When it comes to art, how much should you reveal? Can you offer too much? Theatre-maker Nathaniel Hall leaves nothing in the locker in his one-man show, First Time. The autobiographical piece explores the actor and writer’s experience as a young man who contracted HIV after his first sexual encounter.
Commissioned by Waterside Arts and Creative Industries Trafford to mark the 30th anniversary of World Aids Day in December, First Time is told through a series of personal letters, poems and confessions and examines how Hall kept his HIV status secret from friends and family for more than 14 years. So, is the show a bold, upfront way to get everything out in the open?
“Absolutely,” Hall laughs. “I’ve been really keen that it’s as autobiographical as it possibly can be. There’s a little creative licence in how I present it, but it’s based on true events that happened to me. I made a huge spreadsheet of my life since 2003, putting the milestones in order. Thinking back 15 years was a challenge but things like the music of the time helped me piece the story together.”
Talking about challenging experiences can generate a feeling of empowerment. Did Hall feel this while putting the show together? “I’ve definitely found the project very therapeutic. I’ve had to reflect on difficult things, question what happened to me and how I’ve dealt with it and that’s been a cathartic process. The show is no-holds-barred and unapologetic in its presentation, but I’ve been fortunate to have really amazing artists, friends and healthcare professionals around me for the journey.”
HIV has been a prominent subject in drama over the past three decades, and finding new ways to examine it could pose a challenge. Part of Hall’s inspiration has been a desire for better contemporary representations of HIV.
“I felt that the well known stories were all historical. There’s a whole wealth of amazing work out there but I wasn’t seeing my story reflecting what it means to be HIV positive today. It’s still not a walk in the park but HIV isn’t the illness that it used to be and it’s important to try to get key messages out to people. We walk a fine line with HIV because it is treatable but it’s still not something you want to get.”
He continues: “I’m always reminded of the fear instilled by those late 1980s adverts with the tombstone imagery. It got people’s attention, but it also highly stigmatised the disease and the people living with it. The challenge now is getting the message out there that you can be treated for HIV and live a long, healthy life. There are also ways you can protect yourself from HIV like [the drug] PrEP.”
Treatments for HIV have advanced greatly in the past ten years but, with better medication available, does Hall feel this has made some people complacent and less mindful of the consequences of unprotected sex?
“It’s a really difficult one,” he admits. “We have to move forwards and empower people to take more control of their sexual health in a sex-positive way. There are still many misconceptions like the assumption that people who live with HIV pass it on. Most new infections come from people unaware of their status so it’s really important to get tested and catch it early. Once you’re being treated, you’re protected so can’t really pass it on. It’s important to get that message out there to improve the lives of people like me and break down the stigma.”
Humour can be found in the darkest of situations, but it’s surely a tough balancing act incorporating light-hearted moments in to such a serious subject matter as HIV?
“There is a certain amount of self-deprecating humour within the piece and I’m hoping a queer audience and beyond will recognise parts of their own lives and be able to laugh along with me. There are dark, tricky moments but I hope the way we present them makes the audience comfortable to go to those places and feel that we’re all in it together.”
Presenting such a deeply personal piece has its emotional risks for the performer. I was curious to know how Hall protects himself. “I come from a mixed-arts background and find ways to set up boundaries where things are very scripted and therefore create a distance for me the performer. I take myself to some difficult places, but I know where the lines are for me. There is also hope within First Time. A key moment was when I realised that I survived and still survive. I’m thankful for every day I’m alive in general, not just related to HIV.”
Hall studied theatre performance and has worked for various companies. But, along the way, he became increasingly interested in producing projects aimed at young people. One such production became the catalyst for Hall to reveal his HIV status.
“I worked with Contact Theatre’s young company on Under the Covers, a piece about sex and sexuality. The brutal honesty and vulnerability of the people involved made me realise that I needed to step up to the plate and practice what I preach in the work I do. Burying my feelings for so long, and not telling my family about my HIV status, meant that I was leading a double life. On the surface I was making everything appear perfect but underneath there were too many cracks to paper over and eventually it all came stumbling out.’
It sounds as though the experience of making his HIV status public felt like coming out all over again.
“Completely. The longer you live with it, the longer you understand it and understand yourself, similar to how you are with your sexuality. I was at a George House Trust event and half the speakers had gone many years without telling people. There was a theme of being ashamed and hiding away. For me it had to be all or nothing and I’m now in a place where I can take it all on.”
As people become more informed about HIV, you might assume that the level of paranoia and adverse reaction has reduced. The reality, as Hall explains, is that many people remain unenlightened.
“Unfortunately, discrimination still goes on in the workplace and many people don’t understand what to do when they work with someone who is HIV. When I was diagnosed, I was very aware of being careful who I told. You don’t know where such personal information might go or what a person might do with it. I know of someone who told their employer and realised that, after five years, they’d never once been put on the same rota with certain managers who knew. Even in healthcare there are issues with staff saying a patient’s status out loud in wards or asking people to take the last appointments of the day. Luckily, working in an arts environment I’ve had lots of supportive reactions.”
The LGBT+ community are often weighed down by labels. Ongoing concerns about what terms are PC (or not) can feel like a minefield but, for Hall, things are becoming clearer.
“I’m gay but I always say I’m queer. I reclaimed that word because for a long time I felt a little ashamed about the way some gay men like to lead their lives. With this show, I’m presenting a version of myself that previously I might have hidden from people. It’s a demand for equality to not do my life the same as everyone else. There’s a theme of making a mess of my life and of always wanting to tidy things up. By the end of the show I make a realisation that I need to accept that I can’t tidy everything up and that that’s OK because we’re human, messy and complicated.”
Photos by Lee Baxter and Anton Mellor
First Time is showing at Waterside in Trafford from November 29 until December 1, 2018. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.