SXSW Comedy: Henry Winkler Acting Workshop

The storied actor schools an audience on authenticity

Hnery Winkler at his SXSW Acting Workshop (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Henry Winkler opened with a disclaimer: “I’m not a professional teacher; I just play one on TV.” He was referring to his current role as acting coach Gene Cousineau on HBO’s Barry, but he quickly established his teaching bonafides by offering clear, compassionate direction to the actors who took the stage alongside him.

Looking rather woodsy in a plaid shirt layered over a button-up, Winkler immediately set a warm, informal tone for the session as he laid out the central tenets of his craft: “You must be honest about your ability, you must train your ability, you must have a tremendous amount of tenacity, and you must have a good amount of gratitude on your journey.” It was language he referred to again and again throughout the hour and a half-long session, during which he observed and coached seven SXSW attendees chosen from the audience.

For an acting enclave assembled essentially at random (audience members who had prepared a 90-second monologue, scene, or song from a musical were asked to raise their hands and Winkler pointed to a handful to go backstage and get mic’d up), there was great variety in content, which gave Winkler the opportunity to show off both the breadth and consistency of his advice. Whether he was assisting an actor with a Star Trek monologue, a two-character comedic scene about how to avoid gas station bathroom jerks, or a squirrelly, probably improvised take on the Three Little Pigs, Winkler pushed his short-term students to be more specific in their choices, to resist the urge to play “funny,” and to discover the circumstances their characters were experiencing in the moment.

The last pick was perhaps the most satisfying: Two young actors, Gunner and Paige, brought a scene in which a widow propositions her dead husband’s best friend over dinner. Their first run-through got plenty of laughs, but it was when Winkler pushed them both to avoid hiding behind casualness and give the story at the scene’s heart more weight that both performances blossomed with vulnerability. Near the end, Winkler graciously answered about a dozen questions that ranged from “What is bad direction?” (“Someone who thinks they’re in charge.”) to how he fills in a silence as an actor. (“Sometimes … I think about … what I need at CVS.”) (He also stayed 30 minutes past the posted end time to answer questions from everyone who had queued up by the audience microphone.) Winkler closed the session, though, by giving the remaining audience members a heartfelt thank you: “I had the most wonderful time in this room.” The laughter and applause made it clear that the feeling was mutual.

Henry Winkler Acting Workshop

Sunday, March 10, Austin Convention Center, Room 18ABCD

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