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An actor turned storyteller pays a visit to Vashon
When an actor has appeared in hundreds of Hollywood films and television shows and hobnobbed with countless famous movie stars, directors and musicians, you might think he’d have some stories to tell.
But in the case of Stephen Tobolowsky, the consummate character actor who will make a special appearance on Vashon later this month, that assessment is just the beginning.
Tobolowsky, in fact, has parlayed his tales of more than 30 years of life, love and the entertainment industry into a whole new career as a storyteller. His podcast and radio show, “The Tobolowsky Files,” launched in 2009, includes his take on such films as “Groundhog Day,” in which he played the obnoxious insurance salesman Ned Ryerson. But it also goes much deeper than that.
The show has won raves from listeners and critics, including one reviewer for National Public Radio who called it “funny, ... fascinating ... (and) filled with little bites of wisdom you’ll take with you.”
The popular podcast is now morphing into a Simon and Schuster book set for publication sometime next year. And Tobolowsky is still a busy actor, with recurring roles on the television shows “Glee” and “Californication.”
So why is the Los Angeles-based luminary coming to Vashon, for free, on Friday, Sept. 30, to perform a benefit storytelling performance for Vashon High School’s theater program? Well, appropriately enough, there’s a story there too.
It all started a few months ago, when Islander Rebecca Graves read a story in The Beachcomber about an $850,000 budget shortfall affecting the school district. Deep in the article, a list of areas for potential cuts included the drama program.
That alarmed Graves, who said that immediately after reading the article, she got “one of those teeny weeny, way in the back of your mind ideas to start taking that on, to make sure the program survived.”
Graves’ passion for the drama program is personal. “I’ve seen it save lives,” Graves said, recounting how, as a substitute teacher in the school district, she had seen troubled kids blossom as they performed in school plays.
Graves had another impetus to spur her to action; she is currently taking part in a seminar that emphasizes personal growth, and one of the course requirements is that participants initiate a project that will benefit their communities.
At first, however, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.
Then, one day, while listening to KUOW, she heard an episode of “The Tobolowsky Files” in which Tobolowsky recounted the saga of one of the most difficult episodes in his life — when he was almost kicked out of theater department at Southern Methodist University.
The story resonated with Graves, who also had a personal connection to the story: She had graduated from SMU three years ahead of Tobolowsky, where she had been close friends with his fellow drama school classmate Kathy Bates.
“It’s an amazing story,” Graves said. “I couldn’t believe that any college student would have the chutzpah to overcome the challenges that he overcame.”
So she sent an email to Tobolowsky, asking him if he would consider coming to Vashon and donate a storytelling performance to help raise money for Vashon’s theater program. Amazingly, he said yes.
Tobolowsky, reached at his Los Angeles home the day after he returned from an East Coast trip that included a storytelling gig at Harvard, said he couldn’t resist the offer.
“It kind of triggered something in me from when I was a kid,” Tobolowsky said. “One of the most valuable things that happened to me when I was a child was that our school took a special interest in getting us kids to the symphony, and in Texas, it was exotic to go to the symphony, to get on the buses and go to the symphony hall, and it was magical to hear something like ‘Peter and the Wolf.’”
What’s more, Tobolowsky added, he’s mystified by education trends that seem to value some academic programs over the arts.
“Why do they think that they need to remove the arts in school? ... You cannot live a long and happy life and know nothing about Shakespeare, art and music. It is one of the main doorways to joy we get in our life,” he said.
Tobolowsky’s trip to Vashon will mark the first time he has performed his stories for free, and he said he was thrilled to do so on Vashon, a place he’d heard described by Hollywood friends as “an artist’s colony or some kind of rural retreat.”
“Sometimes in acting, you learn that there are jobs you do for money and sometimes there are jobs that you do for the project, and it’s rare you get them at the same time,” he said. “This isn’t about making money. Hopefully ‘Glee’ will come around and ask me to do another show and that will take care of that.”
In the meantime, he hopes that his performance here will help reach the kind of kids Graves has seen thrive in the high school’s theater department.
“I just am a big advocate of the arts, and for me personally, art and drama have gotten me through some of the worst times in my life,” he said. “So anything I can do there is great.”
Tickets for “Stephen Tobolowsky Live!” go on sale Sept. 15 at local book shops. The show is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, at the VHS theater. Tickets cost $25, or $75 for a special VIP ticket, which includes a post-show reception and silent auction. “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” a film that showcases many of the actor’s stories, will play at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at Vashon Theatre. The screening is free, but donations will also go to the high school theater program. For more information, contact Lauri Hennessey at email@example.com.