With ‘Luma,’ the science is illuminating
By Maura Judkis
Friday, February 22, 2013
Michael Marlin is not a scientist. But the way he talks about his light show “Luma,” you’d hardly know it. He easily discusses the electromagnetic spectrum, chaos theory, retinal retention, the left brain vs. right brain, the way different forms of light work. He offers a take on an Einstein quote: “High art is science and high science is art,” Marlin says. “They start to merge with each other.”
In fact, Marlin has already made an important scientific discovery: Some blind people can see his show. “Luma,” which takes place in a pitch-black theater, features black-clad performers manipulating lighted props. Because many blind people can see a small amount of light, and because of the show’s high contrast, it can be enjoyed by the visually impaired.
“One of the things that’s very compelling for people is that they have a chance to be in the dark,” says Marlin, the show’s creator and artistic director. “Most people don’t have an opportunity to really experience darkness.”
Marlin, a former juggler and actor, was inspired by his view of the night sky on several camping trips outside Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He got far enough away from the light pollution to see Halley’s Comet and a sky full of stars. In front of a campfire, he waved a flaming branch.
“The sparks of red against the backdrop of stars on the sky -- you have this black canvas and the points of light,” he says. “It got me thinking more about the nature of using the dark as a canvas.”
Later, standing before a lava flow in Hawaii, where Marlin lives in a two-story treehouse, he had an epiphany: “All life,” he says -- like the deer in the headlights or the moth to the flame -- “is drawn to light.”
“Luma” has a loose narrative -- the birth, life and death of a “lumen” being, a sort of illuminated stick figure -- but it’s really a series of vignettes about how humans experience light.
“It’s . . . as if an artist did a still-life study in natural light, artificial light and metaphorical light,” Marlin says. In “Luma,” natural light is represented by tributes to shooting stars and lightning bugs, and artificial light by computer screensavers and amusement park rides. Metaphorical light is, for example, the twinkle in someone’s eye.
But all of this light has a dark side: Since the performers can’t see, they face plenty of onstage peril.
“Four different people have fallen off the stage,” Marlin says. “We’ve had people break the cardinal rule -- no running -- and smash into each other. These objects that are being moved are being spun at high speeds, so one person clipped someone’s wrist, and they had to go to the emergency room.”
To prepare themselves, the “Luma” performers spend 20 minutes before every show in total darkness to let their eyes adjust. They also communicate by clicking their tongues when they’re onstage to alert other performers to their presence. The audience can’t hear the clicking over the music -- an original score by composer Michael Rapp. Marlin won’t reveal how many performers there are, lest he ruin the magic.
But even though science can explain many of the illusions in “Luma,” Marlin doesn’t want it to. He prefers to leave people guessing.
“It’s a full-brain experience,” he says. “Their left brain is trying to figure out, ‘How are they doing it?’ After 10 minutes, that left brain gives up, and then the right brain lets it just wash it over you.”