Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho uses theatre to empower people living with homelessness, mental health issues and HIV by sharing their stories.

1 Hobson Street Theatre Company is performing The Race as part of the Auckland Fringe festival. What's it about?

The play has been created in collaboration with five people who have all been homeless or used the Auckland City Mission services at one time. Three of them have performed with Hobson Street Theatre Company before. We give people the space to tell the story they want to tell. This group decided they wanted to explore the theme of race division. They feel it's a timely issue that resonates for them. Discrimination is something they've all experienced. The play takes place in an adult te reo class and each cast member plays a character they've devised themselves.

2 Will it be a confronting play to watch?

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No. They've been careful to keep it fun and edgy. The aim is to create an interesting space to open up conversation. I mean, if you're wearing a white sheet over your head it may be a bit confronting, but it will be an exciting experience for anyone who wants to engage with intelligent and articulate people away from the streets. Most of them are housed now so they have the opportunity to give back. There's still a really strong perception that homeless people choose to live on the streets.

3 Do you think that's the case?

I have yet to meet someone who wants to be out in this weather. One person I worked with ended up on the streets for a couple of years because they had such anxiety with people they couldn't hold down a job. That problem was solved by someone just taking the time to sit down and listen. Seeing that really made the situation tangible for me. I love working with the City Mission. They do amazing work. It feeds my soul and that's all you can really ask for in a job.

4 How can theatre help a person who is homeless?

We provide a space where people who would normally be judged for their life are able to tell their stories in an authentic way. Putting that on stage is not just empowering for them but also for the people they're engaging with. We can figure out what the conversations are and help change perceptions to be more positive.

5 Why did you create the Atawhai Festival three years ago?

The festival aims to break down stigma around mental health through performance and workshops. I set it up because I got really upset about how disconnected the mental health sector seemed. The NGOs are all so underfunded they end up doing their own thing. It's like those car-yard balloons with their arms flailing about in the air. I wanted to create an ongoing event that could help unify the performance sector. The only way to get people to buy into something is if it already exists. We held it at my family's theatre company, Te Pou in New Lynn. Now it's reached the stage where we've started getting buy-in and funders. We've built it from one venue to seven across Auckland.

6 You also helped create the Puawai festival for the HIV support agencies Body Positive and Positive Women. How did you get involved with them?

I was approached by Body Positive who were looking at ways to empower people living with HIV. People who had been newly diagnosed were experiencing a lot of negative stereotypes and social perceptions possibly still lingering from the 80s. We decided to stage a week-long festival with the same format as the mental health one with workshops in the day and performances at night. I'm not HIV positive but we were able to connect around the theme of, "What is the armour that we have to wear every day?" Five HIV positive people made the decision to share their stories on stage that first week. It was very challenging for them but the result was beautiful.

Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho loved singing and dancing but had no idea it could be a career until later in life. Photo / Peter Meecham
Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho loved singing and dancing but had no idea it could be a career until later in life. Photo / Peter Meecham

7 Growing up in Rotorua, what was your childhood like?

Full of whanau. Dad's the eldest of 14 kids so there were constantly people around. When my Koro passed away in the early 2000s we had 96 first cousins so we practically have our own iwi. Mum's one of those people who always has an open home for anyone who needs help. She grew up in Ruatoki so Maori is her first language.

8 Were you brought up speaking te reo?

I was until I started school at 5. Mum says I refused to speak te reo after that because no one spoke it at school. We were the only brown family on the street as well. It's the child thing of needing to fit in. Mum was involved in starting the first kohanga reo so my younger siblings are fluent.

9 Did you show an early talent for performing?

Yes, I loved singing and dancing from a young age. In high school I joined a Youth For Christ group that would travel around doing variety shows and musicals. I never had any formal training. When you're young you think you're invincible.

10 As a teenager did you ever have the idea that singing and dancing could be a career?

No way. I didn't even know you could leave Rotorua. I knew the world existed because I'd met tourists but coming from a working-class family you don't know that it's an opportunity that you can have. I have a vivid memory from when I was 7. My teacher was Dutch so she held a Dutch Day and came in with posters and tulips and clogs. I can remember really wanting to be in that place. I left school to do hairdressing and when I went on my OE at 19, the first place I went to was Amsterdam. It was sensory overload - the streets, the smells, the architecture. I almost got myself killed that first day because I was so busy looking up I almost walked in front of a tram. I got the travel bug and was in and out of New Zealand for the next 20 years.

11 How did the Hobson Street Theatre Company come into being?

Two women from Auckland Live, Bronwyn Bent and Sally Barnett, started the company and its relationship with Auckland City Mission. I got involved about six months later. My brother Tainui, who also works in theatre, was asked to take a workshop with a group of people who were living rough. He was unavailable so he asked me to take it. Eight years later I'm still here - I love it. The causes of homelessness are so complex. There are people on the spectrum and with anxiety and depression.

12 Do you have any personal experience with mental illness?

I don't think you can exist as a human without knowing some ups and downs. My story's just slightly different to the person standing next to me. I have lost a few friends to suicide. Seeing the struggles of friends living with mental illness has enraged me at times. I had to figure out the way I was best placed to help. My biggest decision was going back to uni to do a performing arts degree. I wanted to find a way to use the arts to change the conversations. Theatre provides a great space where people can come in and engage with a person who has lived experience without feeling scared or judged.

• The Race from is on from February 28 to March 3 at the Herald Theatre. aucklandfringe.co.nz