Strathmore to shine this weekend thanks to innovative theater troupe
by Cara Hedgepeth
Michael Marlin’s journey to become the creator, artistic director and producer of LUMA Theater — the one-of-a-kind lights show coming to Strathmore Saturday night — was a bit unconventional to say the least.
Growing up in Florida, Marlin, who goes only by his last name, produced his first show for a 6-year-old’s birthday party. He was 9.
Later, as a teen, Marlin was working as a street performer, juggling cheese balls and salamis outside of a local restaurant, when he was approached by a group of clowns who asked if he’d be interested in joining the circus.
“Ask any kid if they want to be in the circus at age 17 and what do you think they’re going to say?” said Marlin.
So Marlin ran away with the circus. But after just two days as a performer he was fired. Luckily, there was an opening for an elephant keeper. For the next year, Marlin cared for a herd of six elephants.
In 1976, he landed a spot at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. His education earned him gigs performing comedy and juggling acts live in Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe and even on national television.
“I crossed over from entertainment into the fine arts in the mid-80s with a ballet company,” Marlin said. “That was starting the segue from entertainment into the fine arts.”
In 1987, Marlin decided it was time for a change of pace. He left his home in Los Angeles and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii.
“I completely dropped out and moved to Hawaii and lived in a tree house that I built, for five years,” Marlin said.
Although he’d moved away from the entertainment capital of the world, it was in Hawaii and not back in Los Angeles, that Marlin would discover the inspiration for a concept that would eventually become LUMA.
Always interested in astronomy, Marlin said when he was living in Los Angeles, he had to “drive, like, three hours to see the stars.”
But in Hawaii, there were no skyscrapers or bright lights to block the night sky.
“I was so in awe but so sad that people in the cities couldn’t see that,” Marlin said. “I had an epiphany about the world revolving around light and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going back into show business.’ It just became a mission and a passion.”
The original incarnation of LUMA was called, “Laughing in the Light, Dancing in the Dark.” For the first few years, the show’s performers entertained with a combination of light, color and motion for audiences on cruise ships. Later, Marlin moved the group to Madison, Wisc., where producers from New York took an interest in the show, eventually selling it to corporate and special events.
“[Businesses] just wanted a really cool general session opener,” Marlin said.
Marlin continued to develop “Laughing in the Light, Dancing in the Dark,” until the show officially became LUMA in 1997.
Now, the LUMA cast is based in Los Angeles, although Marlin moved back to Hawaii in 2006.
“They’re dancers, some of them have juggling backgrounds but no one knows how to do LUMA when they come to LUMA,” said Marlin of his performers. The dancers use different objects, props and types of lighting in a completely dark room.
While he won’t reveal how many dancers are in the show, Marlin said the number is lower than what audience members often expect.
“When the dancers come out to take their final bow, usually the audience is going, ‘Where are the rest of them?’” he said. “When you’re in the dark, you can’t tell how big something is. There is no frame of reference. It’s very disorienting.”
An innovator at heart, Marlin said he is constantly developing the show, adding new pieces and new work. Thanks to constant advances in technology, the lights and performances have become more complex and impressive over the years.
Marlin, who has also developed a passion for sustainability — growing his own produce and using solar energy in his home — said since his days of performing at birthday parties and on street corners, he’s always been told he is “an ideas man.” It’s a label he said he’s happy to have earned.
“My creativity is the greatest gift I have in this lifetime,” Marlin said.