Mordecai Lazzer was grateful for the support of staff and students at Edmonton's Ross Sheppard High School while exploring gender identity.
Now the three-year personal journey of the Grade 12 student, who identifies as 'they' or 'them,' is one of the stories in a musical revue called Identities, set to hit the stage at Campus Saint-Jean Theatre next month.
"It's just me going through the name changes and the pronoun changes and where I felt comfortable and finding myself here at Shep," said Lazzer, one of a few dozen students taking part in the production.
The collection of songs from well-known musicals and real-life stories of students told by others to protect their privacy could be a first for an Edmonton high school. The production explores themes of identity and, in cases such as Lazzer's, gender non-conformity.
"When I get to tell my story and I get to say this is how I came to find myself, it makes me really happy to know that there are people out there who are going to know me and know my story and know that I'm comfortable with who I am, and this is who I am," said Lazzer.
It was hearing those stories that inspired drama teacher Kristen Forsyth, or just "Forsyth" as her students affectionately call her, to come up with the concept of Identities.
Forsyth asked auditioning students to share life-changing moments about coming to terms with who they are. Students opened up about their experiences at school, at home and coming out.
"After that audition process I thought this is the show: We're going to take these stories, these real life events, and we're going to explore them in a dramatic way, in a safe way for the students so that we can share these beautiful stories," said Forsyth, who praised the school's administration for their support.
She said the current political context, specifically the battle around transgender bathrooms and the ongoing fight over gay-straight-alliances in Alberta schools, makes this production especially timely for her students.
"I thought it was especially important now to give those students … a chance to express their story and celebrate who they are and feel safe and feel connected and feel validated for who they are."
That spirit was on full display Thursday at a rehearsal in a school portable. About two dozen students waved rainbow flags, danced, laughed, clapped and belted out the lyrics to Raise You Up, from the musical Kinky Boots, which celebrates letting love shine, accepting others and being yourself.
"I see my students every day being brave and risky and vulnerable and just jumping into things," said Forsyth. "So I want that spirit to be celebrated on stage."