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.

"It feels like the same world, only smaller," she says. 

WHY NOT MAINE?

Goell has lived in Maine for 27 years. She came to Peaks on Christmas Day in 1985 at the urging of her love, Eisenberg. They were introduced by a mutual friend on the performance trail.

They fell in love, and Eisenberg prodded her to come to Maine -- but not without warning.

"He said, 'You'd better come up and see what it's like before you leave New York.' "

She came, she saw, she stayed.

They were both fairly young and new in their careers. They had to live somewhere. Why not on an island in Maine?

They raised a son here, and their community of friends is here. Eisenberg, whose stage name is Avner the Eccentric, travels out of the country much of the time. He is curtailing his travel schedule to care for his ailing wife, and Goell has a strong network of friends who help her with her daily routines.

Eisenberg is grateful for the island support system, nicknamed "Team Julie," without which he would not be able to balance his duties as a husband with his professional commitments. Team Julie members are on call to do everything from providing meals and being walking companions to lending an ear to Goell so she can air her frustrations. Anything Goell needs, they are prepared to provide.

Eisenberg, who returned home this week after a series of performances in Brazil, admires his wife's attitude.

"She has an unreasonably bright outlook," he says. "I can't even imagine how she copes with it.

"She is doing things that are keeping her as busy as she wants to be. I've known her almost 30 years, and I have never seen any anger at life. She is one of the most realistic and positive people I have ever met."

But she is not without fear. So far, the nights have been the hardest.

"That's when your mind is active, when you can't sleep," she says, tears welling. "You're trying to work through everything and trying to imagine the logical outcome of where things are going. I think, 'If it's this difficult to sit up now, what is it going to be like in two years?' "

The light of day helps. Goell gets herself up and goes about her business as best she can. But it's not easy.

"For all my corrigio," she says, using the Italian word for "courage," "there is constantly an underlying fear."

Goell has learned many things about this degenerative disorder, which attacks the central nervous system. Among them: She is not going to get better.

Especially during the process of her diagnosis, which involved many tests and long hours of consultations with her team of doctors beginning in fall 2009, she appreciated the well wishes of those who told her optimistically that "maybe it will pass."

"But you have to stick to the truth," Goell says. "The hard part is making room in your soul for the fact it could be bad news."

She accepted the truth, and made her final performance at the New York Clown Theatre Festival in October 2010 in her native Brooklyn, N.Y.

She did not tell anybody she was retiring. She just stopped taking gigs.

"It was my little swan song. I just put my head down and did the work, just like another other show."

But it was devastating. All her life, all Goell has ever wanted to do was perform. 

'A SENSE OF PURPOSE'

Born in Brooklyn, Goell spent much of her youth in Rome, Italy. Her mother, who is now 89 and living in Falmouth, took the family to Italy to explore Italian art and culture.

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:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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

click image to enlarge

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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