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

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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

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As a teen, Goell fell in love with the European style of miming and clowning, and committed herself to mastering those art forms. She earned a degree in theater from Emerson College, and studied music and voice at the University of Southern Maine. She completed teacher training for physical theater in Rome at L'Istituto per lo Studio Dello Spettacolo.

In Rome, Goell performed in music and theater, film and television. She toured as a clown, taught physical comedy skills, spent a year on the road with the Swiss circus "Schaubude," and later toured her live jazz show, "Impromptu," in Switzerland.

In the United States, she acted on Broadway, directed several New York productions and directed Commedia Dell'Arte for the Spoleto Festival and Disney World's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. It was at Epcot where she met Eisenberg.

More recently, Goell was a Henson Foundation-supported artist in residence at the Puppet Arts Program at the University of Connecticut, and she also taught musical theater and Commedia at Colby College in Waterville.

She wanted to do something with her life that enabled her to travel across cultures and languages.

"Miming took me on the path," she says. "Miming, then clowning, and clowning took me to music, which took me to singing, and singing took me to playing bass."

Now, just as she added each element to her toolbox, Parkinson's is taking them away one at a time.

"All the things that I do I can't do anymore, so the challenge is, how do I reinvent myself and carry on? Over the last three years, I've had door after door shut on me," she says. "Can I perform? No. Can I play bass? No. Can I sing? No. Can I draw? Well, I am making puppets, so I am finding that out now.

"And I can work with other people. I can help other people. I can analyze and still know why something doesn't work, and content myself with not being in the spotlight. I am happy with that. It gives me a sense of purpose."

Handwerker has benefited the most from Goell's interest in puppetry. They served together on the board at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Portland, and during a meeting a few years ago, Handwerker sought suggestions for a holiday celebration.

Goell offered up the idea of a puppet show.

"I said, 'Fine, how do we do that?' She said, 'Talk to me after the meeting.' The rest is history," he recalls.

Goell taught Handwerker puppet skills. They've written and created two shows, and are working on a third to debut in June. All are Jewish-themed comedies.

Handwerker, who makes his living as a nurse, is having a blast, and owes his new-found interest in performing to Goell.

"She's an absolute pleasure. She is not only a joy to work with, but a great teacher," he says. "She does not put her ego into it at all. She just accepts what is happening and is moving on to new things. She was a performer, an actress, a mime and a clown until three years ago, and it all just evaporated."

Handwerker was with Goell the night she fell. He rushed to the hospital after receiving a phone call that she had fallen. He found her in the ER, before she was admitted.

"We had a good chat. It was just the two of us, and at one point she looks at me with a half-smile and said, 'David, don't think this lets you off the hook. We will have bedside rehearsals.' "

And they did. The show must go on.

"She and Avner both are making the best of a bad situation. They are not in denial. She recognizes she has this medical issue. She is under the care of physicians, and is seeking whatever help she can get," Habdwerker says. "But she is not about to lie down and say the game is over.

"It is inspiring to watch her and see what she does. She is so full of creative energy and joy. A few medical and mental disabilities will not rob her of that."

The question that gnaws at Goell and keeps her awake is the unknown. How long will she able to continue doing what she is doing before it too is taken away?

She doesn't know the answer. At this point, she takes things one at a time, and counts her blessings for every good day. The bad days, she chalks up to the disorder and moves past them as best she can.

Goell also has taken to writing, and is pleased that in her writing she still finds her sense of humor. She is keeping a journal "about the lighter side of Parkinson's," she says, noting that she is able to write on a keyboard reasonably well. "But I use the backspace a lot," she says, muffling a laugh.

She hopes her humor is the last thing to go. "It's intrinsic to my survival."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:


Twitter: pphbkeyes


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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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