Back to school Degrassi

Back to school Degrassi:[Final Edition]
Janice Kennedy. The Ottawa Citizen. Ottawa, Ont.: Nov 24, 2001. pg. E.2 <br.

Profile of Linda Schuyler.

Linda Schuyler, the Queen of Multi-tasking, is busy on several fronts. It would be unreasonable — cruel, even — to expect her to stay tethered to her desk in the blue corner office, talking, when she could accomplish so many other things at the same time.

So the 53-year-old creator/producer of the new Degrassi: The Next Generation (and creator/producer of the three original award- winning Degrassi television series) takes phone calls, gets updates on the day’s shooting, shows off her production facility, kids around with employees, signs the papers her assistant shoves in front of her, checks out some of the filming, confers with the director, offers encouragement to a young actor, grabs a steaming bowlful from the rented espresso machine in the coffee room — and gives a long, thoughtful, articulate interview about her world before, during and after Degrassi. All at approximately the same time.

Schuyler’s life has a kind of hurricane quality to it — hectic, fast, filled from one moment to the next with the potential for disaster. But it is also exhilarating. An apple-green BMW convertible is parked outside in the Reserved-for-Linda-Schuyler spot. A big house in Toronto’s Beaches area overlooking Lake Ontario has just had a swimming pool built out front. Vacations with husband and stepson include African safaris and month-long getaways at a rented villa in the south of France with daily French lessons from a private tutor.

Life is good. But it has the satisfaction of being meaningful too, as she will be the first to tell you. How many Canadians get to be in on the creation of a bona fide cultural icon?

“I’m not sure I’ve totally processed it all yet,” she says, “but obviously, it feels quite cool.”

Sporting the slightly unruly mass of blond curls that has been a lifelong trademark and little makeup, she wears a stylish black leather jacket over charcoal-grey wool. Moving through hallways with a quick and fluid grace, she is fit-looking and energetic, her demeanour down-to-earth, her approach pleasant. If a situation presents any opportunity to laugh, she seizes upon it.

Schuyler is still smiling about the October Maclean’s issue that featured a Leonard Cohen interview right next to a story about the Degrassi return. “To me, Leonard Cohen has always been this Canadian icon, and to see Degrassi right there — I guess I’m in awe. I know we have some sort of icon status, and yet I feel like we’re still just a little company doing the best we can.”

The best they could and the best they can has turned out to be very good indeed. With Kit Hood (her former business, artistic and life partner), Schuyler formed a company called Playing With Time two decades ago and launched The Kids of Degrassi Street, following that award-winning success with Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High and shelvesful of honours from near and far: Emmys, Geminis, Prix Jeunesse, you name it.

When Degrassi wound down nearly a decade ago, making its exit with a TV special called School’s Out, Schuyler dissolved her partnership with Hood. Living together and working together, always a challenge, proved too much. Hood, in any case, said he wanted to take a break from working in television, while she didn’t. She laughs about her glutton-for-punishment propensity. With entertainment lawyer and new partner Stephen Stohn, whom she subsequently married, she started up Epitome Pictures to maintain her love affair with TV.

Located on five acres in Toronto near Eglinton and the Don Valley Parkway, Epitome is a busy operation with a gross annual income of up to $15 million. It boasts a backlot and a 100,000-square-foot studio, which it rents out to other film and TV producers when Epitome isn’t making its own shows. Wholly Canadian with Schuyler as president and CEO (and Stohn as vice-president), it has produced the 26-episode TV series Liberty Street, as well as three seasons of Riverdale (“Canada’s Soap Opera”). Now it’s humming along with the new Degrassi, which has already been sold to markets, like the United States and England, where the earlier series picked up such dedicated followings.

Recently, a young extra on the new Degrassi set reported on the effect of the series’ opening special, which had a subplot involving one of the youngsters and an online relationship. The girl said the show motivated her mother to call a family meeting with her five teenaged kids to discuss the issue of cyberstalkers. Schuyler loves to hear things like that.

“It gives me great joy to touch people’s lives, to get the different generations talking to each other.”

Which is exactly what her Order of Canada citation said. When Schuyler was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 1994, she was praised for having opened “lines of communication between adults and youth.”

It is a soft fall day outside Epitome’s studios — skies deep blue, leaves startling gold — and they’re shooting on the steps of the fictional institution now called Degrassi Community School. Twelve-year-old Cassie Steele, the petite youngster who plays Manny Santos in the new crop of Degrassi kids, is supposed to fall down the concrete front steps of the school, actually a scrupulous interior and exterior replication. Steele is a keen gymnast and she’s having the time of her life falling, take after take, onto a blue gym mat out of camera range. During a break in the filming, she worries to Schuyler that she’s enjoying herself too much for a kid who’s supposed to be in distress.

Schuyler laughs and puts her hands on either side of Steele’s face in a double-cheek pat, that all-purpose gesture of affection, encouragement and empathy that mothers have made since the beginning of time. Schuyler is no one’s biological mother, but she has played a mater familias role for young adolescents all her adult life — first as a junior-high-school teacher, and then as the woman behind the Degrassi phenomenon.

Not a bad gig for a confused kid from Southwestern Ontario who took a while getting her act together.

Born Linda Bawcutt in London, England, Schuyler emigrated to Canada with her family in 1957, part of that great wave of postwar emigration from Europe and the British Isles. Her father, an RAF pilot during the war, had trained in Canada and fallen in love with the place. (In fact, this aspect of wartime history is the subject of a drama series project she has in development at Epitome.)

“He called it the land of opportunity,” she remembers. “He had been so bitten by what he had seen in Canada that, when I was nine, we all moved over here.”

She and her brother joined her mother, who had a baby in arms, for the long flight from London to Prestwick to Gander to Montreal to Toronto — where her father, who had gone ahead, was waiting for them. The family settled in Paris, an Ontario community of 5,800 not far from London, and the rest of Schuyler’s childhood was small- town uneventful. It was after she won a math scholarship to the University of Waterloo in 1967 that life, as she puts it, “got a little messy.” Not scandalous, mind you. Just confused.

She dropped out of university, which she found huge and chaotic and daunting, after just a few months, feeling like a failure and painfully aware she was disappointing family hopes.

“It was devastating. I was supposed to be bright, and I was supposed to be smart in math. Meanwhile, others in the family had emigrated from England, and we were building a nice little family network here. Everyone was so proud of me because I was the first kid to go to university. And — I’ll never forget this — the night my dad came to bring me home so I could go back to my old high school to accept the scholarship, that was the night I announced I was outta there. Couldn’t do it.”

She decided she would lick the wounds to her ego by travelling the world — solo — “which was about the last thing my parents wanted me to do.” With enough saved from working at her father’s wool retail store, she took off the following spring.

She never got past her native England. Three months after her arrival there, she was in a car that collided head-on with a double- decker bus. The other two occupants of the car were killed, and Schuyler was badly injured — so badly that she was rendered permanently infertile. After leaving the hospital and convalescing for a time with her grandparents still living in Britain, she came home to small-town Ontario at summer’s end, feeling, as she says, humiliated and defeated.

Because she needed something to do and didn’t feel like trying university again, she went straight into teachers’ college in nearby London, because — well, because it was there.

“So that’s how I became a teacher. In terms of what brought me to teaching, it wasn’t very noble.”

She didn’t like it much at first. “It was like, ‘Oh God, how did I manage to do this?’ And then the funniest thing happened. I signed up to teach the older kids, the grades seven and eight, which precious few people wanted to do, and very few women. And I found out I really, really liked these kids.”

She taught four years in London, married her high school sweetheart (and took his Schuyler surname), began taking the night and summer courses that would bring her an eventual B.A., moved to Toronto and taught four years there at a school not unlike the fictional Degrassi Junior High.

“What I saw when I hit my first junior high class in Toronto was something I had never seen in Paris or even in London, and that was the amazing multicultural diversity. I was teaching at Earl Grey, at Pape and Danforth, and there were tons of Greek kids, black kids, oriental kids, Macedonians — a mixture I had never seen growing up in small-town southern Ontario.” She laughs. “My parents were appalled when I dated a Roman Catholic.”

The road from Earl Grey to Degrassi was short, fun, nerve- wracking and filled with serendipity. With a few university film courses to her credit, not to mention a passion for film, she went to her principal with An Idea.

“I said, ‘I’d like to make a little documentary film about these kids who are living between two worlds.” He found her some money, and she took advantage of nifty film equipment lying around the school board, unused. She also joined the Toronto Filmmakers’ Co- op, where she met Kit Hood, her Degrassi co-creator. With her marriage now over, Hood was also the man with whom she ended up living for the next 15 years.

The little documentary started taking shape. “With my class as my crew, we went out and we filmed one another. We went down to the Portuguese festivals, and we took black kids skiing, and we did interviews. We made this really lovely piece — rough from a craft perspective, but lovely as a statement — about kids living between two worlds. We talked about the joys and the heartaches, cut it together — and it was just amazing what happened to it.”

The Toronto board loved Between Two Worlds and made copies of it to distribute to classrooms across the country. When an NBC crew came to Toronto to do a piece on racism, they saw the film and used a large chunk of it in the program they aired across the U.S.

“I thought, ‘My God. I’ve reached all these kids across Canada, and now people in the States have seen it.’ And I think I was bitten at that point. All of a sudden, the classroom became so much bigger.”

She continued at Earl Grey — by now, she was teaching Grade 8 media studies — but her life-changing realization hit not long after that.

“I thought, ‘You know, I really don’t want to be teaching kids how to do this. I want to be doing it.”

She quit her teaching job, convinced that a leave of absence offered too much of a safety net and not enough hard motivation, and threw herself into her first professional project: a small half- hour kids’ drama called Ida Makes A Movie, produced with the help of Hood’s partnership and a $10,000 provincial arts grant. The live- action show ended up a hit at a time when most kids’ programs were animated, and Ida became, in effect, the prototype for The Kids of Degrassi Street, the first of the three blockbuster TV series.

Given the following — the fact that Schuyler is a veritable Hurricane Linda, running Epitome and producing the programming that is its lifeblood; lobbying the government (she recently completed a three-year term as chair of the Canadian Film and Television Production Association); sitting on Centennial College’s radio and TV advisory board; actively encouraging industry mentoring of young people; helping Degrassi’s early actors get a toe-hold on film industry careers; volunteering time to UNICEF and to the Big Sisters — given all that, the former junior-high teacher has a surprising confession to make.

“I can’t abide stupidity.” She smiles sheepishly and shrugs and looks apologetic. “I have a very low tolerance level for stupidity. It’s not that I’m not patient. I always say I allow people to make mistakes. You have to create an environment where people can make mistakes, and I’ll stand by them for one mistake. I’ll even stand by them on their second mistake — except if it’s the same mistake.” Her secret is out. “The stupidity of human nature really drives me nuts.”

Admittedly, that does make each day a challenge.

“Part of the problem in being an entrepreneur,” she points out, “is that it’s unhealthily all-consuming. You take a lot of it home.”

And she’s not just talking about the creative stresses. “When I drive into my parking lot in the morning at the beginning of a season, sometimes I look at all the cars parked there and I just want to turn around and go home. I think, ‘How can I possibly pay all these people this week?’ because maybe the bank line isn’t in place, or whatever. Other times I’ll drive up and look at all those cars and think, ‘I am just so proud of this company. Look at all these Canadians we’re employing.'”

Lately, there have been other reasons for pride. The most recent viewing statistics for the new Degrassi series are way up where Schuyler thinks they belong. Based on the first five shows of the season, aired Sunday nights on CTV, the average number of weekly viewers stands at 748,000. That’s a very respectable figure for Canadian television, says Citizen TV writer Tony Atherton — a viewership similar to that of the popular Da Vinci’s Inquest. The new series also has 22,000 virtual “students” registered at Degrassi’s virtual school, accessed through the show’s nifty new Web site — and the site itself has had upwards of 700,000 “page views,” a more telling stat than a mere “hit.” Kids stay on the site for 20 to 25 minutes at a go.

“We’re very, very happy around here,” she says, as if that weren’t palpably apparent.

And then she’s off again, planning, explaining, supervising, doing. All at the same time.

Janice Kennedy writes for Style Weekly.

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