Theatre director and founder of Tuatara Collective, Jason Te Mete was attending a BBQ in Auckland in early January of 2021 when his life changed forever. Bitten or stung by an insect carrying a flesh-eating bacteria, he would spend the next six months in and out of hospital for eight major surgical procedures and is lucky to be alive. Mostly recovered, with some permanent physical damage and epic scars, he is gradually returning to the work he loves. Jason talks to Oliver Hall about making authentic art, Tuatara’s holistic approach to health and overcoming his ordeal.

A seasoned performer and respected director, Jason Te Mete founded his own theatre company, Tuatara Collective in 2017, focusing on authentic Te Ao Māori, Pasifika and LGBTQ+ storytelling.

“I had some personal stories that I wanted to tell. I wanted to create a company that was a little bit different to those around the industry in Aotearoa. A company with a Māori worldview with holistic wellbeing and mental health threaded throughout every project, telling stories that are relevant and topical, intended to not only be great theatre but also inspire conversation within communities, about topics that the community was dealing with, like suicide, racial awareness, gender, equality and sexuality.”


Jason tells us he got sick of seeing topics like suicide, used in cliched ways, that were just ‘part of the story.’ He tells us he felt that level of care was indicative of the lack of support actors themselves were given when they departed a project.

“It’s industry-wide. We live in a project-by-project space, where you get asked to be part of a show, you rehearse and get very intimate with the people you’re working with, you put this show on stage, and at the end of it, you all just part ways… So if there was ever a moment of reflection, darkness, or self-confidence, there is no one there to support artists. So you are taking baggage from one project to another.”

Tuatara Collective developed the Rātā Initiative, an innovative arts practice supporting mental health in the arts industry.

“As part of our process, we regularly engage with the performers after the show’s finished. We provide mental health training, via professional psychologists and qualified counsellors that come in and work with our actors. We’ve had amazing feedback from artists that have worked with us who say they didn’t realize they needed as much support as they got, without even asking for it. In saying that, a lot of our projects are quite heavy content, so we feel responsible to make sure that they have the extra support. Though even it’s just a fluffy old comedy, it’s nice to have a traditional Māori massage session in the midst of a heavy rehearsal period to loosen everyone up.”

Tuatara Collective’s work has already begun to impact Aotearoa’s arts scene with the success of productions like Little Black Bitch, Over My Dead Body: Uninvited, and their recent HAU Festival at Basement Theatre which included bilingual theatre experience Hine Te Rēhia.

Te Mete is clearly thrilled and humbled by Tuatara Collective’s success, following an extremely challenging 18 months of his life. 2021 was a difficult year for many, but for Jason, it was life-changing.

“I was at a barbecue and I got bitten by an insect. I don’t remember seeing the bug. But I remember moments after it thinking, ‘that’s a bit stingy.’ I looked at my arm and there was a little hole in it. It could have even been a bee sting – who knows! My friend put a spot of antiseptic cream on it, and I thought nothing more of it.”

“Next morning, I felt a bit rough. I didn’t think much of it. I was just started my holiday and sometimes you can feel like that when you’ve been working a lot. Over the next two days, I don’t remember much. My flatmate tells me I was getting up in the morning and going to the bathroom, seeming perfectly lucid. On the third day, she got home from work and yelled out that she had bought some food home, then heard a loud thud come from my room. I tried to get up and collapsed on the floor. She called an ambulance.”

“I was a couple of hours away from dead, experiencing multiple organ failures. Sepsis had spread. The bacteria had gone down into my forearm. I was in major surgery by midnight. My family were called at 10pm and basically told they should make the appropriate arrangements, because ‘it’s pretty much impossible for him to pull through this.’”

“I was kept in an induced coma for 10 days. During that time, they did seven surgeries where they took as much of the skin and flesh off my arm as they could to get rid of the bacteria,” Jason says, telling us at one point medical staff thought he had had a stroke, but it has ‘come right’ since.

“There’s a little bit of permanent damage in my vision, but that’s pretty minor in the scheme of it. The final surgery was putting a skin graft where they took it from my thighs. Which turned both my thighs into open wounds. It was just a nightmare… Looking back, it feels a bit like a cartoon, that dark Family Guy-style humour.”

Following his release from hospital, Jason moved to Tauranga to be with family who could care for him as he recovered.

“I could shower, and do the really basic things, but I couldn’t drive and there was no way I could chop something or use a utensil because I was right-handed. So, I had to relearn how to do everything with my left hand.”

“My mum literally dropped everything and spent 22 hours a day by my side, right through the whole thing. She’s awesome. I can’t thank her enough.”

Over time Jason was able to do more as his body physically improved. Following the overwhelming nature of his injuries, he tells us that his progress, led his brain to ‘kick in’ and he finally found himself facing up to what he had been through.

“It started to be a bit more mentally challenging, finding myself in a darker space, accepting a physical disability and quite noticeable physical change. I’d spent my whole career as a performer and I doubted I could ever return to the stage again. I doubted I would ever play piano again, which was my main skill and passion. I had no movement or feeling in my hand and fingers whatsoever. This coupled with stern words from my physio that gaining movement again was ‘highly unlikely’ was pretty heartbreaking to deal with.”

With the support of others, Jason got through the dark times.

“I had good friends and family around me, they just kind of let me be. That’s the most important thing – time and patience – to let whatever’s going on heal, which means not doing anything else, and not feeling responsible to do anything else for a while.”

Showing us his reconstructed arm through a Zoom camera, Jason highlights the progress he has made.

“I can move my fingers well enough to play the piano again!” He tells us with sparkly eyes.

“I’m keen to get back into the world now. I’m feeling more confident with my arm, and I’ve accepted that it is what it is. It’s not going to revert back to what it was before, it is going to be forever. I had faith in the healing process and with physiotherapy, scar management therapy and other treatments I have defied the odds.”

Apart from the obvious ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ lesson, Jason tells us he is still processing what the experience has taught him.

“No one really knows how people respond to trauma and whilst mine was a huge amount of trauma. People have said, ‘you’re so strong to get through it.’ I don’t think I was really any stronger than anyone else. You just do what you have to do.”

Finally, for people facing challenges (big or small) in their lives, Jason offers the following advice.

“With every challenge I’ve ever had in my life, I’ve had to think what is the positive? You can’t sit in the negative. My mantra is: ‘fix it, park it, dump it.’ If you can fix it right now, then do it. If you can’t fix it right now, but it can wait till later, then park it, but if there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, dump it! It’s much easier to say this than do it. But the reality is when you actually do this, life becomes so much lighter!”

For more information on Jason Te Mete’s Tuatara Collective visit: