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Bobby Bermea: Kelly Godell’s twisting path

From Oregon to New York to L.A. to a long successful stretch on Portland stages, the actor and director now finds herself in a new city, and working in a new medium.

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Shocked by the light: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell in Philip Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin” at CoHo Theater. Photo: Owen Carey/2018

Kelly Godell is at a crossroads. After more than a decade as one of Portland’s most popular and hard-working actors, life looks very different now. She’s a single mom (again), living in a new city, and she just turned 40. This might seem daunting to some, but Godell has a way of facing whatever challenges come her way and embracing the new adventure of her life.

This might even be considered her superpower. In the past four decades she has lived many lives, overcome many challenges, made a lot of great art, and raised two children. Much of Godell’s conversation as you’re talking with her is an intentional reframing of the obstacle course of existence, peppered with adages and precepts one often hears in the Pacific Northwest, but underscored by her own brand of steely resolve.

Godell, a native Oregonian, grew up in Eugene as the daughter of a minister and the baby in a family of five children, all girls. “That was a wild time,” she says, laughing. “Those pastor’s daughters are usually wild people.” Naturally, her family was very religious. But her upbringing was not necessarily strict: “I always joke that because I have such a big family and I was the baby, when it finally got to me, they were like, ‘We don’t really care what you do.’”

What Godell did was theater. “I started acting as a kid,” she says. “My first shows were when I was five. I was always singing and dancing and acting. I would sing at the church. There were so many of us girls that my parents were like, ‘Yay, something for them to do and somewhere to go and put that energy.’” Godell, however, kept at it. By the time she became a young woman, she knew what she wanted to do. “I wanted to be on Broadway obviously. So, I was like, ‘I’m going to go to New York.’”

There was one hitch. When Godell was just nineteen, she had her first child, Oliver. “I grew up in a Christian home,” she says, and “we didn’t really celebrate a woman’s right to choose in my household. So, I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to be a mom.’”

This didn’t, however, alter her resolve to be an actor. For Godell, the two were never in conflict. Both circumstances were simply facts of her existence. “I never really felt that I had the choice to not do both. Being a mom was and is amazing. It’s the greatest gift and the greatest challenge. But I also had this fire in my belly of being a performer. I feel like it’s something that I am legitimately meant to be doing, so I couldn’t really ever untether or untangle those two things. I don’t see another way to live.”

First, she went to Bend, where she “did a ton, ton, ton of musical theater,” she remembers. Then she went New York. “It was hard,” says Godell, “I was super-naïve. I remember going on an audition and I met some dude in the lobby who invited me to go to a swing club and I was so excited. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I have no friends in the city yet, I’m gonna go swing dancing – and that wasn’t the kind of ‘swing’ he meant.”

New York had other, more significant complications. “It was hard. I was a poor kid,” says Godell. “Poor kids don’t get a ton of opportunities.” So, after she gave the Big Apple what she had to give it, she and Oliver moved to Los Angeles. “I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll switch and do film,’” she recalls. “I thought that was a medium I could get into. It was awesome, but I was limited by not having resources and being a very young single mom.”

L.A., like New York, can be unforgiving, and Godell didn’t find either city to be especially nurturing to a small-town girl–a single parent, no less, trying to make her way in the big city. “There have been so many chapters in my life,” she says, “that it’s hard to remember being that young, being that person. I had a lot of passion and a lot of drive. Eventually though, I was just like, ‘This is ridiculous.’”

Godell had two primary foci that served as her guiding stars: her son and her craft. Oliver had reached school age. “I thought, ‘I’ll move to Portland,” she remembers, ‘and I can be an actor there.’ I didn’t know a single solitary person, I was just getting over a break-up, so I was like heck it.” (Godell seemed to expressly be striving not to swear at first, when we talked, but she eventually got over it.)

It started out slowly, she says: “It was tough to break into the circuit.” But she took theater classes at Portland Community College with Julie Akers, and the two became good friends. Akers introduced Godell to the local scene via Profile Theatre’s production of Wendy Wasserstein’s Uncommon Women and Others, “and I met a ton of awesome Portland actors. Amanda Soden, Cecily Overman, Laura Faye Smith, Brittany Burch, Val Landrum, Brooke Fletcher – it was an amazing cast of super bad-ass women.” 

Visual bedlam: Chris Murray and Kelly Godell, upstanding and under the covers in Portland Center Stage’s 2019 “Sense and Sensibility.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

What set Portland apart from her previous stops was the support network that grew around her. “The theater community in Portland was incredibly nurturing,” Godell recalls. “I can remember working at Profile and Jane Unger (Profile’s founder and artistic director for its first 15 years) being just amazing. There were times when I was like, ‘I just don’t know how I can juggle my schedule and my child. I don’t want to not do the project but I’m really racking my brains.’ Jane’s daughter babysat Oliver when we were doing rehearsals for Six Degrees of Separation. I didn’t find that in New York and I didn’t find that in L.A., but I really did have that in Portland.” Godell had come full circle and found a home back in the state she’d left years before.

After that, life happened fast. Godell started working – a lot. She performed at Profile, Portland Center Stage, Artists Rep, Shaking the Tree, CoHo and Third Rail. She supplemented her income, as artists often do, by working in the service industry. She did fine dining at Clarklewis, as a server and a manager, for a while before she found a better home at Bunk Bar. (“Fine-dining customers,” she says, “are so fricking annoying.”) She fell in love and married and had a daughter, Eloise.

The marriage, however, struggled, and was over before it actually ended. “He’s a wonderful dude,” says Godell, “but we weren’t a good match.” Her husband was gone a lot. Godell found herself relying a great deal on Oliver, now a teen-ager, and he answered the call. “He was my everything,” says Godell. “It’s reductive to say he helped. Because my husband was traveling and then moved to San Francisco and was gone, Oliver became my co-parent.”

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And Godell relied less on her Portland theater network. “ You know that actor fear,” she says, “where you’re starting to cultivate the kind of work that you always wanted and you’re getting it and you almost hold it too tightly, too close. So I was no longer in that same space where I was feeling the same freedom to say, ‘Hey, can I bring my daughter to rehearsal?’ The work-life balance shifted because of my greediness to keep it.”

What she calls her greediness almost led her to turn down another opportunity. Matt Brown, owner of Bunk Bar and yet another person who gravitated to Godell’s charisma and work ethic and became a close friend, wanted her to come in on his new venture, Poison’s Rainbow, as an equity partner. “And I was like, well … no,” she says, laughing. “I had just gotten all these contracts lined up and I had worked really hard for that. However, my thought process was I could be an equity partner and after two years of work and then if it’s performing well I could stop working there full time and collect, and that could help propel my career as an actor and give me some financial freedom as a mother.” So, she decided to take it on.

And right before Poison’s Rainbow opened everything turned upside down.

“The bar was just about to open,” remembers Godell, “and my husband at the time, Colin, and my daughter Eloise got hit by a car. Eloise was just about to turn three. It was the single most earth-shattering experience of my life. That changed my perspective about how I work and how I navigate my time between theater work and bar work and mom life and even my relationship. At that point, there was no going back with my marriage even though we stayed married for several more years.

“After they got hit by the car everything was shifted and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do the bar stuff anymore. I just want to be an actor and be a mom and be fully present for those things. That’s all I care about. That epiphany really did make me feel like, I’m done. I don’t want that chaos. Even if I wasn’t partaking, I was the mother, the warden. There wasn’t a lot of love. There was me bossing to control in order to protect and at that point I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’”

And then the pandemic happened. Colin couldn’t go anywhere. Godell couldn’t act. Creativity was stifled. She was in process with Jen Silverman’s The Moors with The Theatre Company when everything shut down: “I started the pandemic lockdown with all of this performative energy, all geared up to go on stage and do the damn thing, so I was just this ball of crazy person.”

But, like the accident, the pandemic became a moment of reassessing. “In some ways, I was relieved from the greedy Kelly,” says Godell, “wanting to keep all the contracts. When the pandemic happened and theater shut down, I was like, ‘Well shit, man, there’s nothing out there. I don’t have to fight for anything.”

Godell wrote and directed “The Value of Nothing,” which is on the film-festival circuit.

That didn’t stop her from being creative. Through her son, she discovered TikTok and made several videos that went viral. Eventually, The Theatre Project live-streamed The Moors (“I was the chicken”). And she partnered with her old friends Chris Murray and Joe Bowden to make two films, Anomie and The Value of Nothing. The Value of Nothing, with a cast that includes several Portland standouts including Gretchen Corbett, Vin Shambry, Andrea White, Sharonlee McLean, Matthew Kerrigan, and John San Nicolas, is currently making the film festival rounds.

But while editing Value in Seattle, Godell realized that she did, in fact, need the space from Portland and her ex. They had lived in a house right next to a bar he owned, and that situation was no longer tenable. The time had come to leave.

So now, Godell finds herself with a new life. Oliver is 21, a young man on his own. Eloise is nine and playing soccer and doing children’s theater. Godell is dating someone new. She picked up a bunch of commercials when she first got to Seattle but there wasn’t a lot of theater money so she needed steadier work.

“I didn’t want to be in that situation I had been in with Oliver when he was very young, where I was like — fucking poor. And I was turning 40. And I was like, ‘I’m going to turn 40 and be a broke-ass ho. I’ve gotta do something.” She got a job in marketing. She is thriving at it, but it’s not quite enough. “I’m still trying to figure out how to make it back to the stage,” she says. “It’s elusive at the moment.” 

Whatever she decides, whichever way she goes, wherever her path leads her, you know Godell will embrace it. She speaks often of her “journey.” It’s a spiritual concept and carries the weight of a woman who has lived many lives. She honors her own and she honors the journeys of others, and she respects the myriad ways in which their separate trails cross.

When looking back down the path that has led her here, I ask her, if she had the chance, what would she say to 19-year-old Kelly Godell, single mother and struggling actor? “‘You don’t have to be perfect,” she says after a pause, “and you’re allowed to ask for help.”

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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