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Writer and performer of the Dukes new show, ‘First Time’, Nathaniel Hall talks to SCAN about his inspiration and living with HIV.
What inspired you to write the show?
There is an amazing body of work that deals with the HIV/AIDS crisis (Angels in America, The Normal Heart, The Inheritance, Dallas Buyers Club, Philadelphia, RENT, 120BPM). But I didn’t see people like me represented on stage or screen so decided to make First Time as a way to address that.
The synopsis states that ‘First Time’ is an “autobiographical solo show about growing up positive in a negative world”. When writing the show, did you ever find it difficult to bring light to the topic of living with HIV?
I lived in relative silence about my HIV diagnosis for nearly 15 years until in 2017 I had a bit of a mental breakdown – I was partying a lot and I realised that I wasn’t using drugs and alcohol for fun anymore, but to mask pain. That was the catalyst for making the show – I caught myself in the mirror still awake two days after a house party and knew something had to change.
Making the show has been like therapy. People living with HIV can now live healthy lives thanks to medication – we now know they can’t pass the virus on if they are ‘undetectable’ (which means the medication they are on is working) and there is also PrEP, a course of drugs you take before sex that is effective at stopping your contracting HIV.
But HIV is still a highly stigmatised disease, and it often takes people a long time to process their diagnosis – it still is a life-long condition, if no longer life-limiting. Since going on the journey I have told my family and now live very publicly as HIV+, something that is still quite radical
Thanks to shows like ‘First Time’, there is a spotlight being shone on previously taboo topics. Subsequently, do you think society has progressed in its treatment towards people living with HIV?
I think people are more aware of how HIV is transmitted these days, but there is a lot of stigma and shaming of people who live with the virus – there’s definitely work to be done.
Stigma leads to fear and fear leads to people not getting tested – late diagnosis can mean people are unknowingly passing the virus on to partners and can also impact on treatment options.
First Time doesn’t allow it’s audience to be passive in the fight against HIV stigma – it’s a rallying call for everyone to recognise their role in working towards an HIV-free world, an aim that has been set for the year 2030 by the UNAIDS council.
Do you think creative expression can be a powerful tool for social change and awareness?
Hugely – one thing lots of people say after seeing First Time is how well it portrayed stigma and mental breakdown. These are complicated subjects that are difficult to express with words. Theatre and art can help people understand these and also recognise their own lived experience.
First Time will make you laugh, cry laughing and then cry… it’s an emotional rollercoaster and it’s hard not to come away feeling changed in some way.
You not only wrote the show, but you are also acting in it! When considering how the stage show explores sexuality and being HIV+, have you ever had to overcome hostility towards your work?
I’ve been very fortunate that most of the reaction I’ve had to the show is positive. But I’ve faced rejection from potential partners because of my HIV status and also have been on the receiving end of homophobic Hate crime and even physical assault In my everyday life.
Its why I am calling for more people to live boldly and openly as themselves and with their HIV status’ if they can.
I know I’m privileged – I’m white, cis-gendered male and am from a fairly comfortable background. For some people, being open about their HIV status or sexuality isn’t possible or even dangerous. It’s why I think it is so important for me to be open, to try and help advocate for a world where they can be too.
How do you overcome those pre-performance nerves?
I have a ritual! A can of full-fat coke and a banana for energy. Then a rigorous warm-up including vocals, press-ups, sit-ups and running. Then I dress into the ‘character’ version of Nathaniel – that helps distance the rawness of the material from the real me.
Finally, I have a mantra that another artist told me… as my audience enter I repeat in my head: ‘this is my gift to you and I give it with great love and aloha’. Aloha is the Hawaiian for ‘love, honour, family, community’. It helps take the ego out of my performance… it isn’t about me, it’s about my audience and the journey they are about to go on.
How do you hope this stage show will inspire other people?
We get so many people messaging us on social media saying the show has inspired them to come out or to live openly with their HIV status, or even that they have a secret they want to tell their ageing parents and First Time has inspired them to do so – this is better than any review or award any day!
But also, I hope people learn the facts about HIV and how to protect themselves and also how best to become a HIV ally and help us work towards an HIV free world.
This year, you are touring with ‘First Time’ and you are currently filming ‘Boys’ for Channel Four. Is this going to be a busy year for you?
We were on tour with the show at the Edinburgh Fringe last August. I had about two weeks off and then it was back to the grind-stone working on programming the tour, marketing it, press and PR interviews and also filming on ‘Boys’.
It’s hectic, yes, but I have a wonderful team supporting me and if I change just one person’s attitude towards people living with HIV or help one person come to terms with their diagnosis, then it is more than worth all the sweat and tears.