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Helena teen immersed in theater, social action

Helena High Senior Aaron Fossedal poses for a photograph inside the Grandstreet Theatre on March 11 in Helena. (Thom Bridge / Associated Press)
Helena High Senior Aaron Fossedal poses for a photograph inside the Grandstreet Theatre on March 11 in Helena. (Thom Bridge / Associated Press)
Marga Lincoln Associated Press

HELENA – Aaron Fossedal already has a lot of traction for making his mark in life.

Although he’s just 18, he’s already earned acclaim in the areas of theater and social action.

A longtime Grandstreet Theatre kid and member of Helena High School Thespian Troupe 475, Fossedal won Best Student Director for his original play, “The Volcano Project,” at the Montana State Thespian Festival last month.

The play is dedicated to his older brother, who committed suicide in the past year.

Although Fossedal’s a novice playwright, “The Volcano Project” dug into some provocative issues – suicide, bullying of homosexuals and issues over sexual identity.

The play not only won several top awards, but drew a large audience at both the festival and Helena High School.

“For my first show and directing my first show, it completely blew my mind,” Fossedal said. “I was not expecting it and I was not expecting the turnout it got.”

He also got an offer from the thespian festival adjudicator to help him make his play even stronger.

She told him, “All day long, my whole career is to talk, talk, talk – but you’ve left me speechless.”

“I had everything in it – I had comedy, I had romance, I had drama, suspense,” Fossedal said.

He has a rich theater history to draw on. He started acting in plays put on by his teacher Terri Atwood at Clancy School. Soon after, he became a Grandstreet kid.

Some of his most recent Grandstreet roles were as Jack in “Into the Woods,” as well as parts in “Legally Blonde,” “Les Miserables” and “The Addams Family.”

He’s also active at Helena High, where he’s a senior and serves on the principal’s advisory committee and the student council.

And then there’s a student group he started, Saving HHS, which is a suicide awareness and prevention group at the school. He started it following his older brother’s suicide in August.

“He had a history of depression, anxiety and suicide thoughts” and had previously attempted suicide and struggled with confusion over his sexual identity, Fossedal said.

After Fossedal founded the Saving HHS Facebook page, he said, it’s grown from 100 likes to 2,500.

“We’re a student-led group,” not a club, he said.

Group members took an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid class, he said, which they encourage others, including teachers, to take. “It’s free, and anyone in the state can take it.”

Saving HHS members don’t see themselves as counselors, he said, but as liaisons to help kids get help.

Fossedal and his friends wanted to create a group that would change the community and make a difference in saving people’s lives, he said.

They also held a barbecue to raise money for groups that raise suicide awareness. And they’ve distributed Saving HHS bracelets printed with the suicide hotline phone number.

Fossedal also was active in the Gay Straight Alliance at HHS and is 100 percent open about being gay, he said.

While he thinks gay rights are very important, being gay doesn’t totally define him or his interests in life.

Coming soon, Fossedal will be one of this year’s 52 Distinguished Students, who with their Distinguished Educators will be celebrated by the Helena Education Foundation in May.

In August, Fossedal is heading to Taiwan for a fifth senior year, through a Rotary Club youth exchange program. He was one of five Montana students chosen for the program, and each is going to a different country.

“I could not be more excited,” Fossedal said. “The only thing I’m scared about is learning Chinese. … I have to kind of do it, so I’m going to.”

When he returns, he plans to join the Marine Corps, he said, which will help him finance going to college to earn a bachelor’s degree in acting with a minor in political science.

“I feel deep down I need to serve my country in some way,” he said.

“I want to have an acting career,” Fossedal said of his future. “I want to make a difference in this world, whether it be for suicide awareness or gay rights or women’s rights or transgender rights. … I care about my country 100 percent. … I don’t want to see the country where we are right now,” he said, referring to the current contentious presidential campaign rhetoric.

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