Theatre-maker Ben Crowder stands in a room that looks like the study of a bookish high school teacher circa 1968: poetry titles and plays crammed on to dusty wooden shelves, brown furniture and a fading poster from Bruce Mason's 1960 production of End of the Golden Weather.

Authentic as it looks, it's not an actual room but the set for Te Po - the story of a detective, a priest and a blindman brought together ostensibly to look for missing playwright Bruce Mason.

But there's more to it than that.

Creator and actor Carl Bland wrote Te Po as a homage to his late partner, Peta Rutter, so it's also about grief; not only for the person who has gone, says Bland, but for your own identity which was based on someone's constant presence in your life.


When it debuted at the 2016 New Zealand Festival in Wellington, followed by a short season at the Auckland Arts Festival, Te Po received positive reviews for its gentle treatment of love and loss, remorse and, ultimately, renewal.

Given the renewal part of that, Te Po seems an apt show to remount to mark a new phase in Crowder and Bland's theatre-making. After 12 years, they've merged their respective theatre companies to form Nightsong and intend to stage more regular productions which will incorporate the theatrical magic and surreal stories they're known for.

That magic has included creating a realistic-looking seal who dollops along the edge of a round stage (in 360), giant cats and hands reaching out of onstage pools (in this year's Spirit House) and a 4m head that wakes up on stage and converses, deep and meaningfully, with the audience (2005's Head).

Te Po's set has a circular and modern-looking window big enough for various fauna to swing by and walls high enough that a giraffe can peer over them. Crowder says the effects result from old-fashioned stage craft.

"A lot of the elements are not magic for the characters; these things just occur and are a part of the characters' reality so when we talk about theatrical magic, it's more as in how did we achieve that and how does that happen on the set? It's what would be called theatrical magic and a lot of it is quite old-fashioned stage mechanics, it's amazing what a pulley and some wheels can do."

Bland says he likes to write stories that ask big questions, so there's a philosophical element to his plays and a questioning of our perceptions of reality and what makes us tick.

"Magic is sort of transformation, isn't it, in that it's things that transform," he says.

"That's just how I write naturally anyway because that's under the surface of all true things, all that imagery, our dreams and unconscious, it's right there but it gets a little bit ignored. Children have got much more of a take on it but somehow we lose that."

The new commitment to becoming a "sustainable" organisation brings them slightly more down to earth. It means applying for more consistent funding, looking for opportunities to tour shows, both here and overseas, it's already made and producing new ones with the same pulling power.

"We have been working out how to become a sustainable organisation - and I hate the word sustainable - but basically how to make largescale works and how to employ other collaborators and artists and designers who are of high-standard," says Crowder.

That's previously been achieved by working with arts festivals, who stump up some of the cash needed to make the work, but now the duo wants to be able to put longer term plans in place.

"You can't plan ahead when you're going project to project," says Bland.

He's already written a new show called Red Light, which will be developed next year for performances in 2019, and is collaborating with his father, Peter, on a children's show called The Dancing Worm.

Te Po reunites Crowder and Bland with Rawiri Paratene, who played the blindman in early script readings, Andrew Grainger and youngster Max Cumberpatch.

What: Te Po
Where & when: Rangatira at Q Theatre; until Saturday, November 4