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Acting against suicide: Rob Mokaraka's second shot at the stage

Rob Mokaraka is a man on a mission. Photo / Michael Botur

From the outside, actor Rob Mokaraka looked good. His career was on the rise. But he was struggling on the inside, and in 2009 got police to shoot him. Now, after three surgeries and five court cases, he's on a mission to help others work through their depression. 

Rob Mokaraka is happier than he’s ever been. He shows up for an interview on a sunny Sunday morning at a Whangarei seaside restaurant freshly shaven, smelling of quality cologne and relishing a good breakfast. He prays over his food and thanks the wait staff effusively. Mokaraka is a remade man on a spiritual mission. 
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Mokaraka is famous and he’s an actor, although the fame really came after his acting career was violently interrupted. You might remember: Rob had a mental breakdown and got the police to shoot him in 2009, following which he received more attention than ever.

Nearly ten years on from the shooting, his income is unpredictable, he's living at his parents’ family homestead in Maungakaramea and he’s loving his life. He describes himself as happily single with two beautiful daughters. Mokaraka has become known for the play Shot Bro: Confessions of a Depressed Bullet which has been performed nearly 100 times around the country. He’s building something life-affirming out of a suicidal act and trying to make a very unrelatable experience relatable. Each play comes with a powerful healing session afterwards.

Having worked through a colostomy bag, three surgeries, two criminal convictions, five court cases and 400 hours of community service, Rob has now found a focus.

How Rob ricocheted onto the stage

Shot Bro has been performed around the country.

During Shot Bro, adolescent ammunition ‘Bulli’ Bullihana searches for famous actor Rob Mokaraka. In the play’s 75 manic minutes, Rob reveals an obsession with what he calls the ‘Shot Bro Club’ – the list of Kiwis shot dead by police, in particular, Steven Wallace. The show comes with advice on where to get help. 

It was 2016 in Whangarei that the first show was trialled. It’s gone far and wide since. Rob will find work at a Māori mental health conference in Palmerston North one week, following which he’ll perform at the Motueka Rec Centre, where you can get in for a gold coin, then it’s down to the Rangiora Showgrounds. Shows may be sponsored by the Kaipātiki Local Board, Dunedin Fringe Festival, Victory Boxing in Nelson or not sponsored at all. The play won two premier prizes at the 2016 Wellington Theatre Awards - yet still some schools won’t have him.

“I’m making stuff-all money and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” Mokaraka says. “I’m not sponsored. I don’t want anybody to put their politics on Shot Bro.”

Mokaraka’s trying to maximise the number of shows he puts on without letting funders ‘homogenise’ the message – a precarious position when, not long after Shot Bro first went on the road, he badly needed the funding.

“It took me a while to stand in my own truth. They looked at me like ‘You arrogant little prick, you’re not going to get the funding.'

“The politics is bullshit. I’m not funded, I’m staying at my whānau homestead but I’m touring the country. This is the real me. This is the best I’ve ever been mentally spiritually and physically. I’m not out to be famous, I’m out to help Rob heal Rob and while I’m doing that I can help other people.”

Darkness in the limelight

Mokaraka says the show can be both theatre disguised as healing, or healing disguised as theatre. While most actors are “constantly channelling and hiding,” he isn’t hiding behind a character in this one.

“A lot of people, especially in the entertainment and arts industry, may look flash on the outside, but aren’t dealing with inner turmoil,” Mokaraka says. “Terry Crews said ‘Success is the warmest place to hide.’ People that seem financially successful, nek minute: dead. They seemed to have everything except in their hearts and minds.”

At the time of the July 27, 2009, shooting, the then-36-year-old had been immersed in acting for ten years, doing all sorts of paying gigs (including, weirdly, police training videos in 2001). While he says plenty of actors were present in his hard-partying central Auckland lifestyle, he was being “a social bunny” and would find fun wherever. “A lot of people didn’t know I was suffering, leading up, because I was the funny guy, I was using humour, the emotional range to keep people away from me. But I was hanging out with people wanting to drink a lot.”

“My career at the time on the outside looked great. The day I was shot was a month after I got back from London touring my own show, Strange Resting Places.” Performed in Soho, Strange Resting Places was part of the Origin Festival of First Nations. The Guardian and Time Out reviewed it. It was a period Rob describes as his most rewarding.

However, there were ‘dark people’ in his busy social circle. “When you don’t know what you’ve got, your darkness attracts other people’s darkness. If you’re not aware of that you’ll just keep repeating the cycle.”

Rob in full flight. Photo/Facebook.

Thumbs up from hard-to-please Pop

Mokaraka’s still wanting to please both the public and his parents, though the two come with different challenges. Mokaraka says, ironically, being real with strangers on the stage is easier than being real with one’s own whanau. There are those in his family with old-school mindsets who believe internal issues should stay internal.

“Bro, I’ve cracked the shit right open. I’m pouring light all over this… Some of my family embrace it; some are slamming the door because they are too scared to talk about unresolved trauma…. Anger is fear, bro.”

Some of those afraid to face their fears include fellow entertainers. “They go: 'shit he’s brave', and that’s okay. You can’t force anyone to heal.”

Mokaraka’s family moved around a lot when he was a child, including stints in Singapore and at the military base at Hobsonville. His dad is a Vietnam veteran. The family comes with a mix of military, Māori and macho; in fact, Mokaraka was a rugged pearl diver and deckhand in Western Australia, before he became an extrovert in the country’s liberal locus, Wellington.

Welly remains the place where Mokaraka feels most free to be creatively expressive, though last year he found himself called back to tiny Tai Tokerau town Maungakaramea.

“I was touring and I got a message from my dad – my dad is a man of few words by the way. He said one fulla from the rugby club had taken his life. I asked him, ‘Do you think I should put on the show?’ All I got from my dad was the thumbs up emoji. With 24 hours notice, I went back to Maungakaramea. More and more locals came. I put on two shows. The farming community was thankful. It’s hard for tough guys who work on the land… Everyone was in shock. That trauma has a massive ripple effect on the community.”

Like Mike

Mental health awareness advocate Mike King is a friend and a mentor, Mokaraka says. “He’s saved thousands of lives. I’m one of them.”

The relationship began 18 months after the shooting when Mokaraka was interviewed on The Nutters Club. “When I watched Mike King, I used to think ‘Are we allowed to speak about suicide and mental health?’”

King inspired Mokaraka to create his ‘Reveal to heal’ on the stage. While Mokaraka hasn’t completed formal psychology or counselling study, he insists he has more to teach the shrinks than they have to teach him. “Psych units are now coming to see me,” Mokaraka laughs, “Full circle, brother! Psychologists are surprised at how instant my outcomes are.”

While some of the Pākehā world views him as an educator, from a Māori perspective, some see Mokaraka as a healer. However,  Mokaraka just sees himself as a conduit.“That shows where the Western world is in their execution of therapy. It’s all up here [in the head]. There seems to be a disconnection to the heart and wairua.”

While occasionally he is invited to work with an open-minded school, “Usually colleges are scared of Shot Bro. They’ve got heaps of flaws and fears in their education system, so why would they want to address their flaws and fears and invite me in?”

Mokaraka says it’s the Ministry of Education who lack confidence, rather than individual schools. “They think contagion is going to happen if we illuminate it so they put a blanket over it. But what’s happening is the teens are talking about it in the shadows because the adults are too scared to address it. That’s contagion to me.”

Support from cuzzie Clint

For over a year and a half, Clint Edmonds has been at nearly every show, taking care not only of the sound mixing desk and lights, but also Mokaraka’s spiritual needs.

Rob and cousin Clint Edmonds at Auckland Live. Photo / supplied

Edmonds serves a combined role as the sound technician, stage manager, kaimirimiri (masseuse) and kaitiaki (caregiver, guardian and supporter). Edmonds holds down a full-time job with Ministry for Social Development and has a background in health and disability, and has brought that skillset over to assist Mokaraka. He’s the perfect partner, considering he’s Rob’s cousin.

“Because we’re first cousins, he’s disclosed so many things. I understand his triggers and notice things in the environment that he doesn’t see. I’ll shut down the sound and say What’s wrong? Then he’ll disclose things he’s struggling with.”

“Spiritual happenings occur depending on the location. It may need a karakia; we walk around with incense, bless the room, and usually, we’re bang-on, spiritually speaking. We make sure everything’s in unison.”

Before embarking on his cousin’s journey with him, Edmonds hadn’t stage managed a single show. “Two years ago he confided in me, trusted me, asked me to come along. I understand the magnitude of what he’s putting himself through day in, day out.” What Edmonds says he offers is “safety around him to come down” from each emotional show. “Sometimes the fear kicks in. I say 'Hey, I’ve got you, cousin. I’m right here.'

“When he first started, he needed a lot of support; these days, he’s better able to triage and answer questions and utilise tools and mechanisms.”

Edmonds says he’s grappled with some of the same background Mokaraka speaks about on stage, including abuse. Today, the cousins empower each other.

“It may look like we’ve got it all together on the outside but there’s a lot of work in between [shows], to give a strong message of hope. There’s a lot of ups and downs behind the scenes that no one sees.”

“I hardly saw my cousin during my younger days, but when he was shot, lots of answers, memories came… I knew there was a lot of issues for Rob around stability. I knew there was something wrong before the shooting but couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Clint has been there when Rob has had audiences as few as three people or as large as 450 Rotorua secondary students, and says “There’s no one size fits all between communities.”

“Everyone has their own way of revealing to heal. Tight-lipped communities soften, they open up [thanks to the show]. I’ve seen interventions in the health and disability sector which normally take weeks – Rob is able to have impact in just 70 minutes, bypassing all the headwork to get to the heart.”

“For the first year, there were plenty of people in high and mighty positions at the helm of health resisting.

“Officials got up and challenged Rob – but it’s him telling his own story. Rob’s saying ‘This is happening to me, you don’t have to accept it if you don’t want it, but it’s not up for debate: it’s my story of healing.’”

Rob and Stephanie August at her son Bobby's memorial at Papa O Te Aroha Marae in Tokoroa. Photo/Supplied

From grieving to healing

Stephanie August of Tokoroa got to see Shot Bro after her son Robert (Bobby) Farrar took his own life shortly after his 20th birthday on July 4th 2017.

“Somebody had messaged me about Conscious Collective Against Suicide in Whangarei. I hitchhiked up and I got there just in time. I went in and didn’t know what to expect and there was Rob [Mokaraka]. In the first ten minutes I thought ‘Oh my God, I came all this way for THIS?’ But it started to unfold and I started to see sides of my son that I had neglected. We didn’t actually help him. We were trying to fix him, which is different. Rob gave me this huge awareness of the stuff Bobby was going through.

“The first time I saw Shot Bro, I cried most of the way through because it was so surreal. I had to come home and process it […] My son’s dad is a hardworking action man. Him and his men, it’s a social echo chamber, they talk about the same thing every day and none of them talk about emotions and feelings. When he first saw the show, Bobby’s dad didn’t know how to feel. He wanted to hurt Rob, he wanted to get up and hit him, and he couldn't say why.... I believe he was uncomfortable with the unresolved trauma bubbling up to the surface". December 2016, Rob was once hit after a show by a drunken audience member attacking Mokaraka. Since that incident, Rob has made a 'no alcohol policy' for all communities who invite him to their communities. However, Shot Bro – which Rob performed for free at Bobby’s memorial in Tokoroa in June - has made Bobby’s dad “more open to vulnerability, to have a conversation,” according to August.

August has become one of Mokaraka’s biggest acolytes and will travel to see the show whether she has to “run, walk or hitch.”

“I said that to him, the first time I saw him: we need to get you everywhere, to educate parents. Ignorance is murder – people are dying, we need to step our game up.”

August has seen Shot Bro six times, even as far away as Wellington, where Mokaraka put the performance on as part of an indigenous suicide prevention symposium for University of Otago public health summer school students.

“Rob and Clint, they’re such amazing men,” August says. “Rob is visiting the darkest part of his life every time he’s on stage.

“First three times in the show, it seemed to be about my son, but the three times after that, it was about me, because I’ve realised I’m suffering from anxiety and depression. He asks everybody, ‘Who is a member of the Secret Sad Club?’ It’s not so much of a secret when you’ve got your hand high in the air.”

Act of contrition

The first thing Mokaraka said to emergency services after being shot was ‘sorry.’ Today Rob continues to apologise to those he feels he’s wronged. “Friends of mine who were traumatised from the shooting, I’ve apologised to them in the show – sorry I pushed you over when I was ten! Sorry I called you a dick when I was 20!” He continues to try to set up a meeting of reconciliation with the policeman who shot him, describing it as a ‘gateway’ he’d like to pass through.

Mokaraka isn’t asking for a story that makes him look good. He says he’s still healing, “refreshing” and “upgrading my coping mechanisms” so he doesn’t become “stale, stuck and sick.”

He asks for this story to include an educational angle. Readers can start by contacting Depression.org.nz on 0800111757, texting 4202, or following the Shot Bro healing forum on Facebook.

His schedule each month is uncertain, and that’s not a bad thing. “I’m like Batman. I see the Bat Signal in the sky and they go can you come?” From Tinseltown to your tiny town, Rob Mokaraka will try his best to be there.