Degrassi's focus on family issues

By Mike Cohen, The Suburban

Degrassi cast members Sarah Barrable-Tishauer (Liberty) and Jake Goldsbie (Toby) presently study at Concordia University.

Few Canadian dramatic TV programs share the success of the Degrassi franchise. When the original Kids of Degrassi hit the small screen 27 years ago, few could have predicted that it would morph into four spinoffs, with the latest, Degrassi: The Next Generation, in its seventh season on CTV.

Like its predecessors, Next Generation depicts a group of students facing typical teen life at the fictitious Degrassi Community School in Toronto. The show is never short of controversy since every possible problem and issue a typical high school student could face violence, drugs, alcoholism, sexual assault, eating disorders, and even drag racing ends up on an episode. Thats probably why its broadcast in over 150 countries, including the U.S.

When Next Generation started its run, viewers were introduced to a new cast of characters most of whom were only about 12 years of age at the time and have literally grown up before our eyes. While this season marks the final year of high school for some characters, others have already gone on to university, and in order to keep these favourites part of the cast, university life has been added to the script opening the door to another possible sequel.

Interestingly, university life in Montreal has also been added to the real lives of three cast members who now call Montreal home. Sarah Barrable-Tishauer (Liberty) and Jake Goldsbie (Toby) began studying communications and journalism at Concordia University, while Jake Epstein (bad boy Craig) is in his final year at the prestigious Montreal-based National Theatre School.

When Goldsbie and Barrable-Tishauer, both 19 and original Next Generation cast members, chose to study journalism and at Concordia, the shows producers pledged to work around their schedules.

I could have stayed in Toronto, but I wanted a change of scenery, says Goldsbie. I checked out the journalism program at Carleton, but honestly I couldnt think of spending four years living in Ottawa. Montreal is a different story.

Barrable-Tishauer says she has always loved to write. I love to tell stories and experience different cultures, she says. I happen to be a really curious person. The 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.

Jake Epstein left the regular cast two years ago when he was accepted to the National Theatre Schools acting program.

I felt like I couldnt say that I was an actor without going to school, says Epstein in a separate interview. 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.

This season, eight new actors joined the regular cast that includes Stefan Brogren (Snake) and Amanda Stepto (Spike) the only two cast members from the original Degrassi.

Goldsbie says he is happy 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, says Goldsbie. We deal with issues that have occurred in our own society. School shootings happened and one episode resulted in a characters paralysis. And the murder of the character J.T. last season was ripped from similar incidents which occurred in Toronto in recent years.

Barrable-Tishauer says schools have evolved over time. 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, she says. Degrassi has brought heightened awareness to certain issues. The fact is there are drug problems at school, girls do get pregnant and violence does exist. Dialogue needs to be opened up on these topics.

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