fredericton both for its very ordinary architecture and for its location, which involved the destruction of a number of historically significant homes. It is less widely resented because of its defects as a playhouse, but those who resent it for that reason resent it more intensely.

But the Playhouse right now is the home of two of Fredericton's more interesting phenomena -- Theatre New Brunswick and its director, Walter Learning. By rights, as The Mysterious East has pointed out before, Fredericton has no business having a resident theatre. That it has is largely the work of Learning, its inventor and director. When he arrived here a couple of years ago the Playhouse was pretty much the sort of rental hall you find in most middling sized cities; a hall for touring shows and conventions but hardly a centre of creative activity.

Now, however, Theatre New Brunswick, based at the Playhouse, is entering its fifth "season"; plans are in the works for the rebuilding of the Playhouse as a theatre, and relations are developing between the university theatrical communities and the Playhouse that could lead to an exciting dramatic scene in Fredericton. A lot has happened, clearly, at St. John and Queen Streets in the last couple of years.

When I arrived at the Playhouse to talk to Learning, the cast was in rehearsal for the first summer production, Noel Coward's Private Lives. As I entered the lobby, I had to step across a velvet cord and ignore a huge sign saying: "Do Not Enter: Rehearsals in Progress.'" In the director's office, 1 talked to the Playhouse staff while waiting for a break in rehearsals. Lee Learning, the director's wife, a dark-haired, pretty woman with a precise coiffure and the precise soft diction of a teacher or a librarian, talked about some of the difficulties of working in the Playhouse. One problem, she said, "has been this thing about rehearsal space. For instance, rehearsals started a week ago today, but we had a convention, thirteen hundred nurses from all across Canada. The commissionaires weren't letting anybody in. We made badges with these little suns -- the TNB sun -- that we wore around here, just so the commissionaires wouldn't stop us every time we came in the door. So there they were, rehearsing over in the basement of the Cathedral Parish Hall. On several occasions, a good number of them actually, Walt and Doreen (Doreen Grimstead, another Playhouse staff member) have to get on the telephone and search all over the town, anywhere from up the hill to -- what's the name of the Catholic establishment?"

Mrs. Grimstead: "Monsignor Boyd."

"Yes, the Monsignor Boyd Centre, they rehearse there, and just about anywhere else they can get enough space to put chairs around for the set."

Other disadvantages of the building, pointed out Mrs. Learning, include the lack of a fly gallery above the stage to raise and lower scenery. It was, she said, "originally in the plans, but didn't quite make it to the building stage."

I'd heard a rumour that Lord Beaverbrook had looked at the plans and ordered that the fly gallery come off. "Well, I think the wording that I 'heard was 'No, I don't like that ugly bump on top.' But how reliable that is, I don't know."

Backstage we found the cast collapsed on folding chairs and an old couch, stand-in props pending the arrival of the real stuff, four thousand dollars worth, which will be borrowed from various establishments and people around Fredericton, Learning was shouting directions and walking around at great speed with a cup of coffee in one hand and a small notebook -- covered, I noticed later, with almost totally illegible inscriptions in pencil, regarding placements of props and actors on the stage -- in the other. We went into the gallery which runs the length of the house to talk, and I waited on one of the low plastic-covered benches which interior decorators seem to think human beings can sit on while he explained something about the apprentices to Mrs. Grimstead.

As he settled himself as much as one can on the bench, and the interview began, I was struck again by the observation a friend had once made that Walter Learning looks like exactly the sort of person to mobilize a community like Fredericton behind an artistic venture. Good-looking enough to be convincing as an actor or an artistic type, but not so handsome as to be untrustworthy-looking, he has a generous, expressive mouth, dark glasses which allow him to look thoughtful and introspective when he wants to, and fashionably long hair. Enthusiastically speaking of the future of the Playhouse and of TNB, he talks more with his face than his hands. Elderly ladies, one suspects, mother him. You'd buy a used car from him.

ME: How did you happen to come to Fredericton?

LEARNING: Well, I have a pre-history in Fredericton, because I did my BA and MA at UNB, working with the Drama Society there, and then I went to Australia. When I came back from Australia to go to Memorial to teach: I spent two summers here in Fredericton teaching drama at the university, so I had some friends in Fredericton, and when the vacancy came up at the Playhouse, a friend told me about it, so I just wrote and applied. I was interviewed, along with the others, and lucky enough to get it.

ME: When you came, there was no plan in anybody's head to do what you've done since you've come.


ME: So in effect you were hired to sort of, what, to manage the Playhouse.

LEARNING: Well, I was going to take over the Arts and Culture Centre in Newfoundland, and I had worked out a plan to establish a company to be known as Theatre Newfoundland (laughs), its production unit based in St. John's, and then we'd tour the province. Things didn't work out, for various reasons. So when I came and was interviewed by the Board, I made it quite clear to them that I was not particularly interested in just, you know, being a rental agent for this place, and was really not interested in the job unless it entailed production, and convinced them to allow me to do a summer season. They'd had a few bad experiences with summer theatre, couldn't get any money to do it, so, foolishly or otherwise, I suggested, what about if we do it on ticket income? They chuckled and said, yeah, well, go ahead, if it's not going to cost us any money, go ahead, but, you know, don't come looking for any money. So we went ahead and we did the summer season. I prepared a budget for the summer season, and they accepted it and they said, fine, that's your budget, it really is not of very much interest to us, you know, because we're not putting any money into it. So we went ahead and we did it. And we lost a hundred dollars and fifty-four cents. What that did was that the hard nosed businessmen on the board were prepared to think, hey, maybe we're not just involved with an artsy-craftsy type, I mean maybe we've got somebody who knows what a budget is, and if he says it's going to cost x number of dollars, it'll end up costing just about x number of dollars. Then -- because at that point, you know, things were looking pretty good -- I went to them, and said, look, here's what goes into Theatre New Brunswick, this is what I'd like to do, this year, and I'm going to need an extra fifteen thousand dollars to do it. The Beaverbrook Foundation said, well, OK, without any commitment to the future, let's take a go at it and see if it works. We came out eighteen hundred dollars under budget, at the end of the year, and so they said, yeah, you know, it looks like this is the kind of way that it should go. That's the way it's been going ever since, luckily.

ME: Lee said you were involved in the planned renovations of the Playhouse from the beginning.

LEARNING: Yeah. The limitations of the building have been very, very evident. Nobody can appreciate it more than I can. So when we got a sympathetic ear to listen to us, and they said, you know, if it were done, what would you want done? We told them what we'd like done. Quite sensibly, they got an independent opinion, by getting a firm of architects who were specialists in theatre architecture, to take a look at the plant and say, if you were hired to do a job on it, what would you do? And they came up with virtually exactly the same things. On the basis of that, they said, well, OK, let's take a really good hard look at it. This is what they've done, and I couldn't be happier.

ME: What's going to happen with the seating?

LEARNING: The seating probably will go down. It'll go down to, oh, maybe about eight hundred. That's not really a problem, although a couple of people panic, I think, when they think that we're going to, hey, cut the capacity. But when you look at the figures, you'll see that on only seven occasions have you needed more than 800 seats. If you've got something that's going to draw anywhere from a thousand to thirteen hundred, you run two performances, that's all, you know, it's really not too difficult a thing. But to sit with a white elephant around your neck, enough to hold a thousand, just to wait for seven occasions when you might fIll it . . . when we finish with what's going to be done, I think you'll have one of the most attractive, most comfortable theatres of its size anywhere in the country.

ME: What's actually going to be done to the place? And why wasn't it done before?

LEARNING: Why wasn't it done before? Well, it's only been two years that the thing has really been used as a production unit, when it was finally TNB. Before that we had the summer seasons, which didn't put all that much of a demand on the facility itself. When we started using it as a production facility, for setting the tours going, then it became very tricky. The limitations really became obvious, when we had to store things and tour, you know, and those kinds of things. It's really only been in the last two years that we've had lots of opportunity to see where the shortcomings are. I don't think anybody ever anticipated, that there would be as much activity in the place as there was, you know. And so the building was designed -- or not designed -- to be all things to all men, eh? So consequently you ended up with a hodgepodge that really didn't serve any one of its functions extremely well. It does serve the function of being an extremely good cinema, the best we have in the town.

ME: It's not a disaster as an orchestra hall.

LEARNING: No, it isn't. Oh, no, no, no, it isn't. But when it comes to it functioning as a production center, then you're in trouble, because you've got no storage space, you've got no rehearsal hall, no costume room, you've got no offices for production staff, you've just got no way to separate the two big functions of the place, and that is (a) as a rental house for the community -- which it's always going to be -- and (b) as a production centre, which are two sort of diametrically opposed things. We had all kinds of problems in the winter season, with us out there trying to put out props and our sets and work on them, while people were coming in and using the place.

ME: And also, of course, you have the limitation of no fly gallery.

LEARNING: And no fly gallery, which limits us in how we can move scenery around, very, very much so.

ME: How do you feel about the house?

LEARNING: The house itself?

ME: For instance, I've always felt quite separated from the stage.

LEARNING: Yeah. Yeah, this is a big problem with the house. As a cinema -- yeah, fine. Got lots and lots and lots of length for the screen and that -- where you don't need that proximity -- but, no, the relationship between the performer and the audience is bad. One of the big things that's got to be done is changing the relationship between the performer and the audience.

ME: In what specific way is the relationship going to be better?

LEARNING: Well, for example, let's say that they did decide to move the stage right up to the cross aisle. In the center of the house. Then the furthest seat away would be no more than forty feet from the center of the stage.

ME: That's as good as Stratford. Stratford's forty feet, isn't it?

LEARNING: No, Stratford goes more than forty. But let me give you an idea. Right now, from the centre of the stage to our back wall, it's almost exactly the same measurement that it is from the centre of the stage to the back wall of the Opera House at the National Art Centre, which seats twenty-three hundred people. So you see, there's something wrong with the relationship. Now if that stage is brought forward so that the present proscenium arch is the back wall of the stage, then if you sit in the front seat of the balcony, you can't see anybody underneath you. You just see right directly down to the stage. Then you're getting something like the small theatres in England, where you get the lovely balconies right on top of the stage.

ME: In other words you have two front rows, effectively.

LEARNING: Yeah. And I think that the balcony will turn out -- if this plan is the one that's used -- the balcony will turn out to be a prime seat. You know, it'll be just absolutely perfect there as it will be in any other seat in the house anyway. Just walk in and stand in the centre aisle, and think, hey, I'm on stage. Just see what happens to the whole building. Because, see, right now, you know, it bows in and then it bows in, and it bows in just where the stage sort of starts so that the audience is not held in the broad arms of the thing. It's just sort of outside looking in the wrong end of the telescope. So if you bring it all forward, it's one continual. It's one . . . one thing. Right through, you know.

ME: Are you going to have a thrust stage, or still a proscenium?

LEARNING: Oh no. Still pross. Still pross. Remember, it's sort of gone in a circle, eh? The thrust came on strong for a while, but if you go to a thrust, you find that you force things into thrust which should never, ever, ever be done in a thrust. And if you're stuck with the bloody thrust.

ME: But of course it works the other way, too, doesn't it?

LEARNING: It does work the other way to a certain extent, except the majority of things that you're doing do fit in a frame. The pross gives you a greater degree of things that you can do, really, than the thrust does.

ME: Also, it probably does give you a greater degree of the things you're going to do in Fredericton.


ME: How do you feel about that? Do you make allowances for the New Brunswick audience that would be different from audiences in other places?

LEARNING: Yes, Some allowance has to be made, because first of all, we haven't got an audience which has got the habit of going to the theatre, and consequently we don't have an audience which knows the conventions. When you do things of the sort that their intrinsic value -- what makes them what they are -- is breaking the conventions . . . 

ME: Nobody gets it..

LEARNING: Nobody gets it. It's another language being spoken. So until you do teach them the language, in some sense, they won't know when somebody's doing funny things with the language, eh? But they'll have a surfeit of the kinds of things we're doing after a couple of years, and the audience will start demanding that another kind of thing be done.

ME: In a sense, TNB is at least in part a kind of educational program. Obviously you've got to build an audience.

LEARNING: I think it's the prime thing that we're doing. It'll reach, you know, a certain plateau, and then a change of direction will happen, will have to happen, otherwise it'll just stagnate and die.

ME: That leads to the possibility of creating, somehow or other a theatrical community in Fredericton. You've got a base. Have you thought about creating something like a more permanent company? That strikes me as one of the ways of educating an audience.

LEARNING: An ensemble unit, as it were.

ME: Yeah.

LEARNING: Well, this is interesting, because I started out and quite consciously kept away from having a permanent company, a permanent acting company. Our production unit has been pretty permanent; Jim Swan has been with me right from the first TNB season -- my production manager -- costume people, wardrobe people, designers, have been with me pretty well along the way. Acting company, no -- I didn't want to bet boxed into a situation -- as Neptune found themselves in, for example -- where you end up with a permanent company of, say, fifteen, and after a couple of years, every body gets to know everybody pretty well and the dominant personalities start having a pretty strong voice. Plus the very simple logistic problems what happens when you've got fifteen people in your acting company and you want to do a couple of plays that only take three or four people? Suddenly you've got all the people sitting, you know, on your hands.

ME: And on your budget.

LEARNING: And on your budget. At the outset, doing the kind of thing that we had to do, my fIrst thing was to get competent people who could work together. You need to have people work together to see if they can work together. So we went through our fIrst season, dropping people in the winter. Now we do hold people through for the full season in the summer, but not in the winter. But now, look what's happened. Of the people we've got here for my third summer season, which is TNB's really fIfth sort of season since it started -- everyone of these people has worked here before. So a natural sort of selection again has happened. I've found eight or ten people who work very well together for me, who are very competent. It was very surprising the first night they all arrived, you know, last Sunday. We had a little get together before we started rehearsals the next day. Every one of them had worked here before, and you naturally assume that they all know each other. But it suddenly occurred to us that, hey, no, they didn't know each other, because they had worked here that year and this time, you know, so --

ME: At different times.

LEARNING: -- it was sort of a whole new group coming together but having a common bloody experience. So now they come together, and it's proved -- we're a week from opening, right now -- it wouldn't be the greatest thing in the world, but we could open this show tonight. And it's happened because they work very well together.

ME: One of the things I was thinking of when I asked about community, probably was implied simply by having a standard production staff. But one of the things I've noticed about Fredericton is that music effectively doesn't exist here, whereas it does in Halifax, and it does in Ottawa, now that they have the Arts Center there, because the musicians are there in the community, and you perform a really intense educational thing by having that kind of community. In some ways the Playhouse can provide that sort of focus professionally.

LEARNING: Yeah, it can to a certain extent, but there are areas of responsibility which are going to be shared by this place and the university, and there are certain things that the university can do a hell of a lot better than we can. Now, they're going to get their resident string quartet up there, eh, and they've had their resident musicians. I think it's a pity in the past that their resident, sort of, program, at the university -- which is a great idea -- has been a little too introverted. It's not coming out to the community. And I hope that this will change. More experimental theatre, for instance -- I'd like to get into some of that kind of stuff too, but there's some talk about a Fine Arts Faculty at the University, which would be the logical place to fulfill that responsibility. Not only to the university, but to the community as a whole. There's a "getting in phase" that's got to happen between this place and the university; academics can't sit up on the hill and say, "Well, that's just a,you know, a . . . snot-nosed commercial sort of venture." We just did, in our two winter seasons, eight plays. To get in Glass Menagerie, Inadmissible Evidence, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Black Comedy -- now four out of eight . . .

ME: And A Resounding Tinkle, which I think is a more interesting play than Black Comedy.

LEARNING: And a Resounding Tinkle, again, sure. That's not too bad, for two seasons.

ME: How about the future? How will the rebuilding affect the winter season, for instance?

LEARNING: They fIgure that it'll take us nine months to get to where we can knock out the fIrst brick. Which takes us up to February, March. I suspect that they will start construction in March, and it'll take nine months then. So that means that we'll be able to get but fIrst two, and possibly our third, show of the winter season next year in the Playhouse, and the last one we'll probably have to do in the high school or something. Just as long as we have a place to rehearse, and build our stuff, we'll be all right. So the winter season won't be affected. The summer season is a more interesting one to speculate about, because very defInitely we're not going to stop production at all.

ME: That's good, I think if you stopped it would . . .

LEARNING: Oh, yeah, it would be very bad. We'd lose our reputation right now. I suspect that we'll probably end up doing our summer season in a tent over on the green. Which would be a rather exciting thing, too.

ME: I think it would be very exciting.

LEARNING: See you bet a big marquee, and . . . Stratford started that way.

ME: Yeah, an awful lot of summer theatre is done that way now. Also, that would free you to do things in that summer season that would be fun.

LEARNING: That would be a lot of fun. So maybe this time next year we'll be over there getting ready the week before we open, eh? It's that short a time; this time next year. It's incredible what you can do with money.

When we went back into the theatre, the principals were waiting for rehearsals to begin again. After some difficulty with the lowering of the orchestra pit and some prop placements, Learning went to the center of the house and the two principals began their run-through of Act II of Private Lives. The two subordinate characters sat to one, side, awaiting their entrance at the end, of a long scene between the principals. One apprentice sat with a prompt-book on one side of the stage; another reclined in a third-row seat.

Learning watched intently, making scratches in the ever-present notebook; he interrupted only once, to move "EIyot" to the other side of a coffee table, so that he would be where he had to be for a later line. As the act ended, he looked up. "We could open this show tonight," he said again.