Entertainment & Performing Arts

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Whenever You’re Ready

Whenever You’re Ready

Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager
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Whatever It Takes

Whatever It Takes

Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television
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Excerpt

My heart sank as I put down the phone and wondered what to do next. After thirty-five years and nearly five hundred episodes, Degrassi had been cancelled.

I’d had brave words for the network executive at Viacom in reply to his almost nonchalant, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction. Degrassi is over, but we’d like you to come back to us with some ideas on how to celebrate the fourteen years you’ve been the top show on our network — something fitting to end the series.”

“It’s not ending,” I’d said. “We believe in what we’re doing. We thought you did, too. Our plans for this coming season are just too good to let go. Degrassi is going to continue. If not with you, then somewhere else.”

He ignored me. “I’ll look forward to hearing what you come up with to finish the show. Something grand. A special episode, maybe? Or … how ’bout you talk Drake into doing a two-hour concert special to end it all? Think about it and get back to me.”

Click. And that was it. A complete shock. We’d been sure the upcoming season was in the bag. But the television business can be brutal. Despite my confident words, it appeared this was indeed the end. Mute, I stared out the window and recalled the day thirty-five years earlier when, as a newly minted entertainment lawyer, I had first met my future wife, Linda Schuyler. It was a quick meeting, made quicker by the advice I had given her: “Don’t hire me!”

She was holding a small book entitled Ida Makes a Movie, and she wanted to buy the rights to turn it into a short television film. The book was out of print, and I suggested that buying the rights should be very straightforward; however, if lawyers got involved it could get unnecessarily complicated. “Here’s a form for an assignment of all audiovisual rights of whatsoever nature or kind, now or hereafter known, in perpetuity, throughout the universe,” I said (as a young lawyer I couldn’t help talking in legal mumbo-jumbo). “Take it yourself to the publisher in New York, offer them a small cash payment, and see what happens.” I added that by the time I opened a file for her and issued a bill, the internal cost would be greater than any fee I would charge for the small time involved, so my advice was for free.

I actually didn’t hear from Linda again for several years. She had indeed travelled to New York and met with the publisher. Her small payment was accepted, and she had become the proud owner of the necessary rights. She then scrounged five thousand dollars from family and friends, and, with her partner, Kit Hood, proceeded to make the film. It turned out well enough that she was encouraged to make another, Cookie Goes to the Hospital; then another, Irene Moves In; and then a fourth, Noel Buys a Suit. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) agreed to license the four films for broadcast. The licence fees were modest, but Linda’s production costs were even more modest, so it was a great fit.

The one question CBC had was: “What do we call the series?” There were four films, each with a different protagonist, and CBC needed one title to market them. Linda had mused in reply, “Well, each film is about kids, and we shot them in and around my friend Bruce Mackey’s house while he was at work during the days. He lives on Degrassi Street, so why don’t we call the series The Kids of Degrassi Street.” A total of twenty-six episodes of Kids of Degrassi Street were produced by the time CBC suggested aging up to a tween audience by creating a spinoff series called Degrassi Junior High. This would require much higher budgets and more complex financing, and Linda realized that she needed an entertainment lawyer to help guide her through it all. She remembered that nice young lawyer who had given her free legal advice back at the beginning of it all.

From then until now we’ve worked together, with me at first as the lawyer for the production company until, by 1995, Linda and I had also become producing partners and husband and wife. And as the years have unfolded, Degrassi has become the longest-running teen television drama in North America.*

I snapped out of my reverie and back into the present moment. It was mid-March 2015 and Degrassi was ending. The winter in Toronto had been especially cold that year, and snow drifts still piled high outside our television studios — studios that had been an empty warehouse until twenty years earlier when Linda and I had bought that warehouse, fulfilling a dream and slowly turning it into seven interior stages and an exterior backlot of sets, all spread out over two buildings and five acres we called Epitome Pictures. For more than a decade we had produced the most recent iteration of the Degrassi television franchise in those studios, where nearly a hundred cast and crew members were currently standing by, waiting for their work to begin for the year.

How would I tell Linda, and the cast and crew, it was all over?

I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and imagined myself surrounded by a globe of light, a trick I used to keep calm. Eyes still closed, but still not completely calm by any means, I started to realize there might be a small chance to move forward — to manifest a possible strategy we had already been contemplating for the future.

Could the future be accelerated to now?

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Bad Singer

Bad Singer

The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music
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