Gavel Club helps aphasia survivors find their voice again

When renowned Kiwi actor Rawiri Paratene suffered a series of strokes beginning in 2018, it looked like his acting days were over.

Rawiri Paratene
Rawiri Paratene is an active participant in the University-run More Than Words Gavel Club. Photo: James Fyfe

The strokes left Rawiri with aphasia, a speaking disorder common among people who have suffered a stroke. Affecting the part of the brain responsible for language, the condition meant not only was performing on stage or in front of a camera out of the question, but even simple communication was a challenge.

But since then, Rawiri hasn’t just learned to speak again, he has even returned to the stage – thanks in part to the More Than Words Gavel Club, run by the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research.

Although it’s clear that speaking still takes a considerable amount of effort for Rawiri – he occasionally needs to take a moment to pause and think of a word or have a couple of attempts to say something a bit more difficult – his communication is incredibly clear for someone who has had “at least” three strokes. And in 2021 he even appeared in a “swan song” performance of his theatre show Peter Paka Paratene.

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy though. After falling in love with acting as a teen, when he first saw Hamlet at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre, Rawiri knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.  Since then, he’s appeared in everything from Kiwi TV classics such as Play School and Shortland Street to the hit film Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? He’s also appeared in Hamlet himself, touring the world with the UK’s Globe Theatre.

As someone whose identity has been so strongly tied to speaking, whether it be on stage or on screen, losing the ability to easily communicate came as a shock to Rawiri following his strokes.

“My younger brother said to me ‘Words are who you are’. I told him ‘No, there’s a lot more
to me than that’.”

What has been difficult for Rawiri, who was awarded a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2022, has been having to step away from his acting career.

“It’s hard to be not working,” he says. “I loved working as an actor, as a director, as a producer. I liked working hard and all of that is hard work – it’s hard physically and also mentally and spiritually.

“But I’m still alive and I’m doing ok.”

And it’s been that commitment to hard work that has helped Rawiri regain his speech. Determined to communicate again, the 69-year-old has worked tirelessly with speech-language therapists and community groups since his strokes.

One group where he is an active participant is the University-run More Than Words Gavel Club. Held weekly, the Gavel Club provides a space for people with aphasia to practise speaking in the company of others facing similar difficulties and is a great way for members to gain confidence and to meet new friends. The club is also attended by speech-language therapists, student speech-language therapists and volunteers from Toastmasters International, and is supported by donations made through the University’s Gavel Clubs Fund.

Rawiri says the club has been a "great help” for him during his recovery and that he is grateful to all those involved in the club, as well as everyone who has supported the club by donating to the Gavel Clubs Fund.

And although his 2021 performance of Peter Paka Paratene was supposed to be the final curtain call for the veteran actor, he says there is also another show – this time for TV – on the cards. He is also planning on completing a Master of Arts part-time at the University of Auckland, giving him a chance to indulge his interests in literature and art history.

Despite his remarkable journey, Rawiri remains humble and says he doesn’t see himself as an inspiration to others. Rather, as someone who has always thrived on hard work, he sees learning to speak again, and continuing to improve, as merely another challenge to overcome.

“I like challenges,” he says. “For me, this is my work now.”

Media contact

Helen Borne | Communications Manager
Alumni Relations and Development