Co-creator of iconic Degrassi franchise to talk television at Laurier’s Brantford campus

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On Tuesday, Jan. 28, Linda Schuyler, co-creator and executive producer of the hit television franchise Degrassi, will be giving two lectures at Wilfrid Laurier Universities Brantford campus.

In the two lectures, titled “Heads On…Reflections on Life” and “The Degrassi Story,” Schuyler with delve into her own experiences growing up in Paris, ON, working as a junior high school teacher in Toronto and transitioning into the film industry, as well as how Degrassi came to exist and the various types of impacts the show has had.

The “Heads On…Reflections on Life” lecture will take place at 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Odeon Building, and “The Degrassi Story” will take place from 7 p.m. to 1 p.m. in the West Research and Academic Centre.

Prior to her first Degrassi series, Schuyler had created her first documentary inspired by the multiculturalism she saw in her classroom.

“My students were just a wealth of stories, and it was interesting because even though I was a school teacher, I also had a great interest in filmmaking and it was with my class in Toronto that I actually made my first 16 millimetre documentary,” Schuyler said. “It was about multiculturalism because there were just so many kids in my class from so many different social and economic and ethnic backgrounds that I wanted to celebrate their stories.”

Like her documentary, Degrassi was also inspired by Schuyler’s experiences as a teacher.

“I got to thinking that, you know, there wasn’t really anybody else out there telling stories in the media about the teenage experience and so, more and more I thought, you know, there should be stories for these teenagers because their lives are so unique and so rich and so diverse. And then one day I just had a lightbulb moment when I said ‘wait a minute, I love filmmaking, I love teenagers — maybe I can make a living doing this,” Schuyler said.

I wanted to give a voice of empowerment and solidarity to young people. And over time, as the media has changed, as the politics in society has changed, we have been able to meld our storyline to sort of reflect those various changes and here we are today, over 35 years later, still telling Degrassi stories.

– Linda Schuyler, co-creator and executive producer of Degrassi

The first Degrassi series, The Kids of Degrassi Street, was released in 1979 and was the first of its kind, pioneering the teen drama genre. The show went on to become one of the most iconic television franchises of its time, including other shows like Degrassi High, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Degrassi: Next Class.

“I think if I had had a crystal ball and could have predicted where the show might have gone, I think I might have been to scared to have even started it. It has such a big reach now but at the time I wasn’t concerned about how big it would become or how successful; I was just really concerned about giving young people a voice,” Schuyler said.

“I wanted to give a voice of empowerment and solidarity to young people. And over time, as the media has changed, as the politics in society has changed, we have been able to meld our storyline to sort of reflect those various changes and here we are today, over 35 years later, still telling Degrassi stories.”

Since its inception, the franchise has gone on to win multiple awards, including over 25 Canadian Screen Awards and International Emmys. The franchises massive success is something that co-creator Schuyler could not have imagined when starting the project.

The show has been able to move across generational borders, adapting its storylines to explore the unique experiences and challenges of teenagers living in each generation.

“When I first started on Degrassi, I was fresh with all my experience from the classroom — but you have to remember in those days, we’re talking about the 1980s. Kids didn’t have computers, there was no internet it was a whole different way of communicating,” Schuyler said. “So, when we moved on to the next generation, I really relied on my young writers who were far more connected that I was.”

“They really taught me a lot about how kids were now communicating through the internet and, of course, as time goes on, we add Twitter and Instagram and all of this with a whole new added vocabulary for kids and a whole new protocol for how you date and how you break up.”

But while many things change from generation to generation, there are some universal elements of the teenage experience which remain the same.

“There is another faction of the show, and that is regardless of all the changes in society and technology, there are certain parts of the teenage experience that remain the same. And those are all your first experiences: your first date, your first kiss, your first prom. So, I think by being true to our storytelling of first time experiences, but also making sure we stay current with societal changes has been what has helped give us the longevity that we’ve enjoyed.”

While she may have many accolades under her belt, it is the impact on her viewers which motivates Schuyler most.

“What thrills me the most is I keep a couple of huge bingers behind my desk, and they’re called ‘Why I do what I do’ and they’re full of hand written notes, posts from the internet, various feedback from the audience. It’s those personal stories from kids who say to me ‘thank you for Degrassi, it makes me feel like I’m not alone’ and ‘thank you for Degrassi, it gave me the courage to come out to my parents.’ It’s that kind of influence on individual audience members that really makes me feel good.”

Schuyler hopes that lecture attendees are able to enjoy a glimpse of her life and vision through her lectures and there will be a Q & A period after the end of the 7 p.m. lecture.

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