When you call your first theatre show Your Heart Looks Like a Vagina, you might expect it to attract a certain kind of audience.

Just ask Dominic Hoey, formerly known as rapper Tourettes, about performing his one-man show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. Waiting to go on stage beforehand, Hoey heard a group of women ask the ticket office if they were in the right place for the feminist play.

"I thought, 'oh no, I hope they're not disappointed.' "

They weren't. Your Heart combines poetry, comedy and theatre to recount the life-changing journey Hoey found himself on when, in 2013, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis (a rare and serious form of arthritis). He'd been struggling with symptoms, including pain which got progressively worse, for three years and at one point, doctors thought he had bowel cancer.

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"The name [of the play] comes from one time when I was having a heart scan and I was with a friend who yelled out, 'your heart looks like a vagina!' You should have seen the look of the face of the guy doing the scan but I thought it conjured up a beautiful image so it became the name of the show."

In it, Hoey talks about how the pain became so bad, he was bed-ridden; the daily dance with getting medication right and having to change his life to reclaim it. He is quick to say that Your Heart is "heaps funnier" than it sounds and it has been described as a dark comedy about living with an autoimmune condition.

"You know, like going to WINZ and being told, despite the fact that I could barely walk at the time, I wasn't sick enough to go on a benefit because I could still use my hands so I could, perhaps, work a cash register … I mean, you've really got to be able to laugh, haven't you?"

Hoey worked with experienced theatre director Nisha Madhan on Your Heart which sold out its first performances in Auckland last year. From there, it travelled to Melbourne and Queensland now returning to Auckland because people kept telling him they'd missed it last year and wanted to see it. After Auckland, Your Heart goes to Bats in Wellington.

It's part of a new career direction for the 40-year-old, who's also doing more teaching and mentoring with youth excluded from mainstream education.

"It's about pointing out that I don't have a lot of formal education and I am severely dyslexic which shows you can still get on and do things; that it's often the system, not the person, which is the problem."

That's aptly demonstrated by the fact that Hoey released his first novel last year, Iceland, which became an NZ best-seller and was longlisted in the Ockham NZ Book Awards. Although it was written in Iceland, where he was on a writer's residency, the story was inspired by growing up in Grey Lynn in the 1980s and how it compares to the present day. It took years to complete because of his battles with ankylosing spondylitis.

Hoey would probably agree he's growing older and wiser, but the arts scene around him is also changing.

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"Even just seven years ago, I remember putting on spoken word shows and people saying, 'I can't believe I'm going to a poetry show' and my rap crew used to be ribbing me ..."

Now, he says, spoken words shows are much more common and no one bats an eyelid at going along. He's also happy that Iceland means he gets to talk at writers' festivals.

"I get to go and speak about masculinity and how the characters in my book might have been impacted by - and it's not a term I like - so-called toxic masculinity. I enjoy those sorts of discussions ..."

Lowdown:

What: Your Heart Looks Like a Vagina
Where & When: The Basement, April 10 - 14
What: Auckland Writers Festival - City Streets featuring Hoey, Pip Adams and Chinese writer Xue Yiwei talking of the inspiration of place in their writing.
Where & when: Upper NZI Room, Aotea Centre, May 20