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Toxic Q&A with Nathaniel J Hall

With Toxic at HOME Manchester until 28 October - read our in-depth interview with playwright and performer Nathaniel J Hall, where he discusses the inspiration behind the show and why it's a queer story for now.

Who is it for?

Age 18+

Is this autobiographical?

Unlike my previous show First Time, Toxic is only semi-autobiographical. The piece is inspired by true events from my own life, as well as from other stories uncovered in creative outreach sessions with LGBTQ+ people. Names and characteristics of people other than myself have been altered significantly.

Is it a continuation of First Time? (Did you write it before/after)

At the opening of First Time, we meet our main character in the midst of a mental breakdown but the causes of this are not explored in depth during the piece. Toxic delves deeper into some of the realities of my personal life just before and during the premiere of First Time in 2018. The play spans around 6 years from 2017.

However, unlike First Time, Toxic is only a semi-autobiographical piece. Through research and creative outreach workshops, we’ve explored personal challenges I’ve faced with the challenges of other LGBTQ+ people to widen the perspectives and experiences captured in the play.

Why does the show come with trigger warnings?

Toxic contains frank portrayal of some difficult subject matter that some people may find distressing. As an artist with lived experience of many of these subjects, I’ve tried to portray these in a compassionate manner. Nothing is included simply for shock value. As an artist, I believe that theatre is an invaluable tool for unlocking the darker and more shameful parts of ourselves and wider society to support increased self-acceptance, break down stigma and isolation and affect positive societal change.

What do you mean by the term ‘gay shame’?

‘Gay shame’ is a term often used by queer people to describe the compound negative effect living in a systemically homophobic world can have on our self-worth and psychological wellbeing. The term ‘gay shame’ doesn’t mean all queer people are ashamed of who they are but recognises that queer people may have to do extra work on the journey to self-acceptance.

Often the labour of doing this self-work can be exhausting and leads many queer people already navigating a difficult world to burnout. Sometimes people describe this as ‘internalised homophobia’ and some people talk about the cumulative effect of daily ‘microaggressions’ taking their toll on queer people.

What inspired you to write Toxic?

After I made First Time in 2018 my professional career was on an upwards trajectory, but my personal one? That was taking a hard nosedive. I was in the chaotic end months of a deeply problematic co-dependent relationship. And this hadn’t been the first time I’d been in this situation either.

Breaking through the shame and stigma of HIV was hard, but as the dust settled on First Time, I knew I wanted to delve deeper into the shame of being stuck in toxic and even abusive relationship cycles. I started therapy… and cried a whole swimming pool.

I discovered just how much stuff I was carrying around every single day and how that was the perfect foundation for my anxiety disorder and C-PTSD, which were the perfect breeding ground for self-medication through sex, porn, alcohol and drugs, which, when I collided with another queer soul carrying all the same stuff, was the perfect recipe for disaster. I realised how many other LGBTQ+ people were probably carrying the same around with them every day, in some cases such as my QTIPOC friends, maybe even more. I cried a whole ocean.

I was desperate to find out why when the world treats us so badly already, do we end up treating ourselves and each other badly too?

And so, I began creative outreach workshops with LGBTQ+ people. First, I focused on HIV stigma and shame because it’s what I know well. But then conversations opened out into gender, race and cultural heritage, poverty, sex work. And it became clear to me that despite all the glitter and positivity of the modern pride movement, behind closed doors so many of us are still battling deep rooted shame, caused by years of systemic homophobia, transphobia, HIV stigma, racism and toxic gender norms.

What do you want people to take away from the show?

At its heart, the show is about survival. I have endured some awful things in my lifetime. I’ve also caused immense pain to others through my actions and words. I have to face these head on and be accountable. But I survived. And now I thrive. I hope Toxic helps others to examine their own pasts with a huge dollop of compassion. We all make mistakes. It’s whether we learn from them that really matters.

I want our straight allies to watch and understand that the queer world isn’t all just hedonism for hedonism’s sake (although a bit of hedonism and queering up the world is totally legitimate and essential in fact!)

There’s a reason why many of us run for the escapism of clubs and bars and sex. I want people to understand that trauma doesn’t just come in the form of a car crash or a cancer diagnosis. Trauma can accumulate over years from microaggressions and dysfunctional social systems. Many of us are suffering immense pain from a thousand papercuts. We need compassion and support.

Toxic contains just one story out of millions. I want people to see maybe a snippet or fraction of their own story on stage. I want them to laugh out loud along with us when they recognise a bit of themselves, and I want those still struggling to reach deep inside with us, hold their own wounded inner child in their arms and tell them: I got you, you’re going to be ok, we’ll survive this, together.

In a way, Toxic is a love letter to all my exes and myself. A deep weeping for the pain and sadness we faced together, a lamentation that it didn’t work out for us, a celebration of the joy and solace we found in each other, and a clarion call for all of us to fight HIV stigma, homophobia, racism and toxic gender norms to build a fairer more equitable world where future LGBTQ+ generations thrive.

In First Time you used a lot of humour and comedy to touch on darker subjects, is Toxic also like that?

I try to write serious drama and people still seem to laugh out loud!

Yes, Toxic goes to some dark places, but even in the darkest places there is humour and hope. Without it why would we get out of bed in the morning?

Just like First Time, Toxic will absolutely have you crying with laughter one minute and weeping the next and isn’t that why we go to the theatre in the first place!?

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