Sitting at a café on Symonds St, Richard Turipa and Kelly Tunui nod, wave and greet a number of passers-by they've come to recognise and know during their years living on Auckland's streets.

Both men now have roofs over their respective heads but can recall their days of rough-sleeping or transient living and say making friends and feeling as if they were part of a community was important to keep their spirits raised and hopes alive.

This month, as part of the Auckland Fringe Arts Festival, they'll join fellow members of the Hobson Street Theatre Company for a performance they've helped write and create about the importance of friendship.

That's What Friends Are For is part play, part experiment to see if they can make friends with people in the audience in just one hour. It challenges those in and watching the show to think about how we make friends and what it means to be a friend. It also explores how you make friends with someone you don't feel you have much in common with.

Long-time members of the theatre group, Turipa, 38, and Tunui, 42, say they count themselves lucky because they don't find it overly difficult to strike up a conversation and start making friends but they acknowledge it's a skill many people struggle with.

Nevertheless, they firmly believe everyone needs at least one friend.

"When I was living around the city, I had a friend up in the Quadrant [Waterloo Quadrant]," Turipa recalled. "I would sleep in the trips then have a shower at his place and he'd say, 'come over for dinner' and it was little things like this that kept me going."

Tunui said being part of the Hobson Street Theatre Company had also been a vital part of being able to express and share feelings in the company of others.

Started in 2010 in association with the Auckland City Mission, the company makes original work that offers a perspective from often marginalised members of society and fuels important discussions around the issues facing them.

In the past nine years, they've made eight shows and at last year's New Zealand Fringe won the award for "Best Directed Chaos". Their success has led to tours and, this year, they'll head to Wellington and Dunedin after Auckland performances.

Turipa, also an artist whose work has been shown and sold in London, says being involved in the theatre group – and the City Mission's art therapy programme – has helped turn his life around.

"It gives you something else in life; it helps provide purpose."

Nodding in agreement, Tunui, a gentle giant with the most expressive eyebrows, added being able to use his own words and talk out loud about the experiences he's had is a good feeling.

"I'd never done anything like this before, except a little in high school but it was a bit of a different time back then," he said. "You see the stuff that kids can get into now; their teachers seem to be listening more to the kids about what they want and helping them get into it and it's just amazing to see that."

Working with Hobson Street Theatre Company is a first for Professor Peter O'Connor, an expert in applied theatre and drama education, who's based at the University of Auckland and has worked with marginalised communities in several countries.

He wanted to work with the company because of its high standard of work and the fact it gives people we don't often hear from a chance to have their say.

"We play a lot, we laugh a lot and we're committed to making really good theatre," O'Connor said.

"It may be a community of actors who lived on the streets, but it's not just about homelessness. It's about friendship, what you know about that if you've lived on the streets and celebrating the joy of having friends. It talks about what it means to be alive."

That's What Friends Are For is part of the Auckland Fringe Arts Festival and plays at the Basement Theatre, Tuesday – Saturday.