Keith Vokey, resident screecher at Christian’s Pub on George Street, estimates he’s screeched-in between 30-35,000 people over the past 17 years. While the origins of the screech-in are a bit hazy, his father, Merle Vokey, is considered to be a major player in the invention of the tradition. At age 16, Keith met Rush at a screech-in and there’s been no looking back ever since.
How did you get your start with the screech-ins?
My first time seeing a screech-in, it was done by my father out at Grenfell College one summer at a teacher’s conference. I was about seven or eight years old. I thought he was kind of dorky. But he made everybody laugh and they seemed to like him, so that was cool. Saw a few more throughout the years. It was shortly after meeting Rush when I realized by doing this screech-in thing, maybe I’d meet my heroes as they came through town too. So it became a past time hobby that was also an occasional job.
After 17 years of screech-ins, you must have the routine down.
It comes pretty easily now. What I do concentrate on these days is where I’m going and how I’m going to get to the next part. That’s the fun in it for me. It’s an interactive show that has forced reactions. I ask people to perform in specific ways, so I’m always looking for the right person to offer up the best reaction. So when I’m singing a song, I’m also sizing up the room and sifting through the people for good candidates. Do they have a relaxed personality that could take a little poking and prodding? Or are they the type of person who, if I were to light a spark under them, would blow up? There’s a fine line because if you get someone too outgoing, they might take over the show and while sometimes that’s great, their grandstanding can also take attention away and the energy of the show goes down. It all has to do with timing and energy.
You must be very connected with your audience.
It is very intimate. I call it a cross between guerrilla theatre and folk drama. I do get to touch people and be touched by them.
You can’t do this without being touched by people. Not by everybody of course. With some people you’d prefer they didn’t touch you. [laughs]
Not everyone is in favour of the screech-in. What would you say to them?
Some people say that it’s a misrepresentation of our culture. My response is that yes, I am presenting the Newfoundland stereotype. That’s kind of the whole point. But I take the stereotypes and turn them on their ear. This is not what Newfoundland is all about. I don’t think anyone seriously believes it. I am presenting a negative stereotype, but I’m also working to disabuse people from that stereotype. I’m fully aware of the objections that come with what I do. My father warned me before I ever got into it. And it was something that I questioned deeply on a moral level. Am I selling my culture out? Am I betraying my province? I’ve looked myself in the mirror and I’ve asked myself all those questions and I can say deep down in my heart, no, I am not. Some might misinterpret what I’m presenting and maybe I’m not doing it in the best way possible. But my heart is in the right place.
Why do you keep doing it?
I love meeting people. Especially when you talk to those who have travelled from far away and have something very insightful or heartfelt to say about where they’re from or how they perceive things or how their culture is different. There are countless stories like that. I feel like I’ve almost met the world in this 200 square foot space. I’m very blessed by what I saw growing up and how I came to do this. There was no plan to do it, but boy am I glad to be here and do what I do. It’s something very special.
Interview and photo by Ryan Davis