Last year , Stephanie McNamara had the best summer of her life since Camp Oconto. She was one of the leads in the Shaw Festival's world premier of A Foggy Day, by George and Ira Gershwin. Critics loved the show; critics loved her. "McNamara has a sweet, supple voice with a direct emotional quality and titillating vibrato," The Toronto Star's Geoff Chapman gushed.
To which Oconto staff and campers could only add that they knew that years ago. McNamara says she was about 10 when she won the role of Anne in the camp production of Anne Of Green Gables.
It was the first time she experienced that delicious feeling of being terrified that she still gets before every show and the strange "shaky" sensation she has at the end of every performance. She sang for the first time on the shores of Sharbot Lake at Oconto's regular Sunday evening concerts. She says she looked about four years old ("I was teeny"). She wore a costume that had no back and therefore stood stiff and straight between the stage curtains and belted out Delta Dawn.
"I think I only knew one verse and the chorus but my counsellor was at the side of the stage cheering me on," she recalls. "I don't know why but singing Sunday nights just became my thing." Acting and singing were so important to her she told her parents to visit her the day of the play, not on parents' visiting days. She was the youngest of seven children living on a farm outside Montebello, a small village in Quebec with no drama classes or community theatre. She lived for the summers.
She attended Oconto from 1976 to '86, missing only the summer of '84, when she graduated from high school and went to Europe. She starred in the camp musicals, then she began directing them. Although she studied general arts in university, she knew she had found what she wanted to do. She was accepted by the London Academy of Dramatic Arts for a year of post-graduate classical drama training and worked in theatre and on television in England for almost six years before returning to Canada.
She was written up in The Montreal Gazette while playing Viola in Centaur Theatre's production of Twelfth Night and a couple of former campers and the camp nurse came to the show and went backstage for a reunion. "It was fabulous. I love seeing people from camp. I loved everything about camp. I have photos of us all and I remember a lot of the names," she said.
McNamara says she wants to go to the Oconto Old Girls two-day reunion next September. "So much that happened at camp were significant events in my life. At camp nobody knew me, I wasn't somebody's little sister. I was me," she said. "There were six activity periods but there was the rest hour after lunch which gave you time to think on your own. I learned not to be afraid to be alone. I got my autonomy there."