Seventeen years ago a young Toronto-based writer had a interesting thought... he wanted to commandeer the Dream in High Park’s Shakespearean stage on one of their off-nights and hold an outdoor poetry reading. Many of us figured that this was going to be another one of those ideas that lived and died between the second pint and last call, but Matthew Remski proved us wrong. He gathered what limited resources he had, drawing on both his friends and his bank account, and managed to get sixteen writers to the stage in an event he named The Scream in High Park.
Former Scream Director Peter McPhee remembers the first day distinctly: “It rained off and on throughout the morning of July 19 and only started to clear in the afternoon. We had hoped people would come early with picnics. At 5:30, [with] a television crew broadcasting live from site, there were seven people on the hill which forms the amphitheatre. We knew six of them. The TV producer was not impressed. However, at 7:00 we had an audience of 450. And by the end of the night we knew it would happen again.”
We had an inkling of what the Scream might become, but who could have predicted that it would go on to be one of the most prominent literary festivals in Canada? We never imagined that weâ€™d draw crowds of up to 1200 people annually. We never anticipated the dedication of our audience, who show up every year (despite the omnipresent threat of rain) armed only with picnic baskets, blankets, umbrellas and a desire to sit outdoors and hear the varied talents of authors drawn from across the country.
Matthew left the Scream after the first year, heading off to Europe, and left the festival in the care of Artistic Director Peter McPhee and a handful of dedicated volunteers (including Gayle Irwin, Bill Kennedy, damain lopes, Tom MacKay, Darren Wershler-Henry and Alana Wilcox). Peterâ€™s creativity, dedication and sense of wonder shaped the Scream into the event it is today.
In the year 2000, Bill Kennedy took over as the artistic director and chair of a newly minted Board of Directors. We reaffirmed our core mandate, to bring Canadian writers from all genres, styles, genders and communities to our unique stage. We continued to run the festival in its original spirit, encouraging new work and experimentation, and presenting well-known authors and emerging writers alike.
We realized, however, that the Scream had become more than just an annual outdoor reading. It was a celebration of the vast amount literary activity happening every day in this country. It was an affirmation of our indebtedness to everyone who reads, writes, publishes, discusses or gathers in the name of literature. We existed because of the collective energies of literary communities across Canada, and came to the conclusion that we should try to reinvest in them as best we can.
To that end, in 2002 we we expanded our festival into a multi-day affair, staging a series of unique literary events in partnership with publishers, reading series and venues here in Toronto. The Scream has been growing ever since, increasing its scope, audience, sponsor base and overall reach. The Scream is now more than just an annual festival, with Scream-related youth events and other readings occuring throughout the year.
Regardless of how the Scream grows, we will never mess with the magic of the High Park reading itself: the casual atmosphere and outdoor setting; the extraordinary writers; the humour and poignancy of the readings; the voices; the celebration; the summer night air. In the words of Peter McPhee: "I will never forget reading at the first Scream. The sun had just set and the silhouettes of the people at the top of the hill were blending into the sky, mixing with my voice, and approaching infinity. I think one's sense of place becomes distorted. In our current cultural climate there is something unreal about listening to poetry in a park, surrounded by the country's largest city (though the act is natural enough and the writing well grounded). At Scream In High Park we are everywhere at once. A place only magic can take us. We arrive, hear the voices and wonder if this is how carnival sounds."