Jon Spayde for Utne Reader
Most actors who aren’t established stars show up at auditions, wait for callbacks (which may never come), work briefly on a play or film, and then go through the process all over again-while waiting tables or driving cabs.
Peter Gardiner-Harding has found an entirely different way to survive as an actor. From his base in Toronto, the 48-year-old actor-director approaches corporations and nonprofits with a win-win proposition: Hire him and his troupe www.playsthatwork.com to create plays that dramatize workplace issues, from boss-employee tensions to new ways to recharge workers’ energy.
The plays that he and his fellow actors create for in-house audiences are not only carefully researched in consultation with the people involved – they’re interactive, too. Among the many tools Gardiner-Harding uses is the Forum Theater approach developed by Brazilian director, Augusto Boal, in which audience members can suggest alternative directions for the action and propose solutions to the play’s problems. “I want an art form that people can embrace and let into themselves. I want to connect with them where they are,” says Gardiner-Harding.
Born in Montreal, he had an early bent for theater and music, but his parents’ death when he was 17 pushed him in an entirely different direction; with a younger sister to support, Gardiner-Harding took a business degree from the University of Toronto and became an accountant. He also put away his dreams of acting and singing.
Many years later, after encountering socially concerned plays, he began to wonder whether he could combine the business connections he’d made as an accountant with an acting career that emphasized helping people and a new business was born. In 2000, Gardiner-Harding let his accountant’s license lapse, had his dark hair streaked with bohemian blond highlights, and made a full-time commitment to his new life. He’s since moved with his wife, Irene, to British Columbia, commuting monthly to his Toronto business base.
His clients include major Canadian banks, universities, and medical facilities – among them a Toronto hospital at the center of the recent SARS epidemic. In each of the years since he launched the business, he’s made more money than in his best year as an accountant while bringing the healing power of theater to bear on real lives. Sure beats waiting tables.