Golden era in New Brunswick

Posted on January 8, 2020
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Walter Learning died this week. The Newfoundlander who founded and directed Theatre New Brunswick’s first years was part of a group who made the1970s and 1980s a golden era in New Brunswick culture. Alden Nowlan, Leo Ferrari, Miramichiers Ray Fraser,  David Adams Richards, and Jim Stewart and Premier Richard Hatfield were the principals. 

Individually and collectively they amazed, outraged, entertained and focussed more national and international attention on New Brunswick than ever before.

Leo Ferrari was the St. Thomas professor who founded the Flat Earth Society. Members had titles. Alden Nowlan was the official court fool.

Meetings began with Leo stating, “The earth is flat as any fool can plainly see.”

At that point, Alden would rise and say, “I can see that.”

They concocted another stunt to introduce women to the shy Jim Stewart. They issued a statement that Jim was the direct descendant of Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded by Queen Elizabeth I. That attracted media attention around the world. There is a photograph of them planting a flag on, I think, Miramichi’s Bay du Vin Island and claiming the throne for King Jim. I think the plan worked. Jim did not become King of England but he did marry Peggy.

Walter and Alden co-wrote plays performed by TNB. They included “Dollar Woman,” about how destitute people were  reverse Dutch auctioned off in the 19th century in New Brunswick. People bid down to a price the province would pay them to provide a home for a poor person. A healthy, attractive young woman could go for as little as a dollar.

Alden and Walter also carried on a fake feud in the Telegraph Journal. Alden would insult Walter in his column. Walter would respond. Always attracted to a fight, people followed their exchanges providing publicity for their cause of the day.

A thing that really endeared Walter to me was that he often included an Atlantic author’s work in the touring TNB season. We saw plays like, “Head, Guts and Soundbone Dance,” about a fishing community confronting a collapse of a fishery.

Theatre New Brunswick’s first production of Godspell packed every house and had to be extended after an Anglican minister in Dalhousie tried to organize a boycott of the production, “portraying Jesus as a clown.” A final performance was arranged in, St.Dunstans Catholic Church ( ) in Fredericton. It was so packed the walls were lined and people were cross-legged on the floor, in the aisles and in front of the pews. At the end, a spotlight moved from the actor Jesus crucified to the crucifix on the church wall. I don’t remember a more powerful moment in theatre.

Premier Richard Hatfield was the perfect political leader for the time. He embraced the gang and hosted parties of his own that were legendary and in tune with the gang’s joie de vie.

At the time, all the very best actors in Canada came to perform for TNB. Douglas Campbell, Ted Follows, Henry Beckman, RH Thomson and many others were repeat performers.

Being a native Newfoundlander, Walter’s natural tendencies made him a great fit for Miramichiers. It was a sign of the significance of the theatre to Miramichiers when people were arguing about productions like “Mass Appeal,” the days after a show here. Miramichiers were a favourite audience.

Walter went on to other successes but his time with the gang in Fredericton left me memories that confirm W.O. Mitchell’s statement that “The arts are not a luxury. They’re how we know we are not alone.”




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