Preparing for the UK tour of his one-man show First Time, Nathaniel Hall chats to Ruth Comerford about how he hopes to alleviate the stigma surrounding HIV…
Tell me about the show…
It was commissioned in 2018 by Waterside Arts and it’s my true life story. When I was 16 I contracted HIV from the first person I ever had sex with, and for the first 14 years or so I kept it relatively secret – I didn’t tell my family, I told people on a need-to-know basis. In 2017 I had a mental breakdown. I realised something needed to change, so I said I’m going to make a show. It’s a very theatrical piece. It’s storytelling but it utilises lip-syncing, live art and stand-up. It’s a smorgasbord but it’ll make you laugh, cry laughing and then just cry.
How did you get started in the industry?
I was in my mum’s tummy when she was on stage – I always say that’s where I got it from. I was in youth theatres from a young age and then I studied theatre and performance. It was a half-academic, half-training course, which was great because I was interested in understanding my craft deeply. I always wanted to inspire and help other young people. One thing I love is youth theatre. I’ve worked with lots of [youth] companies, including 20 Stories High in Liverpool and the Royal Exchange Young Company in Manchester. People come through the door and you can see they’ve found their tribe. I know what that felt like at 16, so I’ve always been very passionate about youth theatres and inspiring the next generation of artists.
What effect has the diagnosis had on your career?
I knew when I was younger and trained in theatre, that [performing] was the career I wanted. I knew I was good enough, but there was also a voice saying “you’re not, you’ve failed”. Over time if you’re not honest and authentic about what’s inside you, it almost becomes like a psychological cancer that eats you away. In 2017 it got to that all-or-nothing point where I knew if I didn’t deal with what was going on inside me, I was never going to reach what I knew I was capable of.
What do you hope to achieve with the show?
There’s a big body of work about the Aids crisis: we have Angels in America, The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, 120 Beats Per Minute, Philadelphia, Rent and The Inheritance, all trying to deal with the collective trauma of that moment in history. But I knew [what I was seeing] was not my experience. I was talking to people with HIV and they were saying the same. I wanted to demonstrate to people what the experience of living with HIV feels like, because physiologically you don’t feel any different, unless you’re not treated and you become sick, but psychologically the weight of that is huge. I’m advocating for a world where everyone with HIV feels comfortable to say they have it, to their hairdresser or their taxi driver, just as you might say ‘I have a cold’, because there is no reason why it shouldn’t be that way.
Training: Theatre and Performance BA (hons) at University of Leeds (2005-08)
First professional role: Participation team for 20 Stories High in Liverpool (2012)
Agent: Lauren Tritton at Rare Talent
First Time is touring the UK until February 24. More information here: nathanieljhall.co.uk/first-time