Goell at peak of her physical comedy career

May 12, 2013

Tears of a clown: Comedian Julie Goell evolves with illness

What happens when a gifted physical comedian, in a cruel twist of fate, finds her motor skills being taken away by Parkinson's? If it's Julie Goell, she evolves. And keeps her sense of humor.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PEAKS ISLAND - Julie Goell had been a little bit off for some time. Her arms weren't moving the way they should, and her sense of balance felt not quite right.

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“Nothing short of Parkinson’s could have slowed me down,” says Julie Goell, at home on Peaks Island.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Julie Goell has traveled the world playing often zany characters. She came to Maine 27 years ago at the urging of the man who would become her husband, fellow artist Avner Eisenberg.

Courtesy photo by Steve diBartolomeo

Additional Photos Below

She worried about it, but as a high-achieving, high-energy, globe-trotting performer, Goell simply justified how she felt to her rigorous schedule and tried not to dwell on it.

But when she saw a video of a performance from Santa Cruz, N.M., she knew she had to stop dismissing her fears.

"The video confirmed what I had been noticing, which was I couldn't stop and start right on target," says Goell, who made her living as physical comedian. "My show is very planned and precise. When my timing is off, everything is out of whack."

It was September 2009. Within a year, Goell was done performing, her world turned upside down with a diagnosis of atypical Parkinson's disease.

Her symptoms included loss of balance, slurred speech, facial numbness and a lack of expression in her voice and facial features -- all key elements for a clown, comedian and musician.

Not quite four years since she saw that fateful video, Goell stares out the window of the Peaks Island home that she shares with her husband, performer Avner Eisenberg, and tries to make sense of it all.

"I feel like I am losing ground. I continue to have difficulty with balance and difficulty with speaking, as you can hear. The slowness has gotten worse, and the slowness is hard for me. I was a speedy person," says Goell, 62.

She allows a moment of laughter.

"This is a zen lesson. I know it's useless to fight it, so I accept it and try to make the best of it. The lesson is slowing down. Nothing short of Parkinson's could have slowed me down. I was always an over-doer."

At the height of her career, Goell was all that and more, entertaining children and adults with her unique brand of Commedia Dell'Arte. She performed all over the world, and has been a longtime favorite in Maine thanks in part to her association with the Celebration Barn Theater in South Paris.

Now, Goell moves slowly across her island home with the help of walker, the result of a spring fall that left her with a broken hip. She spent several weeks at a Portland rehabilitation center recovering and rebuilding strength.

She laments not being able to get outside to work in her garden during the recent run of nice weather. She hates having to grab hold of people's arms for help walking up and down hilly Welch Street to the ferry boat terminal, although she appreciates her friends and neighbors who help her to safe passage. (And she admits to secretly chuckling at "the look of terror" in the eyes of the deck hands when she navigates the ramp from the ferry landing to the boat.)

She knows that another fall would be devastating. She is committed to staying at her island house and committed to her physical therapy. "I look at that as my full-time job," she says.

Goell will get stronger, she promises. She will never clown again. But she is not giving up. She is evolving.

As her motor skills have deteriorated, Goell has adapted her art. She makes puppets, and is collaborating with local actor/writer David Handwerker and puppet artist Stephanie Eliot on a new puppet show that she hopes will debut in June. It will be the third show they have created together. She also directs and mentors other performers, helping them hone their craft.

Puppetry enables her to express herself in a different way.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Courtesy photo by Steve diBartolomeo

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A fall earlier this spring left Julie Goell with a broken hip, requiring weeks of rehab and physical therapy, which she now considers “my full-time job,” she says.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Julie Goell acknowledges that her days as a clown are over, so she has branched out into other pursuits, including puppetry.

Courtesy photo by Steve diBartolomeo

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Goell makes puppets in her home studio on Peaks Island, and is collaborating with others on a new show that she hopes will debut next month.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

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Goell in character.

Courtesy photo by Steve diBartolomeo

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Another of Goell's zany characters.

Courtesy photo by Steve diBartolomeo

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