Using theatre to give voice to the homeless has seen an Auckland drama group win a major award.

Hobson Street Theatre Company was recognised at this week's Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards where it won the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Community Arts Award for its production That's What Friends Are For.

It was developed alongside the University of Auckland, directed by Professor Peter O'Connor and created by the actors themselves – all of whom have experienced homelessness. Judges said the project had the "wow factor" and by providing space for those who had been homeless to tell their stories, it was a powerful way to foster understanding and public conversations.

That's What Friends Are For debuted at the Auckland Fringe Festival in February and, described as "part play, part experiment", wanted to see if in just one hour, the actors could make friends with people in the audience.


Audiences were encouraged to think about how we make friends, what it means to be a friend and how you can bond with someone you might not believe you have much in common with. It won the Spirit of the Fringe Award at the 2019 Auckland Fringe Festival, toured to the Wellington and Dunedin Fringe Festivals and has been invited to overseas festivals in 2020.

Started in 2010 as a weekly drama activity for users of the Auckland City Mission's services, Hobson Street Theatre is now a professional company winning several awards and rave reviews. Any profits from its productions are shared equally between the actors who create the stories.

Company producer Amelia Yiakmis says they're showing that "homeless doesn't mean hopeless".

The Royal New Zealand Ballet was another big winner at the awards, held at Parliament's Banquet Hall. It was recognised for its commitment to make ballet more accessible and affordable to diverse communities around the country, taking home the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Arts for All Award.

During the past 18 months, the RNZB has introduced touch tours and audio described performances for blind and low vision patrons, relaxed performances for people with sensory, communication or learning impairments, a sign interpreted tour of the RNZB's headquarters for deaf people, free or low-cost events for children from low-decile school and workshops for inmates at Arohata and Rimutaka prisons.

It also offers a free seat for companions of disabled ticket-holders. These have seen the ballet perform to an additional 5000 people who might otherwise have been unable to attend.

Other award recipients were: the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre in Auckland; Otago's Ruth Ratcliffe, for her leadership and long-standing Forum Theatre programme at Otago Corrections Facility; Yaniv Janson, from Raglan, recognised for his artistic achievements in New Zealand and internationally and Arrin Clark, kaitiaki of tikanga, Northland Region Corrections Facility, for transforming the site into a Māori therapeutic community focused on rehabilitation and integrating tikanga.

Several other individuals and organisations were highly commended for their efforts to make visual, performing and literary arts more accessible to all.