Degrassis Jewish cast members share love for their TV program
Written by Mike Cohen
MONTREAL There are not too many Canadian dramatic television programs that can share the same successful recipe as the Degrassi franchise. It debuted 27 years ago as the Kids of Degrassi and morphed into four spinoffs, the latest presently in its seventh successful season on CTV.
Like its predecessors, Degrassi: The Next Generation depicts a group of students facing the typical issues and challenges of teen life at the fictitious Degrassi Community School in Toronto. It is never short of controversy. Some would say that every possible problem and issue that a high school could face violence, drugs, alcoholism, sexuality, eating disorders, drag racing ends up on a Degrassi episode. Perhaps that is why it scores such strong ratings and has been successfully licensed in more than 150 countries, including France, Switzerland, and Australia. In the US, Degrassi is the flagship series for cable channel The N.
The show now airs Mondays at 7:30 p.m. Season seven began on Jan. 10. When the program was relaunched, viewers were introduced to a new cast of characters most of whom were only about 12 years of age at the time. Theyve literally grown up on the small screen. While this season marks the final year of high school for some, others have already gone on to university. To keep these favourites part of the cast, university life has been added to the script.
Degrassi continues to have a significant Jewish flavour in its cast: Jake Goldsbie (Toby), Jake Epstein (bad boy Craig), Aubrey Graham (Jimmy), Shane Kippel (Spinner); Lauren Collins (Paige) and Stacey Farber (Ellie). Sarah Barrable-Tishauer (Liberty) has grown up with a Jewish background as well.
My father is Jewish and as a result I was sent to a public school called the Annex, at Spadina and Bloor, with a lot of Jewish students, she said. I still celebrate the different Jewish holidays.
Goldsbie and Barrable-Tishauer just began studying communications and journalism at Concordia University here, while Epstein is in his final year at the prestigious Montreal-based National Theatre School.
The Jewishness of Degrassi is very evident, Barrable-Tishauer said. Between the cast and the crew there are so many Jewish personalities that we shut down production on Jewish holidays.
Goldspies character, Toby Isaacs, is clearly identified as Jewish on the show.
The writers are always giving me different throwaway lines to recognize that, he said. They referred to Tobys bar mitzvah years ago. Im wishing people Happy Chanukah. One season I even did a Chanukah poem.
When they sat down for an interview with the Jewish Tribune at a downtown Starbucks, Goldsbie and Barrable-Tishauer shared their feelings of what it is like to be part of such a blockbuster show and the challenges they face. Coincidentally, the two 19 year olds both original Next Generation cast members attended the Interact program of Vaughan Road Academy in Toronto, for students who are heavily involved in the arts or athletics. The program enables them to have flexible schedules to accommodate their auditions, rehearsals, performances and competitions.
One day, the two friends and castmates were sharing ideas on the road they wanted to take for post-secondary education. Coincidentally, they shared the same desire to study journalism. Rather than stay in Toronto they set their sights on the Concordia program. When they were accepted just before Degrassi started shooting season number seven, the producers of the show lauded their choice and pledged to work around their schedules.
Shooting began in May and went right until mid-December.
In September Goldsbie moved into the student residence building in Montreals West End NDG district close by the communications and journalism facility. Barrable-Tishauer opted for an apartment downtown.
They arranged their schedules for the first semester to have Thursdays and Fridays off, enabling them to commute back and forth to Toronto for long weekends until shooting ended.
Because Toronto does not have a CEGEP (junior college) system, they will be required to spend four years at Concordia to get their degrees.
I am committed to the four years here, said Goldsbie. I could have stayed in Toronto, but I wanted a change of scenery. I checked out the journalism program at Carlton, but honestly I could not think of spending four years living in Ottawa. Montreal is a different story. Will I eventually pursue a career in journalism? I do not know. I definitely want to do something to do with writing.
Barrable-Tishauer said she has always loved to write.
I love to tell stories and experience different cultures, she said. I happen to be a really curious person. The communications and journalism program will allow me to get a multitude of skills and perhaps lead me to my ultimate goal of one day hosting my own television travel show.
Since classes do finish in April, the two actors hope they will be back with Degrassi, which has already been renewed for an eighth season.
As for Epstein, in another interview with the Jewish Tribune, he chose to leave the regular cast of Degrassi two years ago when he was accepted to the National Theatre Schools acting program. This exclusive school admits only 12 students a year. Hell graduate in the spring.
For me, personally, I felt like I couldnt say that I was an actor without going to school, said Epstein. If youre going to study acting, youre going to study theatre. If you can do theatre, you can do anything. I got written out of the script as a regular when my character went on rehab with cocaine addiction. But I am coming back each season for a few episodes with my band. So its nice to keep the connection.
Season 7 of Degrassi picked up in the middle of the school year where past, present and new Degrassi students were faced with fierce competition, blossoming relationships and new hardships. This season a fire at rival Lakehurst, the school of popular character JTs killer last season, forced many of its students into the halls of Degrassi with explosive results.
How long can this show go on? Well, eight new actors have joined the cast while everyone else is back. That includes Stefan Brogren as Snake and Amanda Stepto as Spike, the only two original Degrassi cast members from 27 years ago.
The addition of the university component not only keeps some of the popular characters on board, but it opens the door for a possible sequel.
Goldsbie and Barrable-Tishauer think it is good that the show continues to focus on controversial issues.
My mom works at a school in Toronto and the teachers there tell her how good it is that we help open dialogue between parents and kids who watch the show, Goldsbie said. We deal with issues that have occurred in our own society. School shootings happened. Our episode resulted in a characters paralysis. The murder of the character JT last season was ripped from similar incidents, which occurred in Toronto in recent years.
Added Barrable-Tishauer: Schools have evolved so much over time, from the teacher being the authoritative figure. Now teachers are becoming so involved in students lives. We spend more time in school than with our parents so these people have a big effect on your life. Degrassi, I believe, has brought heightened awareness to certain issues. The fact is there are drug problems at school. Girls do get pregnant. Violence does exist. Dialogue needs to be opened up on these topics.
For more details on the show log on to http://www.degrassi.tv, where you can get caught up on its history. Episodes are available on itunes and on the CTV broadband network.