by Yasmine Shemesh
It’s 1992. The class of Degrassi High has finally graduated and is making the most of the summer before September comes and the newest chapter of their lives begins. Joey Jeremiah has been particularly busy: juggling a relationship with longtime love, Caitlin Ryan, and a hot fling with Tessa Campanelli. It all comes to a head, though, at a party. “Joey Jeremiah spends his summer dating Caitlin and fucking Tessa!” Archie “Snake” Simpson blurts out. Joey turns his head to see Caitlin standing right there. She’s furious.
The infamous scene (and also the first f-word broadcast on national television) is from School’s Out!, the movie finale of Degrassi High. Now, 25 years later, school is back in session. It has also been 30 since Degrassi Junior High, the second series of the iconic Canadian franchise, premiered on CBC in 1987. Joey, Caitlin, Snake, and Tessa — Pat Mastroianni, Stacie Mistysyn, Stefan Brogren, and Kirsten Bourne, respectively — have been celebrating the milestone with a reunion tour around the country and appearances at comic cons like Fan Expo Vancouver, where they’ll be in November. Right now, they’re in London, Ontario at London Comic Con.
“Pat and I realized we hadn’t seen each other in probably 10 years,” says Brogren, who has continued to portray his character on later iterations of Degrassi, including the Next Generation and Next Class, as well as gone on to produce and direct the series. “It’s like a day hadn’t gone by. Just that familiarity and we have that connection between the show and stuff. And it’s the same with the girls, the same with Stacie and — I mean, Kirsti we hadn’t seen in 25 years.”
“It’s just friendships rekindled,” Bourne smiles. “And, it’s funny, we went for dinner last night and the stories we were all telling: ‘oh my god, yeah, do you remember that? I had no idea!’ It’s really cool.”
“It’s nice to be able to share that again, talk, reminisce,” Mistysyn adds. “We have great fans, doing these. Like, let me tell you: some of the stories they tell us are so empowering.”
Degrassi has made a huge impact on Canadian pop culture, largely for how it wasn’t afraid to explore real issues like teen pregnancy, mental illness, and HIV. Not to mention the painfully accurate way it depicted teenagers: acne, awkwardness, and all. “I think the truth is the show is very universal,” Brogren says. “And the fan base is all over the world. Doesn’t matter if the show airs in Israel or in Russia or in Australia: being a teenager sucks.” It is both accessible and bold programming young adults can really relate to. “It’s something where you recognize yourself in a show and I think that’s a reason why people come back.”
That the actors were the same ages as their characters also contributes to Degrassi’s enduring authenticity. When doing read-throughs of the script, they were even encouraged to discuss what felt was genuine and what didn’t. “Our writers on the show, I know way back when, were always listening,” Brogren says. “Now it’s a little bit easier because you can just go on social media and see what teens are talking about, but back in the day, the writers would listen to us. They would steal ideas from us constantly.”
One storyline borrowed from Mistysyn, when her parents were going through a divorce. “The producer did ask me, she said, ‘we’re going to do an episode about this where Caitlin’s parents are thinking about getting a divorce. How do you feel about that?’ because I was still going through that at the time,” Mistysyn remembers. “My parents actually did get divorced and Caitlin’s decided to stay together, which was an interesting twist to it.”
Mistysyn also had an episode — “Rumor Has It,” where Caitlin feels confused about her sexuality — that foreshadowed something that was happening in her own family. Her sister was questioning her sexuality. Acting actually helped the process. “It was good, I think, for us, because the fact that we were already talking about it, it was a good outlet for us,” Mistysyn says. “And so when my sister — she hadn’t come out yet, but when she did, I mean, it was kind of like old news. You know: ‘Okay great, I’m so glad that you accepted who you are and you’re happy with it and you’re not afraid to tell anybody.’ I guess it felt a little daring at the time because it was, at that age, it was a new subject and I think there was a little trepidation about the fact that my character is going through this and worried about what is everybody thinking. I think a little of that did make me a little self conscious at first, but then you just have to embrace it and in real life, in reality, it teaches us. You know, it helps us to learn more about these things and understand it.”
“Awareness, as well,” Bourne adds.
Of course, noticeably missing is Neil Hope, who portrayed Wheels. He passed away in 2007. While it’s bittersweet, Mastroianni says the reunion has also been a wonderful means to celebrate Hope. “We did a screening of School’s Out! last month in a movie theatre in Toronto and we had 600 people show up over two days,” he says, “and it really was a love fest for Neil and what he brought to the series, because he was on the original Kids of Degrassi [Street] when the show first, first started.”
Memories are flooding back to everyone. The gang grew up together. They’re like family. Plus, Degrassi was an experience that will connect them forever. It’s a special kind of bond that never really fades away.
“For the finale every year, they took us on a boat cruise on Lake Ontario,” Bourne recalls, giggling to Mistysyn. “You remember it? And we’d get all fancy dressed. We wore these prom dresses and it was very fancy and they’d hire a DJ and we’d go and have a meal and we’d be out on the water, and it was just us and nobody was acting, everybody was just having fun.”
“Yeah,” Mistysyn nods. “My favourite things were whenever we got to do something kind out of the ordinary. Like, if I had to smack Claude or do any kind of choreography, like climb a fence. Action, that was what I loved, because Caitlin didn’t get a lot of action stuff to do. That and we got to go to the Gemini Awards too, and that was fun. You know, get all dressed up, you felt so adult.”
Mastroianni pops his head in between the girls and flashes a cheeky grin. “Hello! He seems to always photobomb our chats,” Mistysyn chuckles. And they all erupt in laughter.
Fan Expo Vancouver runs from November 10 – 12 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.