This Passover, to take your first steps toward an L.A. Exodus — fulfilling the haggadah’s edict that each person must see themselves as if they were leaving Egypt — you must first make it up to the Sepulveda Pass.
Hopefully the sea of traffic on the 405 will part, revealing at the Skirball Cultural Center a newly installed interactive art walk called “Exodus Steps.”
Each year as we sit around the seder table with commentaries, parodies and wind-up frogs, searching for a way to put ourselves into the story, why not search for a new path? Carefully choreographed and whimsically scripted, “Exodus Steps” sets out a new course, freeing us from the slavery of the usual interpretation.
The installation, a biblically inspired trail, was created specifically for the Skirball by British theater company Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “caff”), which had previously created 17 other step projects in London, Edinburgh and other locations throughout Great Britain.
The path, composed of brightly colored vinyl footprints, handprints and dialogue bubbles, was conceived by the theater company’s artistic director, James Yarker, with graphics by the Cafe’s associate artist, Simon Ford. It guides visitors on Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom, and on to receiving the Ten Commandments.
James Yarker, artistic director of Stan’s Cafe, on the trail of “Exodus Steps.” Photo by Edmon J. Rodman
Beginning at the Skirball’s parking structure, the “Exodus Steps” leads a “stepper” on a path that runs past garden walkways, down museum corridors, up and down stairs, even down an elevator.
The peripatetic show is free, and since it runs from March 1 through April 28 — with Passover beginning March 25 — it will allow not only visitors to brush up on the Passover story, but also to re-enact it.
“It’s a new way to interact with the story, to do it physically,” said Jordan Peimer, Skirball vice president and director of programs, who led a recent trek through the “Exodus Steps.”
“We want people to literally put themselves into the characters’ footsteps” said Yarker, who was influenced by commercially made mats that teach dance steps like the fox trot.
For his own path into “Exodus Steps,” Yarker looked to “America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America,” by Bruce Feiler, as well as the “New American Haggadah.”
To get out of Egypt — which Yarker estimates may take the stepper 45 minutes to an hour to complete, though one could explore it in a shorter period — one must quickly learn to mind one’s steps.
Quickly, the trail leads to what graphic symbols (a partially completed basket and household tools) suggest is the house of Miriam, Moses’ sister. Color-coded footprints and handprints position visitors as if on stage, and dialogue balloons, affixed to pillars and walls, feed them their lines.
“Baby boys?” prompts the supplied script for an Egyptian soldier, derived from the book of Exodus when the king of Egypt orders the Hebrew midwives to kill any Hebrew baby boy who they deliver.
“No babies here, sir,” replies a child.
“OK. Get back to work,” replies the soldier.
Continuing the story, a few paces away, we find ourselves stepping into the Nile to place the basket holding baby Moses in the river.
Some scenes, indicated by graphic images of chains linked to footprints, put a single individual into the haggadah’s words: “Once we were slaves.” Other sets of colorful footprints and handprints, which bring multiple participants into close contact, bring to mind something akin to a game of Passover Twister.
“There’s a level of complication built in,” said Ford, as he applied the last touches to the Burning Bush scene of the walk.
“First they are puzzled, then it all comes together,” said Ford, recalling his previous observations of how people process the “Steps” format.
“Kids are less bothered than are adults,” noted Yarker, who on the Pharaoh’s Court area of the trail demonstrated how a child might dance through, and not exactly follow the series of footsteps that were laid out on a Skirball patio.
In another courtyard, the trail leads to a search for the 10 plagues. One discovers them, plague by plague, almost as if saying their names at the seder — frogs, locusts and boils. In the bright of day one notices, too, the distorted shadow thrown by the image of a graphic skull applied to a window — representing the death of the firstborn.
Lighter moments are represented, too, as hoof prints juxtaposed with a familiar rectangle with vertical dotted lines seems to call for feeding matzah to a sheep. In the elevator, so the Israelites do not get off on the wrong floor, there is even a handprint showing you which button to push.
Back on the trail, walking on a bridge, over a rock-filled creek bed, past real beds of reeds, the stepper is positioned before a previously existing curved sculpture: “Rainbow Arbor” by artist Ned Kahn, newly applied with symbols of broken chariots. If the timing is right, the sculpture shoots out a mist — you have crossed the Red Sea.
Then, what proper Exodus wouldn’t conclude with a stop at Mount Sinai?
“Here’s where Moses gives the Ten Commandments,” said Yarker, standing in the Skirball’s outdoor amphitheater. “And here’s where the Golden Calf goes,” he added pointing to the top of a step.
Then positioning himself on its edge, he kicked at the air, demonstrating a step that Moses himself might have taken.