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Teaching Degrassi's Next Generation

On-set tutors help young actors who must learn more than their lines

by Leata Lekushoff  

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Teaching Degrassi's Next Generation

On the set of Degrassi: The Next Generation, the young cast is learning more than lines.

by Leata Lekushoff

When the director shouts "Cut!" and the buzzer sounds, the young actors move from the set to a makeshift classroom where they catch up on their other lives as students.

"We try to keep up with what's being covered back at school," says Miriam McDonald, who is in Grade 12 and plays Emma on Degrassi: The Next Generation (TNG). "But if we're working 11 hours a day for a full week or two, it's very difficult to stay with the class."

Jumping from the work of an actor to the role of real-life student can be difficult and disorienting.

"It's very strange to be hyped up from an intense emotional scene and then have to focus on your physics," says McDonald.

These teens have plenty to deal with and little choice but to cope. It's just another thing they must learn to do. Luckily, they are not alone. Parents, on-set tutors and their regular teachers come together to make it work.

When young actors commit to a role in a film or series, the producers must commit to their schooling. The law requires that the education of anyone under 18 not be jeopardized, and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) ensures that their educational needs are met.

"I don't think they can do without the tutors," says Carol Lewis, who works at the Ontario College of Teachers and whose daughter Andrea plays Hazel on the show and has now graduated from high school. "It's a very crucial part of actors' lives, especially when they're younger."

Glen, father to Stacey Farber who plays Ellie on TNG, says that the challenges don't go away in the higher grades, it's just that you know what you're up against.

"I thank goodness that Stacey is good at school, because missing 25 to 30 classes in her Grade 12 year can make it very, very difficult."

Co-ordinated effort

Students, with their parents, consult in advance with schools about the shooting schedule and what will be missed. On-set tutors also check in with classroom teachers so that the return to class will be easier.

"I work closely with the students and their parents as well as their school and the production company," says Barbara Slater, TNG's tutor. "It's my job to support those students while they're away from class."

The TNG schedule requires the cast to be absent for the beginning of the school year - a crucial time when students adjust to new courses and teachers, pick up the basics and make new friends. Still, the series shoots two weeks on and two weeks off with a relatively fixed schedule that allows some planning around school work.

Kathy Kacer, mother to Jake Epstein who plays Craig, points to the mixed blessings. "To go from 30 in a class to just you, that's very positive. But the back and forth and the balancing school and on-set responsibilities, that's where the big adjustments are."

The majority of the TNG cast attends publicly funded high schools in Toronto. Many are in schools that are structured to accommodate students with outside commitments, and their teachers are better prepared to assist. And, since most of these kids are veterans of the biz, they have developed an impressive level of independence that allows them to get by.

"You really need to take a lot of responsibility for yourself," says McDonald. "You really have to be organized - know what you're going to work on each day because you are limited to two hours and a lot of the time those two hours are broken into segments."

"It keeps them grounded and realizing that school hasn't just disappeared. It's still there and you have to carry on."

For the most part, the teens who act on TNG care about their education and plan to attend university or college. Having tutors helps to keep them focused on those more distant goals.

"When the kids are working, they're working long, long hours, so it would really be easy to say today we'll skip the two hours, but those tutors keep you in line," says Miriam's mom, Silvia Pauksens-McDonald. "It is compulsory but it keeps them grounded and realizing that school hasn't just disappeared. It's still there and you have to carry on."

"It maintains the importance of school in his mind," says Susie Waldman, mother to Jake Goldsbie who is in Grade 11 and plays Toby on the show. "That was always one of the credos in our house, that school comes first. Even if you are a successful actor, you still have to finish your education."

The desire and curiosity to see how far their acting careers will take them does not preclude these actors' educational ambitions. They've been combining school with acting for years and understand that the TV star of today may not be tomorrow. But, depending on the actor, this experience may lead to a greater or diminished belief in the importance of their schooling now.

"Education is always going to be there," says Cassie Steele, who is in Grade 10 and plays Manny. "There will always be schools and colleges that I can get an education from, but there's not always going to be a chance for me to do this."

The on-set classroom

ACTRA requires that tutors be licensed teachers and that designated areas for learning be provided on professional sets that employ school-age actors. However, the teaching environment and methods are very different than those in the standard classroom.

"At Degrassi we are very lucky," says Slater. "We have so many young people and the building where they're shooting used to be a school. So I have an actual classroom - a room with desks and a computer. To have a permanent spot is really nice."

On location, the room might be anywhere. But wherever and whenever the scene is shot, tutors will be there: on boats, at the zoo, in a house, on a farm, in the bush - even in the middle of the night on Toronto Island with the kids in a hot tub.

"I've taught in a closet and I've taught in tents out in the middle of nowhere," says Laurel Bresnahan, a former teacher and now a tutor.

Laurel Bresnahan of Laurelwood Productions helps producers find the on-set tutors who are best suited to their young actors' needs.

Bresnahan also runs Laurelwood Productions - an education liaison company that helps producers find teachers. She says the first thing that tutors need to be is flexible: "There is no way you can keep a regular job and do this too. It just doesn't work. We've done shows that don't start shooting till midnight."

If you're open to what is thrown your way, locations can afford many built-in field-trip opportunities.

"If we're at the zoo, we'll create a unit for the zoo depending on the age of the kids," says Bresnahan. "If we're out in the bush, we'll be looking under logs at bugs.

"And we use the people on the set as well. Our special-effects people quite often bring in CO2, our carpenters help kids with woodworking projects. On the set we have electricians and scenic painters - we've got people who are at the top of their profession. They are also great for history and language projects. We use everything and everyone we can get our hands on."

For overburdened classroom teachers, the tutor/student ratio of one-to-five may seem like a dream. And since students have scenes staggered at different times through the day, tutors are often able to work one-on-one, allowing for learning hurdles to be handled with a higher level of efficiency.

The right stuff

As elsewhere - math, science and French are the subjects most in demand.

"A lot of our students are in high school," says Bresnahan. "The English majors, the drama majors - we don't really need them. The kids are very strong in those subjects because of what they do."

Tutors must be able to address a range of grade levels and subjects. Bresnahan points out that these can change daily and not everyone is comfortable with it.

She also notes that things don't work well if the tutor has a very traditional approach or an authoritarian style.

"These students are working actors, so the attitude is different from in a classroom," she says. "There is a definite teacher-student relationship when you're in a classroom."

"The crew treats us like equals, which makes it such an easy environment to work in," says Goldsbie. "So, when I've had tutors who treated us like we were students, I wasn't a big fan of that.

"But with others, like Anna Gottlieb, there was totally a level of respect because she didn't talk to us like a teacher."

"These students are working actors, so the attitude is different from in a classroom."

Bresnahan advocates balance. Tutors need not treat their students as peers, but there is a different perspective that comes into play when tutoring young professionals.

These kids are expected to deliver under pressure and are generally well paid to do so. And the transition from on-set responsibilities to in-class studies is hard enough, without any added dose of condescension.

Many tutors try to maintain a relaxed atmosphere. Their students remain on call, so a quiet area away from the set where they can sit and study provides a brief respite. Still - with students coming and going, the head count sometimes reaching the max and the more liberal approach to study (kids might listen to music through headphones while reading) - things can get a little distracting. One might even wonder at times how much is actually being learned.

"It's pretty loose, you know, it's pretty relaxed," says Waldman. "In the beginning I thought it was way too relaxed, but that was just me being a mom."

Hurry up and wait

On set, time is precious and unpredictable. The notion of being in charge is simply not plausible within these highly scheduled productions.

"We have to learn how to break down the work into short segments," says Bresnahan. "You don't have time to do the whole thing. You may have 20 minutes and then another 20 minutes the next time they come in."

When it comes to filming, time is money. And to survive in the industry tutors learn to think on their feet. That getting-to-know-you period that teachers count on at the start of the term simply does not exist.

"There are many different learning styles and we have about a minute and a half to figure that out," she says. "If the kid's not getting it, you really have to switch quickly - move to a diagram or whatever you've got."

Barb Slater - "It's my job to support those students while they are away from class."

Slater adds that "a lot of the time the materials I have to work with are limited. They may bring a novel with them that I'm not familiar with, so I'll quickly skim it while they're working on set."

In fact, tutors improvise a lot.

"When we were doing Sixth Grade Alien, Brian Hooey, who's also in Degrassi, used to have to put on this purple makeup," recalls Bresnahan. "It was the only time he actually got to sit still during the day. So, quite often we'd be reading history or something like that to him while he was getting his makeup put on."

The glamour and the glory

The on-set hierarchy is not advantageous for teachers.

"If you're interested because you think it'd be fun to watch all these stars, you could stand out in the street and watch them film. You have to want to teach," says Bresnahan.

And while tutoring provides new experiences, "On a film set, the tutor is the last person considered because we are not producing anything that is going to be on camera.

"Tutors have to learn to be at the bottom. They do not have the control they would have in a classroom in terms of saying, 'I'm going to work on this at this time.' It just doesn't happen."

"It's pretty relaxed. In the beginning I thought it was way too relaxed. But that was just me being a mom."

This job isn't for everyone and the pay is less than great. "People can go and supply teach for five or six hours and make a lot more money," she cautions. "Ten hours is a standard day for our people." They may not be actively teaching the whole time but their day is doubled right off the top.

"It's a very different life to being in a school board and knowing where your next paycheck is coming from and how much it's going to be," she adds. "I never know what time a tutor is going to start until the night before."

And the current financial chill in a formerly booming Hollywood North has only made things worse. It seems to work best for those who have another source of income.

"You have to be somewhat adventuresome," says Bresnahan. "You have to be willing to get in a car and drive."

So why do it?

Miriam McDonald (Emma) and Jake Goldsbie (Toby) hit the books with tutor Barb Slater, while Cassie Steele (Manny) unwinds between takes on Degrassi: The Next Generation

"I like the variety," says Slater. "I like having every day different and I get to teach everything. That's the thing about on-set tutoring - you cover the gamut, from Kindergarten to Grade 12."

Some are looking for a situation that is less stressful than the regular classroom. "There are so many demands, there is so much paper work, and they just can't stand it anymore," says Bresnahan of the teachers who come to her.

Many have other interests they want to pursue and feel they can say no to a show if it conflicts with those other things. And they're confident they won't get dumped from the roster.

It's about the kids

"There's obviously nothing like being in the classroom and learning directly from your teacher," says Stacey Farber. "So in that sense, tutoring can't really compete with being at school."

But if students are missing class, the tutor is essential. And, while picking up where others leave off is difficult, the individual student's needs always dictate. Activities undertaken with students vary. But whether quizzing the student for an upcoming test or discussing topics for an essay, the job rarely involves teaching a full unit. Instead, tutors fill in the blanks and iron out the problems.

"At Degrassi, we're very lucky. I have an actual classroom - a room with desks and a computer."

"In previous years I had a lot of trouble with math and science," says Jake Epstein, who is now in Grade 12. "It was really because of the on-set tutoring that I got through math and science and got to understand it."

Apparently, for Ontario's young actors, magic takes place behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera.

The good, the bad and the memorable

One great thing about the classroom moving with you is that many opportunities arise that wouldn't normally exist in the stationary class environment. We also do a lot of things where the kids have been in some sort of strange makeup that they can't move around in. So we go to them.

Laurel Bresnahan
Tutor and Education Liaison
Laurelwood Productions

The best on-set tutoring sessions have been at 4 a.m. On night shoots, like Mom's Got a Date with a Vampire, I remember we'd have to go to tutoring at ridiculous hours, and we'd be like, "You're joking, we're supposed to do work now? I'm going to sleep."

Jake Epstein plays Craig

Recently for Degrassi we had to do our tutoring over at the Scarborough Bluffs. It's a beach, so we didn't really have a classroom setup. They put up a table on the sand and we were all in bathing suits and it was freezing outside and it was raining and we had to put up a tent because all of our books were getting wet. It was really awkward and really weird and we were all like, "Can we not do school today?" - but it just doesn't work like that.

Andrea Lewis plays Hazel

On a thriller called Dark Water that I finished in June, the two little girls were literally sitting in the bathtub. And it was easier to teach them in there than to take them out. These kids are in Grades 1 to 2, so when they hit the hot tub, we did all the sink and float stuff you need to do for science while they were there.

Laurel Bresnahan

Classroom beginnings

Creative producer Linda Schuyler spent eight years working as a classroom teacher in Ontario. She says that reaching and teaching students has always been at the heart of Degrassi.

by Leata Lekushoff

While teaching at Earl Grey Senior Public School in Toronto Linda Schuyler developed a Grade 8 media-studies course that completely changed her life.

"I was desperate to find material. Not only was I looking for shows that kids could deconstruct and discuss, I wanted shows that were speaking directly to young teenagers. And those were the hardest to find."

Eventually she found The Summer We Moved to Elm Street, a National Film Board drama told through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl about her father's alcohol dependency and its effects on her family.

During the class discussion after the screening, Schuyler came to understand the film's full impact.

"One of the girls shifted from talking about 'her' to 'me.' It happened very subtly - none of the kids really picked up on it.

"After the class I held her back and said, 'You know I couldn't help but notice that you were taking a very personal interest in that show,' and she broke down and cried and said, 'That's just what it's like at my house.'"

Schuyler arranged for the girl to get counselling, and she also recognized something else about what had happened. "She wouldn't have opened up and talked to me about that without the film as a motivator."

As she searched for more material that spoke to young people and their concerns, she found that there was really precious little around. "People were doing stuff for pre-school and for adults."

Schuyler's time in the classroom was spent at the Grade 7 and 8 levels and still adores that age. But she began to think that instead of teaching these kids in school, she should be making films for them. "The roots of Degrassi can be traced directly to my time as a teacher."

She left teaching in 1978, but it was not an easy decision.

"I look back on those years with just the fondest of memories. I loved my students. I loved the opportunity that I was given by the board. It was never that I left because I was fed up or disenchanted. I loved what was going on there but I thought, 'I've got to give it a shot.' I always knew that I wanted to do the kind of work that became Degrassi."

"She began to think that, instead of teaching these kids in the classroom, she should be making films for them."

Schuyler, with then-partner Kit Hood (a former video editor and child actor), established Playing With Time Inc. And they began producing educational videotapes (mostly documentaries) with a junior-high audience in mind.

The following year the CBC offered partial funding for a six-episode series based on the strengths of their production, Ida Makes a Movie, an adaptation of a story by Kay Chorao. The project eventually evolved into The Kids of Degrassi (1979-85), running 20 episodes past the initial six.

The series was aimed at 6- to 12-year-old viewers and featured children in a racially diverse and economically mixed neighbourhood in east Toronto.

Episodes were based on original material, some written by Schuyler and Hood, and all co-directed by them. Going for a raw realism, they hired kids with little or no acting experience and worked strictly on location. The series ended when the characters grew up and graduated from Grade 6. Soon after, the sequel, Degrassi Junior High (1987-89), hit the air - with some of the original cast brought back to play new parts.

Inevitably, the series and its characters moved forward and became Degrassi High (1989-90), which ended in 1991 with the two-hour special, Schools Out!

The Degrassi classics (as Schuyler now likes to call them) stood out among TV offerings of that time. Their creators were committed to breaking down stereotypes while dealing with subject matter (bulimia, abortion, teen pregnancy) that most didn't want to touch. For Schuyler, the educational mandate was clear: the issues were out there and needed to be raised. "Our job is to create entertaining material with a good message." And the series' success proved that there was an audience hungry for this kind of TV.

During the 90s Schuyler produced Liberty Street (1994-95) and Riverdale (1997-99), English-Canada's first prime-time soap opera. But in 2001 she returned to the Degrassi franchise with Degrassi: The Next Generation.

"I was nervous coming back with The Next Generation after the original show had done so well. You start to think it would be crazy to try and catch lightning in a bottle twice. But it's caught on with a whole new generation of kids."

The current Degrassi follows the lives of students attending the same Degrassi Community School of old. Currently in its fourth season, the series has already surpassed the number of Degrassi classic episodes by 11, garnering international acclaim and distribution. Schuyler's contribution to youth programming has been recognized with countless awards, including the Order of Canada in 1994.