Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

"Nobody in this country is encouraged to talk about their feelings" - actor Rob Mokaraka on how theatre has helped him to heal

Actor, writer and poet Rob Mokaraka's solo show, Shot Bro, explores his depression-driven standoff with armed police and how he has learned to manage his mental health.
Actor, writer and poet Rob Mokaraka's solo show, Shot Bro, explores his depression-driven standoff with armed police and how he has learned to manage his mental health.

"I think they were just happy it was me up there on stage and not some other Maori actor playing Rob..."

On the phone from his family home near Whangarei, actor, writer and poet Rob Mokaraka is reflecting on the next stage in a journey which began in July, 2009 when he brandished a meat cleaver (and a soup ladle wrapped in a tea towel) and walked towards armed police after being told not to take another step.

Mokaraka was shot in the stomach, spent two months in hospital recovering and many more learning how to manage the depression which led to the near-fatal stand-off. Part of that included taking responsibility for his actions; in 2010, he pleaded guilty to four charges (two of assault and two of threatening to kill or cause grievous bodily harm to a police officer) and completed 400 hours of community service.

One of the ways he now manages his mental health is to do what he does best: tell a story. He started writing short stories and poetry in hospital to make sense of the situation he was in and those early pieces led to the one-person play Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet.

Having gone through several drafts - Mokaraka says the first one was a "swirl of anger and emotion" - and a couple of workshops, he's spent the last few months performing Shot Bro in venues as diverse as Bats Theatre and Rimutaka Prison.

He says feedback from audiences has been overwhelmingly positive with friends who saw the Wellington performances realising just how close it came to being a story told by another actor about Rob's death.

"Trying to make sense of it..."

Now Mokaraka's about to bring the one-person show to Auckland and admits to feeling nervous and excited.

"The last thing I wanted to do was write something that was self-serving," he says. "The whole aim was to make something - to tell a story - people can hopefully relate to and learn from. I want a person sitting in an audience who might be in the same headspace that 'Rob' was in 2009 to be able to recognise themselves and their need to connect, to talk and to share their secrets because if you do what I did and bottle them all, well, secrets kill."

Audiences are welcomed into each venue; Mokaraka performs, playing seven characters including the depressed Bullet Bullihana, and then there's a forum where he'll answer questions and let the audience talk freely about their own experiences.

"Nobody in this country is encouraged to talk about their feelings - it's all 'harden up, bro' and 'keep a stiff upper lip'. Well, people have been 'hardening up' and keeping those upper lips stiff and look at the result. The statistics tell their own story."

Back in 2009 and despite feeling deeply distressed, Mokaraka says he didn't even realise he was depressed. Just a month before, he'd been in London touring the show Strange Resting Places and says fellow performers didn't have any idea about the conflicted thoughts and emotions he was bottling up.

"Everyone was very shocked but, like most people with depression, I was very good at hiding it," he says. "I didn't even know how to begin to talk about how I was feeling; I had no tools whatsoever to cope with it because to talk about your feelings is like breaking one of the biggest male taboos ever. It's a huge thing in our culture, so engrained, that we don't talk."

There's been a lot of therapy since. Through it, Mokaraka has learned what triggers his depression and how to cope by putting on his "Batman utility belt" to get through. He has experienced bouts of depression since, but says he can better deal with it now.

Humour plays an important role, so Shot Bro is a black comedy with "expert dance moves, mime and puppetry" where the story is told in an entertaining yet insightful way. He chuckles, admitting that humour relaxes an audience so he can get his point across.

"The thing about music and theatre and dance is that you take a very complex issue and put into a form which is more relatable, that goes through to the heart and the soul."

Shot Bro is part of Te Pou Theatre's Koanga Festival, held each spring in association with Going West, to test out new stories for the stage. Mokaraka says performing at the festival is another step towards making the show ready to tour nationally and internationally.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- NZ Herald

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