Planning the Exodus

Years ago I was thinking about “teach-yourself-to-dance” floor mats and how it was unfair that dance had these but theatre didn’t. I imagined that with some ingenuity we could right this wrong. All we needed was an organization to allow us to plaster their building with adhesive vinyl.

In 2008 mac birmingham, our local arts centre, was looking to commission a piece to mark its closure for rebuilding. We pitched the vinyl idea to them, and given that much of the building was due to be demolished anyway, they figured we couldn’t do too much harm.

Stan’s Café Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale

Stan’s Cafe Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale.

Making Dance Steps was tricky, as we didn’t know how “teach-yourself-theatre installations” worked. We’d never met one before. We had to make up the rules ourselves. We had to learn the art of applying vinyl stickers, which in some cases is more complicated than it sounds (though in other cases my three-year-old daughter was happy to help and couldn’t believe sticking stickers was my JOB!). The results worked well and visitors seemed happy to play the game, so we pitched the idea to another local arts centre. For this second attempt, we grew more ambitious: bought our own vinyl cutter and commissioned a soundtrack. From here things took off. Venues started to approach us to get their own edition of what is now The Steps Series.

Stan’s Cafe Spy Steps. Photo by Andrew Billington.

Stan’s Cafe Spy Steps. Photo by Andrew Billington.

Each new edition has required a new story adapted to a new venue. We refined our rules and polished our techniques. We started to think about places we would like to take the show.

Back in 2007 I had visited the Skirball Cultural Center with our rice installation Of All the People in All the World, when it was brought back there, by popular demand, after an initial presentation the year before. [Read the Los Angeles Times feature story about the 2006 edition here.] I had fallen in love with the centre, its staff, visitors, and campus. As soon as I boarded my flight home I started plotting how we might return to the Skirball. In 2010, under the bright Montpellier sun, installing Apollo Steps on the polished concrete of an open-air theatre, I started thinking about another city where it rarely rains and there’s an enlightened arts centre with polished stone pathways.

It took a little explaining how Steps works—how it’s fun for the whole family, clever, and witty; how it’s a theatre show with the visitors as the only actors, playing parts for themselves as the only audience; how it can be attractive to look at and engaging to read from the outside; but that it is really about people trying something out, puzzling something through together, and putting themselves physically in the show and having fun.

Once there was a basic agreement that Skirball could be interested in an edition of the series (the eighteenth as it turns out), the question turned to what the story may be. We floated a host of possibilities, and Exodus Steps came back as the answer. The challenge became to translate a Holy Book into a do-it-yourself theatre puzzle in a way that is true to both the story and the spirit of Steps. It needed to have integrity and humour, accuracy and fun. I re-read the book, taking notes, identifying key action and key characters, drafting suggested dialogue and what would be told through vinyl graphics.

This first draft was met with bafflement by the Skirball team; our Steps notation is a tough one for the uninitiated. Here is is, pictured at right.

I reformatted it into a script of sorts, figuring “2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.—that’s pretty much Hollywood, they’ll understand a movie script!” The response was fascinating. Everyone liked it but some wanted us to soft-pedal on the Plagues, others wanted them full-on; some said, “End once they’ve crossed the sea” while others said, “Of course you need the Ten Commandments.” Together with the Skirball, we made decisions and got down to refining the script and designing the graphics.

Now we are on a flight to L.A. with the words of the visa lawyer ringing in our ears: “You’re like the Hong Kong tailor: you’ve made up the suit abroad and now you’re coming back to make sure it fits.” We’ve got the designs on a thumb drive ready to cut them out and stick ’em up. What could possibly go wrong …?


This post was written by James Yarker, Artistic Director of Stan’s Cafe. Hear more from James in a future post about installing Exodus Steps at the Skirball, opening to the public March 1.

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