Cure Chronicles Episode 21: Nathaniel Hall

The Cure Chronicles: HIV with Nathaniel Hall

The Cure Chronicles is delighted to welcome Nathaniel Hall to the show! Nathaniel is a freelance theater-maker, actor, director, and HIV activist from Manchester who was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 16 —but didn’t tell his family for nearly 15 years. He is best known for his outstanding show, “First Time,'' which documents his experience of being diagnosed with HIV and how it has changed his life. While on tour in the U.K., the show received audience and critical acclaim and won the Edinburgh Fringe Award in 2019. Nathaniel has also made an impact with his outstanding performance as a star in “It’s A Sin'', which brought HIV/AIDS into mainstream conversation in a compelling way. Nathaniel is also the Co-Artistic Director of Dibby Theatre and was the Co-Creative Director of the “Manchester Pride Candlelight Vigil.'' He tells autobiographical stories of health and well-being and has appeared extensively across the U.K. media talking about his experiences with HIV stigma and shame. He’s currently writing his next show, “Toxic,” which is scheduled to premiere in 2023.

Read the Full Transcript Below

Jeff: Nathaniel, it's great to meet you. Thank you so much for joining me on the Cure Chronicles.

Nathaniel: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Jeff.

Jeff: Just reading over your bio, you've done a tremendous amount of stuff. And I think one of the things that really just stood out to me right away was that you get diagnosed at 16 and yet you don't tell your family for 15 more years. Were you actually living in a house with your family at the time?

Nathaniel: Yeah, I was living with my parents and my two older brothers, my younger sister, and very much lived with them for a number of years after that. I actually went away to university, but then came back and yeah, I was living in that house, with this secret, for quite a long time.

Jeff: What was that experience like? What was your takeaway from that or what motivated you to keep it that way? 

Nathaniel: I think I remember the, very clearly, getting that diagnosis. I'd been on holiday with my parents. I got very sick on that holiday, which was my conversion, where my body was recognizing that it was HIV positive.

We're talking like both ends at the same time, sick, was really unpleasant. And my mom took me to the emergency doctor when we got home, and of course, 16 year old boy with his mom, the doctor's not asking the questions around, sexual history or all those kinds of things.

He just went, oh, you've got a water bomb virus. You just ride it out sort of thing, which I did. I lost about two stone, but I did get better. I was really quite bad. But then I started college and I started to get other symptoms in the downstairs department, which no teenage boy wants, so I was like trip to the STI clinic, the sexual health clinic, on my own.

And the doctor there, he obviously knew, he could see the signs and symptoms of HIV, but I was refusing to take the test cuz you could refuse; we still can refuse. But it was an opt out test. It wasn't included in the other tests. And eventually he convinced me and I remember getting the diagnosis, it was two weeks before my 17th birthday.

And then going home with that, the weight of that, and with the weight of all the conversations I'd had with my mom about being gay recently and, protection and stuff and deciding whether to go through the door and tell her, and go, I'm a child. I need my mom, I need help. Or go, you're an adult now. Go upstairs and deal with it yourself. And that's the path that I chose. And it was, looking back, it was totally not the right path to take, but it was the one that I did. 

Jeff: Wow. You decided to consider yourself a 17 year old adult ready for the adult world to handle everything on your own.

Yeah. No, that's, I can certainly understand, how difficult even that decision would be and how, the anxiety that would surround actually opening up in that situation. I think anybody could understand that aspect of it. You talked, just briefly, about getting the diagnosis and actually even resisting the idea of getting a test.

I think a lot of people don't know their status. Sometimes it's cuz they just would rather bury their head in the sand. Sometimes cuz they're uneducated that there's a cost to doing that, that getting on treatment is a really good idea if you have HIV right? You shouldn't put it off.

Sometimes because again, lack of knowledge that it's like a self-stigma where people are like, wait, if I'm HIV positive, it's the end of my life. So I'll put this off as long as I can, knowing that it's the end and yet it's not. You go ahead and handle it.

Look at, you've just been so prolific with all the work that you've done. It certainly shaped a lot of your art. I can see that. But is that necessarily a bad thing? It's something that you've turned into… you made lemon lemonade out of lemons.

Nathaniel: I was just about to say the same thing. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, I think. Yeah. All of those things.

Nathaniel: I think I lived for a long time with a lot of shame. Clearly, it took me 15 years to become open about my diagnosis. I did tell some people, and I told partners, but it was very much a secret.

It was very much this heavy thing that I carried. And for anyone that's had a HIV diagnosis, my, they'll know, my experience is not uncommon. Many people go at least a number of years before they really deal with the psychological, grapple with the psychological impact and the emotional impact of the diagnosis.

And, I think I carried this cloak of shame over me and it really impacted my life in so many negative ways that I wasn't even noticing and incrementally my life got less and less stable. And I got less and less emotionally stable and my relationships got less stable. And then I realized with hindsight, I remember someone saying to me, after a show once, shame is a useless emotion.

Shame weighs on us like a heavy cloak that we can't rid ourselves of. They said regret is much better. Because when you regret something, you admit, you acknowledge that you want to do it differently in the future. But even then I go, do I regret the things that happened? I don't know. They've shaped who I am.

We can, you, we can always talk hypothetically, can't we, about sliding doors? Which way is my life going to go? But this is the path that I was given and I wouldn't change it for the world. 

Jeff: Oh my gosh, I'm happy to hear you end it on that note. When you talk about regret, I think you don't have to regret your actions to regret what happened to you. So that's fine. And I love that idea that shame is this heaviness and distortionary force in your life that doesn't have the same positive aspects of, as processing it feeling bad about either what happened or even regretting something that you did.

And I'm glad to hear you didn't, right? Because it sounds like you had a very normal life and then… this could happen to anybody. And then you, you get a chance to come out of that funk and start being real with yourself. That's the first step to being real with other people.

So maybe the stigma starts to gradually break down, or your friends and family sort themselves into those supportive ones and the ones that, okay, I'm just not gonna talk about it with them and you can go on. But you did much more than all that stuff.

You wrote a play about it, " First Time". Okay, tell us about first time. This is something that you, created all on your own and you are the subject and you were also the main.

Nathaniel: Yeah, so if we imagine, I was diagnosed 2003 and we fast forward all the way to 2017, that my life had taken a real nose dive in 2017.

I was in a very toxic controlling relationship, and I was really deeply unhappy. I was full of anxiety. I had complex post traumatic stress disorder. I now know, having had treatment, but at the time didn't know, that I was really heavily reliant on drugs and alcohol. I was engaged in really risky behavior, very chaotic behavior, in a lot of debt, just at this point in my life that I never thought I would get to.

I always had these great ambitions and hopes and dreams and aspirations – I was a straight-A kid at school and university, and I traveled the world, and then all of a sudden it felt like all that had unraveled. And that was the moment I caught myself awake two days after a house party, still awake, looking like death.

And I was so deeply unhappy and I remember I just didn't recognize me anymore. I was looking in the mirror and going, who is this person who have you become? And that was the moment when I went, something's gotta change, because if it didn't the shame and the self-stigma and all of that was gonna eat me up and it was gonna get very dark.

So that was the turning point. And I, yeah, I didn't just go and tell people I, I went from zero to a hundred. I told everyone, I told the world. So I had a great team around me. I was commissioned to make the show. That kind of made me go on the journey to tell my family through that process, which was the main reason why I started to make the show actually.

It was to force my hand to go, you need to have that conversation that has to happen. And I made the show. It was World AID'S Day 2018. And I thought, I'll do a few shows, nice commission, nice little theater in the south of Manchester here in England. And I'll get it off my chest, if it goes well.

If it doesn't, I'll go into accounting or something. Like I'd always been trying, I'd always been on the cusp of being a successful actor, but never quite getting there. And it was all in all or nothing. And it was World AIDS Day and we had a PR campaign and it just took off.

And before I knew it, I was on national news, television, radio; international news outlets were involved. And my story very much was shared across the world very quickly. And it was quite an overwhelming moment but an incredible moment to go, wow. Like from, literally from being so ashamed of this thing to speaking so openly about it and the show.

Went so remarkably well, and I was just like, okay my producer was like, we need to take this further because clearly there's an appetite. So we developed the show. We took it on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which is a huge theater festival here in the UK and then on, and then it went on a national tour and it's synced a hundred shows, and spawned loads of other different kinds of projects and things as well.

Jeff: That's amazing. It essentially, it was connectable and, no pun intended, but it went viral. This sort of pulled you from one place into a whole new perspective on this. Now, people want to see your story. And really what you're doing is you're actually expressing your experience.

You are revealing your truth. And that must just be so emotional to relive it, daily on the stage in front of an audience. Because what I know of actors is, they have to tap down into the real feelings sometimes to really do a great performance. And so I think, wow, that must be quite an exercise, to go through in this zero to a hundred that you just mentioned.

What's it like to get up in front of an audience and relive that experience?

Nathaniel: It is, extremely, like you say, it's…you do have to dig deep to find the emotion. Essentially when you perform your own story, you don't because it's there, but I think you have to protect yourself psychologically. We put lots of things into the script and the way that it's performed that protect me.

But. To see the response, the show has the immediate response in the room. And it's not, it's not all a sob story. It's a really funny show. It's a really theatrical show. It's got confetti cannons and audience interaction and there's all these, we go to a candlelight vigil, which is a really moving moment cuz everyone has a candle in the audience.

Jeff: That sounds so cool. I'm just picturing, you're drawing a great picture here of what this is. 

Nathaniel: It takes the audience on such a journey. And it was always my intention with the show. Autobiographical storytelling is amazing. But I've seen some where I felt like the performer is quite vulnerable because they've not quite grappled with the thing that they're telling and it feels like they're emotionally exposed.

And I always wanted to make sure that my audience knew that I was safe emotionally. So the trick really is to make your audience feel really comfortable and really welcome, with humor and all the theatrics, and that kind of thing helps to do that. So you can take that audience to really dark places and then know that it's my experience, but they don't feel like I'm vulnerable. So that was the real trick for the first time, and it was a real learning curve. Cause I'd never, I'd worked on a lot of theater, but I'd never worked in this kind of field. We did lots of work on that. But yeah, it is really emotionally draining to do, but so rewarding to see the immediate, visceral reaction in the room. And then to hear people share their stories with me afterwards, or on social media as well, which is always a real honor. 

Jeff: So one of the beauties of that type of performance art like a play is that connection with the audience and that immediate feedback that in some way can actually change the performance to some extent.

That just seems like a brilliant strategy to realize that, one of the things that you worry about in these types of plays where people do this autobiographical thing is the vulnerability –  and can the audience engage with the person fully if they're afraid of hurting him or her with their reactions. And so that idea of trying to remove that, I think is just brilliant. I don't know whether that's just something you learn in theater school or whatever, but that's a good point: you want them to know that you can handle it.

And that way they can actually fully experience it with you. This roller coaster of emotions, including the dark moments, what was it like to perform it for the very first time? Oh my gosh. Like you're getting out there and you're like, I'm gonna actually tell my story now. First time ever, you have no idea.

On the second performance, at least you've seen the reaction at the first performance. But what about that first performance?

Nathaniel: Yeah, first time. The first time was probably the most terrifying moment of my life. There was so much pressure built up because there'd been such a buzz about the show when all this kind of media whirlwind, it's so not only was I telling this personal story for the first time, there was all this kind of expectation as well. It was incredible to start that performance. And at the start of the performance, basically that I'm not ready. So the audience are trying to come in and I'm, I've been up all night, I've been partying, and I'm in no fit state whatsoever to welcome an audience.

And so the humor of all that, although it's quite dark humor, but the fact that, I'm trying to tidy up cause the place is a mess and I'm welcoming people in that really helped break the ice for the audience, but also for me on that first performance to go, okay, now I can breathe. Cuz everyone's laughing and everyone's having a good time, and it's like good music.

So that helps me settle into it, but it's one of those moments where when you perform, I'll tell you this, you sometimes get to the end and you go, I don't know how I got here, but we did it. 

Jeff: Interesting. Nobody said that to me before. I just think of stories as having arcs, with beginnings and endings, and I'm always just in awe of writers that can actually go ahead and pull out a good story arc from anything. The way you describe that show, I'm like, that's just amazing. Like, when does it open on Broadway? When can I see it?

Nathaniel: We did have some conversations about bringing it over to the United States, but we had a pandemic in the middle, which was making things very difficult.

A global pandemic. It impacted all our lives in a myriad of ways. But also, we put the show on pause for that, but I continued to do a lot of outreach work and we created some short films with other people with HIV. We wanted to continue the impact and not just go, oh, let's give up cuz of this pandemic that was in the way of live performance.

And then when we could tour again, we went back on tour, I did a hundred shows and I came to this point where I feel it's doable in terms of the emotional kind of energy that it takes. But actually it does have an impact. And, for me, having an endpoint was really important.

But it doesn't mean the story's over because I'm writing another play, which is semi autobiographical, which is the next chapter. And then, maybe these two stories or a third play might amalgamate into some sort of TV drama film. Who knows where the story can go.

Just because that play is finished doesn't mean that the story doesn't still have some mileage. So you may see a musical on Broadway yet, you never know. 

Jeff: I love it. I love it. And I also love how freely you talk about all the possible scenarios, right? Because I think that's how people should feel about their future.

Just in general, they just go for it, right? Once you have your survival covered, right? Just go for it, find out what your special story is, or what your special skill is, or what is just immensely fulfilling to you, and just go for it.

I'm sitting here with you thinking, geez, one day I might go, oh, I know that guy, right? Because I might see you everywhere because sometimes that does lead to a lot of notoriety, a lot of fame and whatever. But the important thing is that, whether it's Covid getting in the way or just normal life, keep going. 

Nathaniel: Yeah, absolutely. 

Jeff: Or an HIV diagnosis. Keep going. 

Nathaniel: Absolutely. And I've always said, the Fortune and Fame game is, I've brushed it, I've skirted it through some of the things I've done, but it's never something that is really…I've never been compelled to chase after that.

And I think chasing that for, just for its sake can become, unfulfilling in a sense. And I, the work that I do, and the community work and the community arts work that my company does, and all that other stuff. And we have talent development programs for LGBTQ creatives and producers as well.

That brings me so much fulfillment and joy. If the other stuff happens, I'm not gonna say no. Really, Hollywood comes knocking at my door, I'm gonna be there. If someone's paying, I'm gonna turn up. But, that's not a dream that I'm chasing just for the sake of it.

Jeff: Yeah. I think I've heard that a lot from a lot of people, like the pursuit of money is a really empty thing. But the pursuit of something that you care about that might lead to that is – especially knowing that it may or may not lead to that – but that fulfillment is a major reward.

But this was just one thing that you did, right? You went on and you starred in "It's a Sin," right? So this was not your own creation, but apparently you gave a tremendous performance in that.

Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Nathaniel: "It's a Sin" was on Channel four here in the UK. It was on HBO Max in the States, and it's been on in a lot of other countries around the world. Streaming services. It was a huge television event here in the UKK quite surprisingly.

It took everyone by surprise, really. “It’s a Sin” tells the story of a group of young boys who meet in London in 1981 at the start of the AIDS crisis. And it follows them; each episode is a year and we move through the decade, and how this virus slowly creeps into every aspect of their lives and how it impacts them.

And it's the first TV drama to actually deal with the impact of HIV and AIDS on the gay community. In British television, we've never had any, we've had some storylines in our soap operas, but we've never had something that's really focused on the social, cultural, political, impact of HIV and AIDS.

And it was a real honor. It's written by Russell T. Davis, who is an incredible TV screenwriter, just the most incredible career. And is one of my personal heroes. And to get a part in this show as a person living with HIV, I was the only openly HIV positive member of the cast.

To be able to tell these stories was a real privilege. And the messages that I got from people, we're talking in the thousands – I don't know Russell, the writer, must have just got hundreds of thousands – but I got, thousands and, and from people who said, from older gay men who'd lost their partners or friends or lovers to say, thank you. I thought we'd been forgotten because no one's ever told our story. And for many people living with HIV to say, I'm so pleased that you were there. With the lived experience, because that was really important to me or to them, that was what they were saying. It was an important that, that represents. 

Jeff: I think people need that. One of the things we were hoping would come out of The Cure Chronicles is that when you talk to folks and they tell their stories, and especially, you'd see this is quite connectable and a lot of the interviews are quite connectable because people recount common experiences and people feel less alone.

And I think that's a really valuable thing. Less forgotten, less isolated. I think, this is one element that is really important within that subculture of folks that haven't yet been able to do what you've done, to come out totally like out loud and proud about their lives. And, with regrets, but without that shame that you were talking about. And that's a great takeaway by the way, already from this interview, that whole concept of okay, come to grips with your life. Regret what you want, but process it and put it behind you and become what you want to become without shame. And what year was this? You said this is the first time this had ever really been dealt with openly in the UK, which I think is quite progressive, but what year was this? 

Nathaniel: It was 2021 when that hit our screens. February 21. And yeah it really did. I think everyone was really craving new drama because obviously the impact, one of the impacts of the global pandemic, was that TV and film… there were so many repeats on television. I think everyone was just craving new drama. But also, I think it's just so beautifully written and it's an issue based piece. Yes, it's about HIV, and AIDS, but it's not, that's not the starting point. The starting point are these really beautiful characters that are complex and real and fallible as well. Some of them aren't that likable as well. 

Jeff: It sounds like you're describing all of us, right? Humans. 

Nathaniel: And I think it also had a real nostalgia for the 1980s, which everyone seems to love at the minute. So there were all these different things…

Jeff: I don’t know if the AIDS crisis was everybody's favorite part of the eighties, but I get the nostalgia thing a little bit. Yeah. the music. 

Nathaniel: And I think what happened was it just ignited this conversation in the UK. So we had a very big public health campaign back in 1987, which was really quite stigmatizing. It was huge tombstones on television and, like the grim reap is gonna get you, and it was all really negative.

And since then we've not had anything to say. We know how HIV has changed dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years. So what “It’s a Sin” did was reignite that conversation and although it was telling a story, a history, it was telling an old story, it allowed the incredible work of activists in the present and organizations in the present to be invited to talk.

And I'm not kidding. People were talking about it for I think it was about six weeks after it had broadcast and I was still on the radio in the middle of the day, prime time. And there were people talking about it and talking about testing and talking about U=U, and talking about prep and being re-educated.

So it was, oh my gosh, a real cultural moment where something shifted in the zeitgeist around HIV in the UK. So it was very, very special.

Jeff: Something has to do it, right. Like we do, there is a natural progression towards understanding. And it's interesting that you were talking about that in 1987 they did this big campaign where it's the grim reaper and the end of the world and dark, it's all dark.

And they have learned, and I don't know why they keep doing it anyway, but they learned a long time ago that if you make the picture too frightening, people just turn away and they learn nothing. And so why bother putting those messages up there because everybody will ignore them because it is just too much to deal with.

We are only willing to take in as much as we can handle. And psychologically that's just beyond it.

Nathaniel: I'm one piece of an amazing interconnected puzzle of incredible people doing incredible work across the globe on this, on this work to destigmatize.

And, I've done my little bit in a hundred shows and I've got a published play text, which is out there and has been sold and I've done all the interviews and stuff. In recent years in the UK there's been more and more people talking about HIV openly on social media, which is something that I do.

But, there's people on TikTok with like hundreds of thousands of followers. I don't even know how to use TikTok. One: dancing. I love dancing, but I'm like, not when I'm trying to…

Jeff: I dunno if you have to dance while you TikTok. I've seen ones that weren't, and I'm, I don't know how to use TikTok either, but I hear it's big.

Nathaniel: I've just seen today an article about a young woman in Wales, 25 years old. A young mom, had a diagnosis, has recently gone onto social media, has gained a huge following talking about this, and that's just incredible. I'm very privileged. I've been given a platform.

People recognize my work and people applaud me at the end of it. But the work that people like that do day in day out often doesn't get recognized. And it's really important to acknowledge that we can all make that difference. Every single one of us. It doesn't need to be a huge grand gesture.

You don't need to write a play, or a TV show. You can make that difference day to day, even just with one person by having a conversation. So it's really important for me to recognize that and all the unpaid labor of all those amazing people. That is helping us work towards that stigma free world. 

Jeff: It's really cool that you're calling this out, that you can do that and never get recognized for it. But it's important. Yep. It's good. It's really good and it's really important. And you're an example where it did actually suddenly find its mark, right? It's traction. And I wonder whether you know a lot of these things, right? You're like, oh, people are on TikTok with a hundred thousand viewers. I think that represents, coming from the product world supply and demand. What you had was this vacuum out there, of all these people that you know need connection that needed to identify with somebody.

And then brave people who were first movers in that. And I think a lot of it has taken off tremendously fast for that reason. And sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right medium to get out. And other times it's, how connectable is your real story and how authentically can you tell it too?

You seem so relaxed about your history that you can go ahead and just speak about it completely honestly. That, I think, is one of the big things, barriers to people, being able to produce, or to tell a story that's engageable, that authenticity is very important and the realness, the truth to it. But that's not all you're doing.

You could go on and on. I don't want to just, I wanna leave something for the next interview. We should get together again, but, tell us what else we should, before we sign out here. Is there anything else you'd like to cover? Can you tell us about your next thing that you're gonna do so we can keep an eye out for it?

I don't know whether it's still there, but I'm gonna search on HBO and see if I can find "It's a Sin." 

Nathaniel: Absolutely, it should be, yeah. Search it out. I think it's been put onto some other streaming platforms as well now, so you may be able to find it. But, what am I doing next?

So I mentioned earlier we made three short films called “HIV and Me,” which were about widening the story. So I was acutely aware, telling my story, I'm a white man, and often white men get pushed, get privilege and platforms, and so I thought, what can I do to give back here? And so I started to think about the other stories that we could tell and allow a real beautiful network of people who live with HIV and on that journey to be, to being well on that journey a few years ago.

So being, I can tell this, I wanna tell this more. I wanna be public, I wanna be, I want the pedestal. So “HIV and Me" was about that. And we made these really beautiful short films about three different perspectives. A Black British woman, an ex-injecting drug user. These are stories you don't always hear because there's added levels of stigma and shame, based on the intersections of their identities.

So we made those, they are about to go online for free. We've been monetizing them for a while, but now we're gonna put them out as a free resource. So they're, they'll be on my, and on my theater company's websites. 

My next project is called Toxic. And that's another theater show. It's looking at the impact of HIV, homophobia, and toxic gender norms on gay men's relationships. It's like chapter two of “First Time,”  but it's only semi-biographical because I'm acknowledging it's a much more recent history and there's lots of ethics around how you tell a story.

And so that's next and that will go on a UK tour and who knows where that story will go. I have ambition for my work to be international. So maybe one day, this stuff will be in the States and yeah, who knows? But there's plenty keeping me outta trouble.

That's for sure. 

Jeff: That's good news. More than outta trouble, really into some very exciting and I think good things; this mini-series, or the series of these short films that you're talking about. Yeah. These are submarkets of people that need that connection.

Like telling it from a different perspective so that it's identifiable and to look at oneself and go, look, I can only represent so much as one person that we actually need stories about other people as well that are connectable and that will help people. I'm sure that's just doing so much good out there.

So I appreciate all this fine work that you're doing and I especially appreciate you coming and telling us all about it on the HIV Cure Chronicles. Thank you. 

Nathaniel: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much.

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