An Oral History of 'Degrassi: The Next Generation'

AKA the show that broke Drake.

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Jul 27 2016, 2:56pm

Barring a few rare exceptions, most series spinoffs and sequels are doomed to an awkward mid-season cancellation, relegated to infamy as a sad footnote somewhere on the original show's Wikipedia page. But Degrassi: The Next Generation managed to defy the television odds by becoming as popular, if not better known than its predecessor, gaining viewers well beyond Canada's borders.

TNG birthed a whole new cast of Canadian stars, though none as famous as the 6ix God Aubrey Graham aka Wheelchair Jimmy. The series honoured the original Degrassi's commitment to honest, raw storylines that depicted the reality of teenage life, putting the kids of Degrassi Junior High through pregnancies, internet predators, abortions, shootings, and testicular cancer. In a testament to its success, Degrassi: TNG, which first began airing in 2001, has been on for 15 years, cycling through several different casts and recently celebrated its 500th episode this summer.

As already lovingly chronicled in the oral history of the first Degrassi, there's something really special about the hallways of this fictional high school. So we decided to revisit the sequel's initial class (aka the "Drake Years") to see what's become of Emma, Jimmy, Manny, Spinner, Liberty, and the rest of the TNG gang.


All photos courtesy of DHX Media

Back to School
Though the original series (Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High) only ran for five seasons, concluding in 1992's downer of a made-for-TV-movie School's Out, it left an indelible mark on Canadian culture. A mere mention of Joey's hat or that goddamn Zit Remedy song was lingua franca for anyone who either grew up in the late 80s/early 90s or spent any time watching reruns on Canadian television (or, if you happened to be Kevin Smith). But for all the high school melodramas and comedies that hit the airwaves in the decade after Degrassi's finale (Freaks and Geeks being the obvious successor), few captured that lo-fi realism or, more importantly, reflected the lives of their viewers. Enter Degrassi: TNG.

Linda Schuyler (co-creator of the entire Degrassi universe): When we wrapped on School's Out, I thought that we were doing a wrap on Degrassi forever. The interesting thing that happened was even though we stopped producing Degrassi, Degrassi never went away. Here in Canada, it played on Showcase, and then it moved—it was re-bought by CBC where they would run it daily after school. The original generation of viewers had grown up with our show, but now, there was a whole new group of kids who are very much interested in it, and the fan mail—and in those days, it was all snail mail—never stopped coming. It was really fascinating to us that we were not producing the show but we were still striking a chord with young viewers.

My writing partner, Yan Moore and I said, "Let's think about developing a new show for teenagers." We weren't thinking it would be Degrassi. It wasn't until Yan said to me, "You know, Linda, if we do the math here, Spike was pregnant in eighth grade, had her baby, kept it, that baby would be about ready to be going into junior high." That's kind of how we ended up in developing it.

Stefan Brogren (Mr. Simpson, aka "Snake"/executive producer of Degrassi): There was an interest of bringing back the show. I think I'd heard this a couple of times since [it ended]. And I was more likely to go, "Ah, it's just a rumour." You know, this is not actually happening, until the day I think I got a call from my agent saying that Linda wanted to do to dinner. It just became very exciting and real to think that you could actually bring back that emotional attachment to a show with a brand new generation. ... And also Bruce McDonald was going to direct the pilot, and I just love the guy, so it was kind of just a perfect storm of awesomeness at that time.

Linda Schuyler: It was a bit of a challenge because our stories are always full of perspectives from a young person so, it wasn't that we could really tell Spike and Snakes' stories per se. They had to be there more in a role that will support to the young people because the whole key to Degrassi is that we are—the perspective of all of our stories is from the young person's point of view who is at high school.

Becoming the "Next Generation"
The original Degrassi actors were cast through auditions that were literally advertised on the walls of their schools. But by the time Schuyler and Co. were rebooting the series, the independent film and television scene in Canada had grown substantially, and they were able to use actual casting agents to find the talent. Less romantic, sure, but that's not to say that casting age-appropriate grade-schoolers is easy.

Linda Schuyler: Well, it's funny. Some you just know from the first moment they walk in the audition rooms, some you need to see them two or three times.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer (Liberty Van Zandt): When I auditioned, I had kind of heard of it, and I kind of knew the history, but I wasn't like this very big fan. But when I did get on the show, I remember recognizing, you know, Joey and Mike and stuff, and like seeing them in these old videos.

Miriam McDonald (Emma Nelson): So I never really watched Junior High. It was after I auditioned that I remembered back to one time in health class watching an episode and then I realized a little bit later that I think it might have been the Spike pregnancy episode but I just put two and two together until probably a few years later when I was thinking back and somebody asked me the same question.

Jake Epstein (Craig Manning): I first learned about the original show when a teacher showed us an episode in sex-ed class, instead of teaching us whatever they were supposed to be teaching us. It was something, you know, about wearing a condom. It was one of those episodes. So we thought it was hilarious and also way better than listening to a teacher because we got to just watch TV. My sister was a huge fan of the original show. So that was kind of how I knew about it and then I had... When The Next Generation started, I had a few friends that were cast for season one. Lauren Collins Was a friend of mine and I was doing another Canadian TV show called The Zack Files with Danny Clark's younger brother, Robbie. So, I was friends with Danny. And I knew that Danny was on the show.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I was 11. I had just done a couple auditions previously. I was really fresh; I mean I didn't have any background in acting. I had already done The Lion King stage show. And then I got an agent, and she set me out for the part of Manny. I was 11, really nervous, but I was given this really funny monologue. And they still have this clip, it's on one of the DVD extras that audition tape, which was hilarious, because I'm like so small and my voice is really high. And, I went out for the part of Manny when Manny was... kind of a different character. At that point, I don't even think they had the Liberty character yet. So I got a call back, that like, "Well, you know, you're not Manny, but that we actually would love for you to come and read for this other character that we're developing." It's going to be kind of this like nerdy character, whatever. I remember my TV audition, I had glasses, and I was kind of like awkward kid. So, I think that's the character I just made myself into.

Shane Kippel (Gavin "Spinner" Mason): So it was actually my first-ever audition as an actor. And it was really exciting for me because I already knew about the original series, and I knew the history was very, very cool. And I had a monologue to prepare. And I think the tone of the monologue was just that like Spinner started out as a bully, and it was just you know, people don't understand he cares a lot. And he feels self-conscious about the fact that he has to use Ritalin. I was more nervous than I had ever been in my life after that point... After a few weeks of waiting, I heard back from my agent that they really liked me and wanted to see me in for a second audition. And that was the greatest moment of my life to get that part at that point. I went in for the second audition, and it was a screen test. Then two days later I was at the school, and I got the call from my agent, you know, saying, "From here on in you'll be known as Gavin 'Spinner' Mason."

Miriam McDonald: I was in Grade 8. And I had just gotten an agent. I don't even know if I was officially on my agent's roster because I was just so new to the business. I danced, and I did like community musical theater where I grew up, but I had never really done anything professional. And so I auditioned for it, thinking like this would be a great experience. I didn't hear anything for probably six months, and then after that, they called me back, I auditioned again... So it wasn't until probably May or June that I finally got the role. And that was right around the time I was finishing up eighth grade. I remember missing the Grade 8 graduation because the CTV press conference was on that same night, and from there it just little by little took over my whole teenagehood.

Paula Brancati (Jane Vaughn): I auditioned for Emma when the show first started, but I was 17 and in my last few months of high school and on a trip in Italy with our choir and I got some callbacks for a few characters: Holly J, Anya, and Jane, and I got to pick the one that I went in for and just really dug Jane. I didn't think there was a chance I wouldn't even book it to be honest. She's so different than me, and I just liked her a lot, and she's much cooler than I can ever hope to be. Linda was there, and Stefan was there, and there were a lot of people, and it was really exciting—like I wanted it very badly. [Later,] I had like an awful little Nokia pay-as-you-go phone, but I saw my agent had called a few times during class, and I ran out and got the news and I was so, so, so excited.

Jake Epstein: When I was cast, they gave me like, a box of tapes from the original series so that I could get caught up because I hadn't really, besides like the condom-banana episode, I hadn't really seen anything. And funny enough in my audition, when I was in the room with all the other guys, Pat Mastroianni who, of course played Joey Jeremiah, was reading with me for it. And for whatever reason, he asked me if I wanted to go and run lines with him before my audition, which was so, like to this day, it was so kind of him, and I don't even know why he asked me. But we read lines and then went in and did the audition, I felt really relaxed with this guy, and that totally gave me an edge, I'm sure.

Linda Schuyler: There was about ten of them who really formed the core of what was the initial cast of Next Generation. We had seen people like Adamo who played Marco—I'm not even sure if Spinner had a big role at that time—and we knew we had found actors, but they weren't necessarily fitting into the specific roles that we had... But one of the people who came in and nailed it right away was Aubrey Graham who we were looking for as the Jimmy Brooks character. I remember watching that audition, and it's so funny hearing his perspective now and our perspective. He came out thinking he had blown it and we think when he left, we thought, "OK, we don't have to look any further. We found our Jimmy Brooks." And I think we remembered saying at that time, "The camera really likes that guy.

The Popular Kids in School
The series itself carried with it a template for instant Canadian fame—after all, the new students would count themselves alongside iconic alumni like Spike, Caitlin, and BLT. But it wasn't until the contentious "Accidents Will Happen" abortion episodes in season three, the second episode of which was controversially kept off the air in the US, that the show started making waves and international spotlights began to shine on the young cast.

Stefan Brogren: I think they knew of Degrassi. I think Miriam knew of Degrassi. She'd been told about it, and that this is a big deal. But she didn't know what the hell it was. Because it's like one of those things where it's like she knows it's important. [But I remember talking to her during a rehearsal] that this is a 13-year-old girl who doesn't know what's going to change in her life, you know.

Miriam McDonald: Yeah. It was definitely hard for me. I don't know if it's hard for everybody. I found it difficult because I wasn't aware of how much attention I was going to be getting and it definitely wasn't always positive attention like I remember, I would be so scared about walking through the food court in the mall at lunch time because all the teenage high school kids would be in there and they'd all be staring at me and they'd all be pointing and they'd all be whispering.

Shane Kippel: I know you interviewed Miriam McDonald too and her and I talked about this years ago. That like it changed our lives obviously but it was the only life that we ever lived. So I'm not sure how it really changed, it just became our lives. It was definitely like I mean the most unique experience I could have ever hoped for as a teenager growing up.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: When I was younger, I was bullied a fair bit, and I remember the fact that of all of the sudden, when people knew I was on this show, there were so many people who had bullied me and [now] wanted to be my best friend. I think that, actually, I felt like working on the show and being somewhat successful, I felt like I developed the strength of character to be like, "Wait. No. Why is it that you're turning around and being nice to me now? This is how you treated me."

Jake Epstein: It wasn't until we started going down to the US to promote the show. We did a bunch of mall tours and promotion events where you know, thousands of teens would line up to get our autographs. That was when we had an idea that people were watching the show and that other teenagers were connecting to it.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I remember like some of the best moments that I ever had on the show were people coming up to me and saying, "I was really struggling with this and I felt like I was alone, and I watched this episode, or I showed my mom this episode and it opened up a dialogue between us that wasn't open before, or that I didn't think anybody else was going through." That's kind of what you feel when you're a teenager, right? Like you kind of like, "Uhh, I'm the only one that's going through hell right now."

"If they're talking about it in the schoolyard..."
Degrassi was always known for tackling of-the-moment subject matter head on, and TNG was no different. From Paige's rape and subsequent trial, to Liberty's pregnancy, Manny's abortion, and the infamous episode where Jay gives out colour-coded sex bracelets that was so real, the cast themselves wondered how the writers were able to so accurately tap into the pulse of teenage life in real time.

Linda Schuyler: I used to say, if they're talking about it in the schoolyards, in the school, and in the shopping malls, we should be talking about it. Well, that's still true but also, what are they talking about on their socials and what's out there on the net because we just have to make sure that one way or another, we're keeping our finger on the pulse and what is the relevant topics and subject matters for these kids.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: We were kind of almost their market research. Because in many shows, you're hiring a 28-year-old to play a 15-year-old or something, but we were all playing the exact same age as we were. We were actually living this reality—just literally being, like, this isn't really realistic to how this situation has played out, and this is what we see going on, and they were really like open about taking that on board.

Jake Epstein: I'd never done anything dramatic. And my first few episodes as Craig were all about him being abused by his father. So I'd never seen anything like that on a TV show, especially from a kid's point of view.

Paula Brancati: I think I really felt it when we did "Jane Says," which was the two-parter where we find out that she's suppressing these memories of her father sexually abusing her as a kid. That was a really heavy couple of weeks, very, very challenging. I really felt the weight of that responsibility to tell that properly, and the writers did it. It felt like we were just all doing something important. We took it all very seriously and I think that was similar to the football episode, I think you really realize when you're doing storylines that people are relating to on such a deep, deep level. You understand that it goes far beyond entertainment.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I remember knowing girls in my school who had become pregnant in high school, and just kind of shedding light on that issue. And I think a big part of it, and especially why they decided that Liberty would be a good character for it is the idea that it really can happen to anyone, that it's not just a girl that's sleeping around or whatever, but that it actually can happen to anyone in the school

Jake Epstein: They always said that because I somehow remained likable, they would keep throwing me like these intense [storylines]. My character was like, I had a cocaine addiction and cheated on his girlfriend, and all this stuff, which I always found funny because I had such a drama-free life, in real life. But I think they thought I could handle it or something.

Linda Schuyler: I think the first place where I had my eyes a little opened on that was the fact that it became de rigeur to send pictures of your naked breasts or your junk to various other people and it's something I have never heard of before. You know, I was talking to a principal friend of mine, and she said, "I can't believe some of the discussions I have to have with parents these days. I have to call some mother in and say, 'Do you know that these are the kinds of pictures your son is sending around?' And I had to show her a picture that he sends to clarify the part."

So, these are the kinds of stories I couldn't have imagined. When we did our very tough episode that was based on the Steubenville situation where they not only sexually assaulted that young girl but they took videos of it, again, these are the kind of stories I couldn't have imagined but this is part of the teenage world these days and it's part of their world, we need to be telling stories about that.

Memorable Eps
Obviously, the one episode that everyone in the world can probably cite is the one when aspiring basketballer Jimmy Brooks (played by Aubrey Graham) is shot in the school hallway, eventually ending up in a wheelchair—or, as it's more commonly known, that time Drake got shot. But there was much more than young-as-hell 6ix God memes to be found in these early seasons.

Miriam McDonald: I think honestly there is probably too many to count. Obviously, the eating disorder episode for Emma was a huge one, I've witnessed lots of experiences with that type of thing. And as far as my character goes, I would say that one stands out. Obviously in the episode where Snake has cancer, that's definitely a huge episode. I mean, literally, I wish I had a list of episodes in front of me because I'm sure there's about a million things that I am forgetting. So those are things that jump out.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: Yeah, I think some of the most memorable ones were definitely the episode that JT got stabbed. That was not the happiest memory, but that was sort of like our biggest acting challenge, and our biggest moment together as actors, Ryan and I, and I remember it even though it's a really sad storyline, I remember like those times were actually quite fun in a way because we got to stay late on set, and we got to hang out and it was all very like highly charged.

Jake Epstein: I think it was around sort of the end of the second season, beginning of the third season. I remember we shot a storyline where Craig impregnates Manny. And she wants to have an abortion. Craig wants to keep the baby. And that episode was originally banned in US. Of course it was a heavy storyline but I wasn't aware that it would be so polarizing, that it would actually be banned in the US. So that actually got a lot of press and I think it was around that time that the show really became popular and got a fanbase.

Stefan Brogren: I think there were certain moments that were just like, there'd be funny things where it would be embarrassing for them to talk about, like when we would have stories about boys watching porn or you know, JT buying a penis pump. We did a story about a blow job that led to oral gonorrhea.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I remember specifically the prom episode with Natasha Bedingfield where we were all on set at the same time, and it was just really like a party for us too because it was awesome for everyone to be together on one set, getting to hang out in between shots and dance and have a good time. I remember that episode, shooting that episode was really really fun.

Shane Kippel: One is Paige's rape trial. Not the episode where she actually got raped and whatever else transpired in that season. But the premiere of season four I believe, where the rapist came back into her life and she had to go through the trial and everything that Spinner and Paige went through. That was a great episode and great story line for me and I was also very excited because I got to drive a car on camera for the first time in my life.

Paula Brancati: There's been so much. We went to New York to shoot. My character's final material was in Degrassi takes Manhattan and I'd never been to New York and we were all like giddy in Times Square. ... In that New York movie, we had Colin Mochrie on who was hilarious and such a comedy legend. That was amazing. Mary Murphy especially at a time where So You Think You Can Dance was on was so incredibly important to me, like Dalmar and I would literally try and recreate the dances in the green room. So I was very happy to have her. I was very sad to miss Jacob Hoggard of Hedley because I think Jane could have met her match in him. I think they could have really hit it off. I'm a big, big Hedley fan, so I was bummed that we didn't meet on set.

Jake Epstein: The bipolar episodes stood out for me. I've never seen that thing portrayed on TV before. So it was really exciting as a young actor, as there was a lot of research involved. It felt like we were really pushing the envelope but trying to stay so authentic at the same time. When we shot the school shooting scenes, that was probably the strangest few weeks on set. We knew there was an episode with the school shooting, we didn't know if anyone was going to get shot and then when Jimmy gets shot, we didn't know if his character was going to die. It was really dark and the fact that today that episode is still so eerily relevant in the US and of course in Toronto. The fact that we shot that like twelve years ago is insane to me.

Linda Schuyler: I think one of the ones that perhaps I would be happy and the most proud of—and there're so many—was a whole storyline with our transgender character, Adam; that we've seen in season ten. What I'm so proud about that storyline is we were doing an honest portrayal of a young man who felt that he was trapped in a woman's body and we were telling the story long before Orange is the New Black was even out there. Those are the kind of stories that make me really proud because I know that—and we've had a lot of support from the LGBTQ community regarding that storyline.

Stefan Brogren: I don't know if there was a moment so much in a storyline so much as I would watch an actor and go, "Oh, I get it now, this is the best acting school in the world for a young person to really be put through the ringer if they really want to have a career."

Friend Zone
Put a bunch of hormonal teens together on a set and you're bound to see high school life play out behind the scenes as much as it plays out on set. Read any tell-all from the set of US shows like Saved By The Bell or Beverly Hills 90210 and you'll realize the chaos of filming a teen show on and off screen. But this is Canada, so for the most part, everyone got along and there were no orgies, officially.

Miriam McDonald: I think [how we all got along] depends on the day. Then throw into that, the moodiness and the changeability and the volatility of teenagers. So depending on the day, there was definitely an aspect of—OK well today these two people are flirting and then tomorrow they hate each other and today me and Cathy are in a fight but we're supposed to film a scene where we're best friends. It was definitely a lot of that stuff.

Shane Kippel: I had like my core group but over the years, it would change. I was really close with Aubrey who we know as Drake now. ... But I mean there were times where Adamo Ruggiero who played Marco and Lauren Collins who played Paige, the three of us would be hanging out and going out on the town all the time and hanging out at Dalmar [Abuzeid]'s house. Dalmar used to throw some great great great parties and I still have fond memories of that. So, yeah. I mean that was in a lot of ways my actual high school life.

Jake Epstein: We had a lot of house parties. As soon as people started getting their own apartments, we'd have parties there. After wrap, we'd go to Adamo's house and be teenagers and hang out and it was great. I hung out with everyone. While I was on the show, I was close with Shane Kippel and Miriam McDonald. I liked everyone at some point. I mean, Jake Goldsbie has remained one of my best friends. Paula's one of my best friends. I'm still in touch with Lauren Collins, Stacey Farber, Adamo and Dalmar. The show was like my second high school. So it always feels like running into old high school friends. There would be tensions, there were, I'm sure there were hookups. It was like any high school but I was one of the few kids on the show that went to a normal high school though.

Some kid named Aubrey
Sadly, we weren't able to get Aubrey Graham for this oral history—Drake was too busy with his Summer Sixteen tour, we were told—but the next best thing is stories about a young Drizzy working on raps in his spare time.

Stefan Brogren: Kristine Prosperi, who played Imogen on the show—I think she was just on for like for the first month or so. And she came up to me and she said, "I just have to tell you, I just saw the old Degrassi, I couldn't believe it." I think she's talking to me about the 80s version, and she's like, "Drake was so young."

Jake Epstein: I think [Aubrey and I] did talk about music. I mean in the show it was all rock music. I don't even know if he actually played guitar even though his character would play guitar in the band. But yeah, I was aware that he was writing music and he spent his summer, or in the off-season he'd go off and visit his dad in Memphis. I believe his dad was a drummer or was somehow connected to the scene there. So he had this kind of other world...

Miriam McDonald: I think he had like a studio set up in his basement and everyone or at least me, I thought like, oh yeah, Aubrey's hobby is music and him and I went to the same high school. So like whatever, we would be in school together and then we would be on set together and our moms were kind of friends and like I knew that he had this hobby and I knew that he enjoyed music but like I never had any idea that it was going to take off like this. However, he always had this charisma about him...just like one of these people that walks into a room and even if he's not saying anything, there's just something about the way he carries himself, I think that was the bigger giveaway than even knowing like how into his music he really was... I do definitely sing along with the songs on the radio for sure, one hundred percent.

Shane Kippel: [Aubrey and I] lost touch for a little bit when things really started to blow up for him and then we were in touch for a couple of years and then currently right now we're not in touch again. But not because anything happened I actually still speak to his mom. More than I speak to him at this point right now. Every time she hears an interview with me and Drake comes up and I start telling stories about when Aubrey and I when we were younger, she'll get in touch and tell me how much she misses me and remembers those stories and like she laughs when she hears them.

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I went to a Lil' Wayne concert in Montreal, and the opener was Drake, and I had no idea who that was, and then like Aubrey is on stage, and I'm like, "What the hell? What is he doing here?" Like it's so weird, he's opening for like this huge thing. We knew he was into music for sure, like I knew that that was something he loved to do, but like really I had no idea of the scale. It was literally like one moment you see them all the time, and the next moment they're just like in a whole other universe kind of thing. I remember trying to text him from the audience, and the message didn't go through and I was like, "OK, right now...he's got a different phone number. He's on a different level now."

Where are they now?
Linda Schuyler and Stefan Brogren continue to work on the ongoing Next Generationseries, which is now called Degrassi: Next Class. As for the rest of the cast we spoke with...

Sarah Barrable-Tishauer: I went to school for communications, and I've been working in digital marketing, and social media ever since, so I'm now a social media strategist for [global recruiting company] Hays.

Shane Kippel: I have a production company called Whysguise. We're in preproduction to start getting the first 15 episodes [of our comedy show] shot together and edited. And besides that I've been very involved in music, since my early 20s. I've been in a series of rock bands. My most recent one, a project called Dear Love, just opened for Finger 11 at the Phoenix last fall. And right now I am also drumming for a rapper who goes by the name of Scotty D and the team is all called, Below Zero.

Jake Epstein: I had an unusual situation. I actually left the show to go to a theatre school. Everyone just thought I was completely crazy. [laughter] I think I remember it was the biggest decision of my life. I remember talking to a lot of people about it. Some people said, you got to stay on this TV show, and other people were really encouraging to follow my dream.

Paula Brancati: I have a production company with an actor, Michael Seater, and our first feature film that I star in with Chloe Rose of Degrassi as well, that's out digitally across the US and Canada. It's called People Hold On.

Miriam McDonald: A few years ago, my interest in [acting] faded a little bit. I just wanted to be a regular person, if I can describe it that way. And so I actually got my real estate license and I've been doing that for the last, I guess a year and a half or so, just to do something completely different.

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