A group of Calgary high school thespians are set to tackle AIDS, drug use and homosexuality in the summer production of the controversial Broadway musical Rent.

Summerstock productions and AIDS Calgary put out the call to city high school students for the polemic play, which will debut later this month, and a cast of 65 was selected from 3,000 hopefuls.

The smash-hit musical exposes the roots, causes and consequences of AIDS through drug use, and sex — both homosexual and heterosexual.

The Summerstock characters will be played by students of various sexual orientations who are 15 to 19 years old.

“Some of the students are openly and proudly gay, and some are straight, but I think the beautiful thing today is gay students can feel safe and open at schools,” said artistic director Jim Senft.

Senft acknowledged the controversies that come with high school students tackling such taboo subjects in light of the recent dispute over Bill 44, but he pointed out this is Rent: School Edition, which focuses more on education than shock value and omits some of the edgier elements of the musical like physical contact.

“We don’t ever want to run from controversy. People are entitled to their opinion and that’s their right, and it’s our right to perform the play,” he said, adding all parents were notified in advance and fully support their children.

One of the lead actors is 18-year-old Graham Mothersill, who plays a 30-year-old gay man with AIDS.

Mothersill said he isn’t concerned about any stigma attached to playing such a role.

“I was just excited to be a part of Rent, and my parents were totally supportive,” he said.

Laura Wershler, executive director for Sexual Health Access Alberta, also supported the idea, saying she was “amazed” that a group of students would step up and tackle such issues by “advocacy through art.”

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