- Robin Katrick
- Recille Hamrell
The Shelburne Vineyard routinely attracts visitors who come to sip wine straight from the source. On those occasions, oenophiles gather around the large wooden bar in the center of the tasting room. But, once a month, a small group ventures upstairs to a loft-turned-stage that looks out over the bar. The participants vary in age, profession and background. What they have in common is a desire to share stories — and Recille Hamrell is the person who brings them together to fulfill that desire.
Hamrell, 79, stands about 5 feet tall, has a white bowl cut and often wears flowing garments. Her eyes are bright, her step is lively and her face becomes animated when she talks.
That's important, because talking is what Hamrell does best. She's been leading storytelling workshops and open mic events in the Burlington area since the mid-1990s, first for kids and now for adults.
During this time, Hamrell has become something of a doyenne of the personal storytelling movement. Her role was pointed out to Seven Days years ago in a letter to the editor from Michael Jordan Evans of Williston. He expressed frustration that, in an article about the popular Moth storytelling events, Hamrell hadn't been given her proper due.
While she can't take sole credit for the rise of local storytelling, Hamrell is an important contributor as teacher, cheerleader and community maker. She hosts monthly Wine & Story nights at the Shelburne Vineyard and frequent workshops at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston. She can often be found at other local story nights, too.
For example, there's Storytelling VT at Light Club Lamp Shop in Burlington on the first Tuesday of each month and the Moth at ArtsRiot on the second Tuesday. Hamrell describes the storytellers with whom she shares the stage as her family and community.
A transplant to the Green Mountain State, Hamrell was born in Chicago in March 1938. Her parents were pharmacists who emigrated from Russia as children. She grew up in the Windy City's Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods.
After earning a bachelor's degree in speech therapy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hamrell married a medical student. Soon after, she began working in the Chicago school system, which she describes as "an eye-opener," both for the "terrible segregation" and the overcrowding.
"The schools, which were built for, like, 500 [students], had 1,500 in the morning and 1,500 in the afternoon, on double shifts," she recalls.
Hamrell soon realized that she needed more than an undergraduate degree to navigate the myriad obstacles facing some 15,000 children at four or five schools. "You had cerebral palsy, unrepaired cleft [palates]," she says.
So, while working, she attended Northwestern University to earn a master's degree and then started a second master's in child psychology and development at the University of Chicago. She never finished the latter.
"I was six hours short — in that last six hours, I had a baby," Hamrell explains. Soon after, "[My husband] had to go into the armed forces," she says, and the family moved to Minneapolis. At that time, she notes, "Women didn't have the gumption to be able to say, 'I'll meet you in six months or a year.' No, you followed where he went. And so off I went."
After two years in Minneapolis, Hamrell again followed her husband — to Vermont. "I didn't even know where Vermont was on a map!" she exclaims.
Nevertheless, in 1969, she found a job as a speech therapist for the Champlain Valley School District, which includes Shelburne, Charlotte, Hinesburg, St. George and Williston. (By the end of her career, she was working only at the Hinesburg Community School.) It was through her work with children and young adults, she says, that she began to appreciate the power of storytelling.
In the mid-'80s, Hamrell says, "mainstreaming came to Vermont." That meant that children with a variety of cognitive difficulties, who previously had been educated separately from so-called "normal" kids, were integrated into public school classrooms.
"We're talking the delayed, the autistic, all the disabilities — and the teachers had no training," Hamrell says. "Somehow, the speech therapist was supposed to help these kids communicate and be a part of the whole school."
So she read stories with them. "You read the story together, and, because it's animated, they're in [it]," she says. "They're engaged."
Hamrell continued to work storytelling into her programming in many ways, such as through story-based photography shows and physically moving kids through the plot progressions. After Barnes & Noble arrived on Dorset Street in South Burlington, she began organizing performances there with her Hinesburg students.
The first show, which took place on the store's whimsical Winnie the Pooh stage, started with 17 storytellers in 1997. Eventually, it grew so big that Hamrell had to move it back to the school. And she wasn't working just with speech therapy students.
"You had the smarty and who-knows-what all lined up, and they were all a part of it," Hamrell remembers. "And I believed that was integration. There was no way that anybody in the audience could pick out that this kid was different."
Hamrell retired from the school system in 2004, but she wasn't about to stop working. "That's when I said, 'What do I love about my work and my career?'" she says. She answered herself: "the storytelling." So she launched a storytelling workshop at the Charlotte Senior Center.
That effort evolved into a workshop at the Alling library in 2007, which continues to this day. In 2008, Hamrell started an open mic night at the Flynndog gallery in Burlington; it soon moved to the First Unitarian Universalist Society church at the top of the Church Street Marketplace. In 2012, she moved the open mic to Shelburne Vineyard.
"The vineyard is an elegant place to come out," Hamrell says. "That's part of the appeal."
The tasting room loft is also an intimate, cozy setting. Sitting close to other people might make it easier to dig into the life incidents that inform some of the best stories. From personal experience, Hamrell understands the need for comfort, community and a safe space to share those stories.
In 1980, her husband of 25 years walked out. That painful separation is partly responsible for fueling her passion for storytelling. "I needed a venue," she says. "That was so traumatic for me. It took me years to work through [it]. And I ended up telling [stories] about the terrible things I was going through, but only after I was a heroine."
By adopting a sort of abridged idea of the hero's journey — the narrative structure popularized by mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell — Hamrell was able to move forward. She became a character in her own story, with her own motivations and her own voyage.
"It was a beautiful life, and I wanted to be able to reach into that, but I had to be able to get through the pain and the shame," she says. "And I used my opportunity to be in storytelling groups to do it."
Hamrell's account of her actions in the wake of her divorce won her first place by people's choice in a 2014 "tell-off" in Montpelier. The competition, called Extempo and hosted by Jen Dole, has taken place about once a month since 2010; some of the stories can also be heard online.
Dole acknowledges the impact of national organizations like the Moth but adds that, locally, Hamrell has had a strong role in the storytelling phenomenon.
"Something Recille is very good at is [reminding] just plain folks that this is something you can do," Dole says. "You don't have to be a person who's had experience. Oftentimes people will wait in the wings and think, I could never do that. Recille is the one that's out there holding educational events. [She asks,] 'Do you want to know how to become a storyteller? Do you have a story inside you?'"
And, Dole says, Hamrell was the first to do that, citing her early start using storytelling with kids. "There's a lot of new blood. There are events that feel more youth-oriented, more hipster, but, as far as being the first person out there running workshops, holding events, story-sharing experience, that's her," Dole says. "She has decades of experience on us in that industry."
And Hamrell has parlayed that experience into a strong community. Next March, she points out, "I'm turning 80. And my sister says, 'I'm coming from Chicago. You better have an event for me to come to.' What do I say? 'My family, my storytelling family, let's do a celebration.' I'm bonded with them."
That celebration will take place at the Shelburne Vineyard. And you can bet that Hamrell will be telling a story.