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Nathaniel Hall

Nathaniel Hall on It’s a Sin, First Time, and living with HIV

Nathaniel Hall’s First Time, an autobiographical show about the artist’s experience with contracting HIV and “staying positive in a negative world”, is coming to Manchester’s Contact Theatre for 5 days, from the 30th of November onwards. On that occasion, I talked to Nathaniel – best-known for starring in the acclaimed series It’s a Sin – about the story behind First Time and his experiences with developing and performing the show.

You’ve spent most of your life in Manchester, so naturally this city has a special value for you. It’s also the last stop on this tour of your show. Does it feel different to perform in Manchester compared to other places?

Yes, obviously I’m a Greater Mancunian born and bred, and Contact Theatre is a really special place to me, I’ve worked with them over the years.

If you’re playing for a home crowd, that’s always really nice, and obviously when you’re in your home city there’s lots of people who know you, which is great.

But actually, the audience we get to this show is universally really warm and lovely and friendly, and it’s LGBTQ inclusive, so it feels like a warm, friendly space, and it’s a real joy to perform it. But yes, coming back to the home city is always special.

You premiered First Time long before the coronavirus pandemic. Have you been working on the show over the lockdowns? Has it changed since the first time you performed it?

Yes, we premiered the show in Waterside Arts in Sale in 2018, they actually commissioned the show. The show was popular, my story kind of went viral at that point. I ended up on BBC Breakfast Couch, and then BBC News article, and BuzzFeed news, and all sorts of media interest in my story.

We had to put an extra show on because there was so much demand, and the feedback we got from audiences and reviewers was overwhelmingly positive. We knew there was plenty demand for the show further so we started talking to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is one of the best places to bring a show if you want to get somewhere. And to do that, we had to make a lot of changes, because the shows that end up at Fringe tend to be only an hour, so you have to be very very quick.

And again for this tour, the show itself had a bit of a glow-up in terms of its design. And you know, you tweak and change depending on how audiences respond to the show as it moves along, but now it’s definitely in its final and best version.

Are you still planning on working on and touring First Time after this tour is over in a couple of weeks? Or are you moving on to new projects?

So we’re about to announce another tour, which will kick off in mid- to late January next year, that won’t take in Manchester. So it’s really the last chance to see it if you’re in Greater Manchester.

So yeah we’re planning another tour, but then at the end of that spring tour that’s it, that’s the end of First Time. I’ve been performing and telling this story for over three years now, so I’m ready for a new challenge.

What was the idea behind creating First Time? Was it a kind of auto-therapy for you? Did the idea for the show arise after you came out as HIV-positive?

It was all a part of the journey of coming out with my HIV status. I lived with HIV for about 15 years before I made the show. I was diagnosed when I was 16 and I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t tell very many people, I kept it very secret. There was a lot of shame around the diagnosis that I carried.

And then in 2017 I realised how that shame was negatively impacting my life and how it built over time. I was partying all the time, I was in a really bad relationship, I was treating people badly and allowing myself to be treated badly.

I was leaning very heavily on drugs and alcohol. I just kind of had this moment when I cut myself in the mirror, still awake two days after a house party, and when [I thought to myself]: “I don’t recognise you anymore. You’re not the person that you once were.”

There was the sadness and shame around this diagnosis so I decided that I was gonna change it. And I thought: “Well, if you tried to tell your family for so long and you’ve not been able to, you’re gonna need to force your hand in some way.”

So going on the journey to make the show was kind of forcing me to go public, which then sort of forced me to tell my family, and that’s all encapsulated in the show. And you experience that process through the show. 

But the response, I mean the response of my family, was support and love. And the response from anyone who has read my story or has seen my show was overwhelmingly positive. So it’s been a positive experience all around.

So your parents and your closest family have all seen the show and liked it?

They have. It’s a tough watch for my parents and my other family members. My mom’s seen it twice, my parents came to see it in Edinburgh the second time, they sat in the front row. My mom cried during the first scene, and I thought: “This is the funny bit, don’t cry at this bit!”. So I think she was just overwhelmed.

The show goes to dark places. You know, I talk about some of the challenging times that I’ve gone through in my life and that makes it actually difficult for the parent to watch. But I see they’re super proud and super supportive about everything that I do.

First Time is an autobiographical story and you’re basically playing yourself. Do you think it makes it easier to perform? Or is it more difficult because of the emotional connection?

It’s more difficult because you have to really look at yourself. You know, as an actor, what we do is looking at other people, and kind of mimicking them and taking on their attributes. But when you play yourself, you have to do a lot of looking inward and looking at yourself. You have to look at how you behave and act, and that can be quite a disheartening experience. Because, you know, we often have a lot of insecurities about ourselves, how we speak, how we move, how we behave. So that’s actually quite a difficult process to do.

And the actual writing, the looking back and the process of making the show was really hard, like really looking back at the past and analysing it, and what happened and why, and discovering things in a new light as an adult.

But actually once you’ve gone through that process, the performing of it is not as hard. Because before I went on this journey I was living in the trauma of everything that happened to me, and allowing that to affect and impact my life.

Basically, all that stuff is still living within your body, and actually once I processed it, it’s now a memory of something that happened in the past. It’s a story that I can tell, without it making me feel those things that I felt in the past.

So I guess it’s easier, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination an easy show for me to perform. It’s 75 minutes of just me on stage, it’s physically demanding. And emotionally demanding still. I have to look after myself, I have an amazing team, I’ve got therapists, we’re always making sure that it’s not having a negative impact on my mental wellbeing.

So in the end, do you feel like making the show helped you cope with the trauma?

Oh yes absolutely. I’m a big believer in the power of storytelling to help people process things that happened to them, both traumatic and joyful as well.

Lots of the work I do as an artist is working with other people to use storytelling techniques to help them explore and express what happened to them in the past and tell their own story as a way to move forward if they’re stuck in some way, or help them develop. And working on First Time, and telling and performing my story, has helped me as well.

Nathaniel Hall
Photo: Andrew Perry.

You starred in It’s a Sin, an acclaimed series about a group of queer friends set against the backdrop of AIDS epidemic. How did you get involved in the project? Were you trying to get into TV or someone reached out to you?

Well, I’m a theatre actor and a theatre maker by trade, but I have done some television acting and television work in the past. But when I found out Russell [T Davies] was writing It’s a Sin it was about the time I was making my show, and then I said to my agent: “That’s a show that I want to be in”. 

So we invited Russell to come and see my show. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it on that first show, but a friend of his had actually seen it and then told him: “Oh you need to see this show”.

Anyway, I was really professional and just sent him a message on Instagram (laughs). I don’t recommend anyone does that. I didn’t expect a response but I just said I’ve written this thing about my experience and I know you’re writing this thing, maybe we should have a chat. And he just messaged straight back and said “Let’s go for a coffee”. Which we did, and I had this ‘pinch me’ moment where I was sat with one of my absolute living legends and had a great chat with him. 

He was really generous with his time and he wanted to hear my story because he was writing a story about Colin Morris-Jones [one of the main characters in It’s a Sin], you know who gets HIV from his first time. And we had a great chat and he’s a really friendly, lovely man. At the end of it he said: “Well, you’re too old for any of the main characters, but there might be a role for you in there somewhere”.

And then his producer came to see my show before I went to Edinburgh and I was invited to audition. I do stress that I still auditioned like everyone else, but it was fantastic. I got the role and just what an honour for someone living with HIV to be in that show, and be able to tell those stories, for the people who I guess in a sense feel a little bit forgotten, because we haven’t told that story from a British perspective in British film or television in the 40 years of the epidemic. So it was a real privilege to be involved.

Did you feel like you had more connection to the project because you were the only openly HIV positive member of the cast?

I think it was really important, I think it was the right decision for the producers to try to have an actor in there who’s had lived experience. But it really wasn’t drawn upon within the process. I was there on a level playing field with all the other actors. And the team, and Russell himself, had done all their research really, really solidly. But like I said before, I think it’s just really important that there was representation.

In one of the interviews you did back in February, you said that you were worried that It’s a Sin focuses on a gay version of the story. Do you feel like the show helped regardless, did it help people realise that HIV is not only a gay illness?

I was more worried that the show would kind of allow all the myths around HIV to resurface because it would show people like smashing cups and screaming, and you know, all that fear and panic and paranoia that was around in the 1980s. 

But actually, on both counts, what we saw was HIV got back onto the national conversation, and it was being talked about on every radio station, every news station, every chat show. And all the amazing HIV charities and HIV activists who do that activism often for free, jumped on that opportunity to re-educate people, to tell people about PrEP, to remind people again that testing is really important. And to tell people how HIV has changed, which is amazing.

Going back to your question on the idea of HIV being a gay disease, I mean, in the UK it does disproportionately affect gay men, although we’re about 50%, or just under 50%, I think, of people living with HIV.

But our population is much smaller than the heterosexual one. But I’m really advocating for more stories of heterosexual people, women, particularly with HIV to be told, or people from black British and black African communities or Asian communities. 

We made short films called HIV + Me during lockdown. And in one of those, we tell the story of people who are not gay men. We’ve got a Vaughn, who’s a black British woman, and Mark who is an ex injection drug user, and used to sleep on the streets of Manchester. 

So kind of trying to challenge what people’s perceptions are, and to remind people that, you know, if you’re sexually active, everyone is at risk and should be getting tested regularly and taking precautions.

Anyone that knows me, knows a big proponent for getting tested. And reminding people that they should be getting tested. Whenever I go to the hospital, I’m always on social media talking about that process, and just reminding gently that it’s everyone’s responsibility to end HIV, both LGBTQ and otherwise.

Nathaniel Hall
Photo: Andrew Perry.

Recently, there’s been a lot of spikings in nightclubs in Manchester and all over the country, it’s a big topic in the student community. One of the rumours that came out was that people are getting injected with HIV, and that people are getting tested after being spiked with injections, and the tests for HIV come out as positive. And scientifically, you can’t get HIV positive status a few days after getting infected, it takes at least a few weeks. Have you heard about these rumours?

I have heard about the rumours, and I can categorically say that they are just rumours.

How do they make you feel? Because they show that there’s still a lot of misinformation about HIV.

Yeah. I mean, I understand and I have a lot of compassion for the fear around HIV. I know the fear I felt when I had to go through a test, although that was 18 years ago in a very different world. I do understand that, but for me the real important thing is to normalise HIV.

HIV is a really treatable condition. And people should know that. It’s not something you want to go shopping for, my life would be simpler without HIV. But it’s also something that is more manageable than diabetes. My doctor always says to me: “I would rather diagnose you with HIV than diabetes because it’s much easier to manage.” 

And now with with modern medications I take one tablet a day, I’m undetectable, I can’t pass on to my partner. The NHS just approved two-monthly injectable medications for those people who find taking daily medication difficult, which is a great option for people to reduce their medication regime. 

So I think, for me, when those rumours come off, it reminds me how important it is for people like me, with HIV, who are able to live openly, confidently, and positively, to remind people that it’s not a death sentence. 

It’s important to deescalate those rumours very, very quickly and say, categorically, there has been no known incident of a needle stick injury resulting in someone contracting HIV. 

But also, if people are concerned about that, they should go out and seek out reliable information, speak to an HIV organisation, like George House Trust in Manchester, or speak to a trusted or reliable doctor or health professional. 

You know, those awful spikings are incredibly worrying. And I think people obviously do need to be really, really vigilant and look out for each other when they go out. 

And when you’re going out to have a good time just remember to look out for each other, and remind each other to keep each other safe. Absolutely. It’s really important to crush rumours like that as soon as they come out and remind people that HIV is not really a thing you should be worrying about then. You should be worrying about the people that are potentially perpetrating those crimes.

So do you feel like it’s particularly your job to educate people about HIV?

It’s everyone’s job. I say this all the time, I’m exhausted. Any cause needs allies. My black friends have always said that anti-racist movement is a real great example that it’s not okay to to say “I’m not racist”, it’s important to be actively anti-racist. 

As LGBTQ people, it’s the same. We can’t always fight our own corner, we need other people to do it for us. And I say this about HIV as well, it’s so important to be an HIV ally, know the simple and basic facts about HIV. 

And if you ever hear a rumour or a joke that is in bad taste, or misinformation, just correct it. You’ve got the right information and you’ve got the tools in your hand, to make life for people that have HIV better and easier and make the world a more inclusive place.

Do you still meet with a lot of stigma because of your HIV status? Do you encounter people being scared of you, or acting weirdly around you when they know that you’re HIV positive?

No. I mean, I face rejections actually, and also in romantic relationships over the last 18 years, that has, I feel, got less as I’ve got older. I’m not sure whether that’s because attitudes have changed, or whether because I’ve matured, I understand my own self worth, and I move towards people who build up my self worth and my self esteem, and not towards people who don’t.

So I can’t say which that is, it’s probably a combination of both. I think there is a greater understanding that people with HIV are not a danger. In fact, if someone’s on medication like me, in terms of HIV, I’m actually the safest person, because I know my status and I know I’m undetectable. 

But I have faced that and I’m only one person. I’ve got a lot of friends living with HIV who have faced discrimination in the workplace and stigma from potential partners, and all that sorts of things. 

And it does happen, it’s still out there. But for me, in 2017, when I went on this journey, it was the change in my mindset where I said: “Well, if I go public, and I talk about it, I’m not ashamed anymore”.

Because what happened is I’ve internalised the stigma and the shame in the same way that often as gay people, or as trans or non-binary people, we internalise the shame of the rest of society, it makes us feel less. And that’s why we have Pride. 

So we go, we’re not ashamed, we’re proud of this thing. And that was the same process for me. So now, because I live openly with it, no one can weaponise it and make me feel bad about it or make me feel worse. Because I know that my self-worth and my self-esteem is worth more than that. 

That’s why I encourage the world where people with HIV can say as readily as you might say, you’ve got diabetes, or you’re popping to the doctor for a flu jab. It should be as normalised.

So what do you think the future for HIV is? Do you have confidence in the plan towards zero HIV transmissions by 2030?

I do. Actually, I don’t credit any of the hard work on that with our government. And all the hard work has been done by the HIV commission, and that’s a consortium of charities and nongovernmental organisations working so hard to get to that point. 

I think it is achievable. It requires more routine testing and pushing. And that’s another thing that the Commission is pushing for routine testing in community settings, in GP surgeries, in A&E departments. 

There’s one such amazing success story, which is vertical transmission, which is mother to baby during childbirth, or breastfeeding. And in the UK, that has been reduced to I think less than 0.01%, or something that is extremely low. And that’s because the routine testing programme was implemented to expectant mothers to protect them and their babies. 

And if somebody does test positive during that, that moment they’re put on medication and the precautions are taken to make sure it’s not transmitted to the baby. That’s a real success story. 

And that shows you that if you normalise routine testing, you can close in on the cases and make sure that anyone that is HIV positive is on medication and is not passing on to anyone else. And you know, by doing that, eventually, you close in on HIV from all sides, and it has nowhere to go. 

So I am confident that if we normalise routine testing, we will get there. And I think with u=u [undetectable = untransmittable], there’s a new confidence in HIV community as well to be open and talk openly and not be ashamed and kind of push the positive message. So hopefully, yeah, I’m really hopeful for 2030. It’s gonna take a Herculean effort, but we’ll get there I think.

First Time runs at Contact Theatre from 30th November until 4th December. To keep up to date with Nathaniel, or to learn more about him, check out his website. You can also give him a follow on Instagram and Twitter @nathanieljhall.

Tags: first time, hall, HIV, it's a sin, LGBT, LGBTQ, nathaniel hall, spiking

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.
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