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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

Theatre heals workplace wounds

By Sharon Aschaiek
Special to the Toronto Sun

What do you get when you cross an accountant with a theatre actor? If you said someone who delivers financial reports with Shakespearean flair, you'd be wrong.

Peter Gardiner-Harding is someone whose managed to integrate two very different skill sets into one unique enterprise.
Peter Gardiner-Harding
Founder of Plays that Work

He is the founder of Plays that Work (, a theatre troupe that works with businesses to create dramatic simulations of workplaces issues.

His seven productions help employees explore matters such as respect (or lack of it) in the workplace, managing for inclusion, prejudice and human resources laws.

Each production follows the interactive, community storytelling model of forum theatre, which allows participants to discuss each scene, provide input and even change the direction of the play.

"Whenever we do a show, we always ask participants to find out what they can do to make the situation better for themselves," says Gardiner-Harding, 48. "It's about asking, How can I make things better? Or, How do I contribute to the status quo?"

One of his most-often performed productions, Patients, explores the matter of intergenerational conflict in the workplace. The troupe is currently performing the play at some hospitals where the majority of nurses are over age 45 or under age 30.

To create the play, Gardiner-Harding spent three days talking to nurses, doctors and other personnel to find out their personal stories of conflict with their co-workers.

He then took that input back to his team, and together they created characters and scripts that personified their situations.

Find your power

"Typically we will ask a question like 'Does this resonate with you in the way you see life around here?' There is usually an overwhelming 'Yes! Thank you for validating that this is my reality, and for allowing us to get into this conversation,'" he says.

"This show offers people the chance to try to understand where they're power is and how they can change things."

Change is something with which Gardiner-Harding is intimately familiar. At 30, with a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Toronto under his belt, he was set to begin a career as an accountant. By the late 1980s, after just a few years in the business, he had burned out on corporate Canada. He dabbled in theology for a year at U of T's Trinity College before finally deciding to pursue his lifelong dream: acting.

He says that his business background has been instrumental in both running the business and attracting clientele.

"Right from the beginning of theatre training I was looking at it through eyes of a business man," says Gardiner-Harding, who splits his time between offices in Toronto and Victoria, B.C. "It has been wonderful from a networking perspective, and when I approach a business, people are more likely to take me seriously because I have a business background."

While many businesses still balk at his idea ("You want me to pay you to entertain my employees?"), he has managed to forge partnerships with more than two dozen progressive companies and organizations over the last several years, including such high-profile outfits as the Bank of Montreal, GlaxoSmithKline Inc., Concordia University, The Hospital for Sick Children, Drake, Beam Morin - Canada Inc. and Rogers Publishing.

"I love honouring these people through storytelling," he says. "I still have participants from 1999 and 2000 productions who continue to write me and update me on their lives. It's wonderful to see theatre being used in a way that's so useful."

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