Jim Cotter and the art of Articulate conversation

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Jim Cotter, host of Articulate with Jim Cotter, on WHYY-TV.

 

They dim the overhead lights in the Stotesbury Mansion ballroom, and there she is, wearing butterfly silks — the legendary pianist Wu Han. Her husband, cellist David Finckel, waits in the wings, but for now the cameras and spotlights belong to Han and Jim Cotter, the Ireland-born, BBC-indoctrinated, Emmy Award-winning host of the weekly Articulate With Jim Cotter, a WHYY-TV show now broadcast across the nation in more than 70 public television markets.

Rippling the final notes away from her song, Han lifts her hands and leans back as if to give the throb of music within her a momentary rest. Cotter respects the pause. He holds the beat. Then, quietly, unobtrusively, he leads Han toward a memory — a story about the day Han’s father returned to her childhood home not with the article he was sent out to buy (a suit to wear to a wedding) but with a stack of LPs and a record player. Han’s was a poor family; it didn’t have much. Her father labored — grueling work. The incessant spin of song became a family’s happiness. It became the enduring passion of Han’s life.

Han and Cotter seem utterly at ease as they talk. It’s me who pulses panic, remembering, as I sit with my husband among invited studio guests, a stormy day nearly two years ago when I arrived at Stotesbury for my own Articulate segment. I have troublesome hair, and I’d had it professionally manipulated. I have a wardrobe full of ancient things; I’d bought a new skirt. But by the time I showed up at 1923 Walnut St., my hair was heavy with rain, my hem was puckered, and my heart was in my throat.

I took an elevator up through the mansion glamour to a scattering of crowded chambers. I passed a wall of props. In a darkened room I was seated within a tight ring of long-nosed cameras and too-white lights, and my heart, oh my heart. Waiting for Cotter, I was desperate to remember what I might say on the topic of Beth Kephart, who had written too many books, I decided just then, in too many genres. What were the details? Why did they matter? What did she actually know? Why was she here? Within the obliterating noise of my own mind, I become a writer with no words.

Cotter arrived — tall, his language still Ireland-inflected. He’d been rained on, too, and his eyes were alive with some kind of trick he meant to play — some impossible tongue-twister of a thought designed to throw me off my nerves. It worked. Whatever he said right then, whatever he asked me, was a wind inside my head. The noise blew out. A calm set in. I could hear his language. I was in communion with my own.

Lucky, that, I thought later.

Lucky me.

Han is also lucky, I think, watching her. She enters into the space that Cotter creates with interludes that are not questions so much as they are impressions. This happened to you, he says, in so many words. Tell me more. You fell in love, but why. You have said this, but there’s more to that than you’ve let on. I want to know the bigger story.

Cotter is exquisitely gifted at creating the illusion of a conversation, though in fact, as of course he must given his chosen profession, he tilts the entire session toward the artist in the chair. Her dreams. Her complications. Her cleverly idiosyncratic path. Her politics regarding art and the responsibilities of artists.

It’s only later, after you leave Cotter and the mansion, when you’re out, as I went out, on the street with a B-roll crew — walking Rittenhouse Square, say, and the Penn campus, and the banks of the Schuylkill — that you realize how entirely one-sided the whole experience has been. You might have done more, you think, when the cameras went off, to ask Cotter of his story, his dreams, his path.

Now with Han and now with Finckel, Cotter surmises and suggests, blinks and waits, smiles and stops, does not interrupt. He takes, in other words, a deep interest, and I think, as I watch, about how rare this is in real life — how, so much of the time, we are waiting our turn to be noticed, to be seen, to be asked, to be made to feel interesting.

It’s the genuine in Cotter to which his subjects respond, I suspect. It is the genuine in him that has allowed him to succeed — to bring artists into his orbit so that he may draw art further out into the world. Watching Cotter we are reminded of the value in wanting to know and listening well — lessons that would go a very long way, would they not?, to improving our current social discourse.

Beth Kephart is the author of 22 books, including the new memoir workbook, “Tell the Truth. Make It Matter.” She can be reached at junctureworkshops.com.