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Monday, October 2, 2017

What is it then between us?

Photo: Stefan Killen

In the fifth stanza of Crossing Brooklyn Ferryfrom which Matthew Aucoin’s new American opera takes its name—Walt Whitman asks, “What is it then between us?” First published in 1855, the poem speaks powerfully to the importance of solidarity in a national moment plagued by rivalry and violence.

Last week, we partnered with pinhole photographer Stefan Killen to capture unique, dreamlike portraits of Crossing’s cast and creative team. The deliberately lo-fi process engages the camera obscura phenomenon to create images with a nearly infinite depth of field—all without the use of a proper lens on the camera box. After the photoshoot, we asked each of them to answer Whitman’s prompt—to define, in their own words, what it is then between us, and what that phrase might mean presently in 2017. Their thoughts and portraits are shared below:

Photo: Stefan Killen
Matthew Aucoin
Composer, Writer, Conductor

The question means: What do we owe each other? How does an individual cross the gulf between one’s own mind, body, and soul and that of another person? How do you feel compassion? How do you sympathize? Whitman wants to tell people in the future: “I’ve been there, suffered what you’ve suffered.” Asking the question is him saying that there’s really nothing keeping us apart, actually, if we make an effort to sympathize. We all have access to common human experiences.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Diane Paulus

Trauma. Blood spilled. Pain. And always the opportunity to heal, and a hope for forgiveness and love.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Rod Gilfry
Walt Whitman

A lot more than we’d like to believe. We go through life believing that we’re independent, that we’re separate beings, that we’re self-sufficient, that we’re not necessarily interconnected —and in the end, of course we are. We all share the same resources. We breathe the same air, we walk on the same ground, we share the same weather, we share cultures. But on a deeper level, I think that there is an interconnectedness between people that—for the most part—we try to ignore. I do. I know I do.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Jill Johnson

For me, quite simply, grace. Grace in our time is about acknowledgement and the possibility for dialogue. It’s as much about whoever or whatever “us” is, as much as it is about self-reflection. It’s both universal and personal, and I think it’s a question that we can keep asking in order to find the right answer.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Alexander Lewis
John Wormley

Well, it’s the thing that makes us human—the thing that we’re searching for: connectivity, community, reaching out, a sense of contact. Whatever form that might be, we search everywhere to define what it is to be human. We look within relationships, we look within theater. We look at that dialogue that we—as performers with an audience—are trying to share, what the composer is trying to share. Why are they reaching out? What are they trying to define? It’s that intangible thing that makes us all human.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Davóne Tines
Freddie Stowers

I think the thing between us is literally everything that exists. There’s space between people, but people forget that that space has things in it. Physical objects, emotions, thoughts, feelings—those things are all connecting people. So what is it between us? I think Whitman is proposing the idea of what it means to connect to people because it’s already there—but we don’t do it.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Jennifer Zetlan

I think what is between the performer and the audience is trust and truth.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Hadleigh Adams

It’s the silences—the moments when we let each other speak, and we listen and aim to find similarities before our differences, even if we don’t. If we have no concept of the other’s point of view, it’s imperative that we find each other first as humans coexisting before we look to our differences. If we go there first, there’s no way we can truly communicate in an honest way with an open heart.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Sean Christensen

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a famous quote by George Santayana, and it’s quite topical these days. There’s always the question of how much we can learn from the past. Can we learn from the experiences of men and women from generations ago? Is there really such a rift between us? Are our problems so dissimilar? I would say no, and—given the current political dynamic—it’s all the more important to not forget where we came from, the struggles we faced as a nation, and what we did to overcome them. I would even say that society cannot function without this link to the past, without resting on the shoulders of literary thinkers such as Whitman. It is through their eyes and experience that we gain wisdom and a better sense of morality and humanity.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Jehbreal Jackson

The thing between us is something that seems to separate us, but actually binds us. On the smallest level, we’re just a bunch of little molecules and things, and those things have space and the space connects to the space between us. So we’re linked, with chains to the people all around us—even with the trees—through our breath.

Photo: Stefan Killen

Frank Kelley

That moment of divinity when two humans beings look at each other’s eyes and all aspects of layers drop away and there is that shared understanding. That’s pre-language and it’s the most beautiful moment in the existence of human beings.

Photo: Stefan Killen

James Onstad

Opera has a unique ability to expand across time. Normally, we go to the opera house and we’re seeing emotions and a story from the past. What we’re doing with Crossing is reaching backwards with this and trying to communicate with an older America. The thing between us is time—Walt Whitman walked this land, he was right here dealing with a similar political environment in the country that we’re seeing right now. What I see in this opera is a way of connecting us, crossing across that time and reaching backwards to Walt Whitman.

Crossing comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House Oct 3—8, and great tickets are still available.

Learn more about Killen's work at

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