Exploring one young man’s experience of contracting HIV after the first time he had sex aged 16, ‘First Time’ is a frank, honest, and necessary piece of theatre.
Premiering at Waterside in Sale (29th November – 1 December 2018), Trafford to coincide with the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, the show is a first-hand account of growing up queer and HIV+ in a straight, HIV- world.
Manchester born and bred, Queer artist and activist Nathaniel Hall writes and inspires in this much-needed one-man show, produced in association with emerging theatre company Dibby Theatre. The show will also be supported by Nathaniel’s very own “coming out” party raising funds for local HIV charities. Book tickets to the show and party here.
We caught up with Nathaniel to talk about what it’s like sharing something so personal to crowds every night and why it’s vital that the representation of people living with HIV in mainstream media needs changing.
Hey Nathaniel, can you tell us a little bit about ‘First Time’ and how it came about?
I’ve worked in theatre for 10 years, often with young people who bring so much of their own lives and experience to the process. A few years ago, I worked with performance artist Stacy Makishi and Contact Young Company in Manchester on a show called ‘Under the Covers’. It was about sex and sexuality and the young people in it were so fierce and unapologetic about the stories they wanted to tell. They really inspired me to look at my own story and start the journey of using theatre to help me break the shame and stigma that was plaguing my life.
Then, last year, following a breakdown, I wrote a letter to tell my family about my big secret. Writing poetry and letters helped me make sense of everything that had happened, so I brought the two together and ‘First Time’ was born.
What was it like for you discovering you had contracted HIV after your first sexual experience?
Receiving the news felt like being hit by a bus. I remember feeling like I was just another gay stereotype – I was so ashamed at what had happened. I wasn’t stupid, I knew what STI’s were and how you got them. But I was naïve enough to think people like me didn’t get HIV. Thing is, it’s just a virus. It doesn’t care whether you’re gay or straight, sleeping with multiple partners or just one person – it doesn’t make any moral judgment, it’s humans that do that.
It’s been a long journey to realising that there is no blame and no shame in contracting HIV.
You kept it from your friends and family for 14 years. How was it going through such a dark time on your own? Why were you unable to share your diagnosis with them?
I always wanted to tell my family, but the words seemed to stick in my throat every time. The longer I left it, the harder it became. My family are very close so it always felt odd that I kept something like this from them, but that is the power of the stigma and shame that HIV holds over people – and my story of keeping it secret is really common too.
There’s no other disease that has such strong moral judgments associated with it – it’s this fear of being judged, rejected or seen as dirty that kept me in the HIV closet for so long.
Are you nervous talking candidly about something you’ve kept secret for so long?
Terrified and excited in equal measure – probably where the best art is made. That said, there is safety in the spotlight and I can say things I probably struggle to say in real life.
I’m really keen that I’m not hiding behind a character though and we’ve been working hard to make sure there are really pared back and truthful moments where the audience can see the real me and the impact the diagnosis has had on my life.
You’re using ‘First Time’ as your very own coming out party. How important do you think it is to have shows like this that explore something people may be struggling to talk about?
For me, theatre has to have an element of education, social justice or change at its heart. That doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining though. But theatre-makers have such an incredible platform to help and support others.
If just one person sees or hears about my show and is inspired to be more open about their HIV status (or any other secret that is plaguing their lives) then I’ll be happy.
You’ve mentioned that Tom Hanks’ character in ‘Philadelphia’ “doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.” Where do you think we are up to in terms of HIV awareness? What can be done to raise public awareness?
When I look at HIV in popular culture, I just don’t see myself or other people living with HIV I know reflected back. There are so many amazing stories from the early years of the AIDS crisis – but what about those people like me who are living with HIV rather than dying. How does it affect sex, relationships, mental health?
People also don’t know about recent developments in HIV healthcare – for example, those on effective treatment can’t pass the virus on and most new diagnoses come from people who don’t know they have the virus – that’s why it is so important to get tested regularly. Those who might be at risk (e.g. sleeping with multiple partners or injecting recreational drugs) can also take PrEP – HIV medication that can stop you from getting the virus in the first place.
I want to use ‘First Time’ as a vehicle to get those messages out as well as for people to get an insight into the challenges people living with HIV still face, such as discrimination at work.
What do you hope people will learn from watching ‘First Time’?
The take-home message is very much about learning to love the messiness of life and our imperfections. We all mess up at some point, it’s just part of the human condition.
I want people to feel empowered to shake off regrets and remorse and stop putting pressure on themselves to present a perfect version of themselves – something I did for many years.
‘First Time’ is accompanied by a series of events to coincide with 30th World AIDS day. Can you tell us more about what’s happening?
They’re stuff happening all over the country to mark World AIDS Day. At Waterside in Sale, Greater Manchester, where the show is on, we’re hosting a writing workshop as well as an HIV activism poster making workshop with associate artist Jessica Loveday. We’re also offering rapid HIV testing in partnership with BHA for Equality, George House Trust and the LGBT Foundation and lots of buildings across the region will be lit up red.
We’re culminating with a big party with my favourite DJ (Jamie Bull from Homoelectric) on the decks to raise funds for local HIV charities and to commemorate and celebrate the lives of people lost to, and those who live with the virus.
Lastly, do you have any advice for anyone who has recently been diagnosed with HIV? Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were first diagnosed?
For me, things have only got better when I’ve told people about my status – not fearing who may find out accidentally is a great relief. But give yourself time, seek support, talk to other people living with the virus – don’t try and bury it away. You don’t need to make a show about it or talk about it all the time, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
And remember it’s a journey, there’ll be good days and bad days, don’t beat yourself up about feeling low or deflated on the bad days, just remember they will pass.