Different by design


Paul Normandale is incredibly self-effacing and soft-spoken in person--just try getting an interview with him on tape. Yet there is nothing modest about his list of design credits, a short sampling of which (Beastie Boys, Bjork, P.J. Harvey, Cocteau Twins, All Saints, and Boyzone) would inspire envy in most concert LDs. With artist/designer relationships being as delicate as they are, Normandale's singular ability to discern what each performer would like to convey onstage has made him one of the most sought-after designers in the current touring industry.

His auspicious career began while he was a student at Keele University in Northern England. "I had a local vacation job at the Scarborough Futurist Theatre," he explains. "The booking policy varied from ballet, opera, variety acts--and then all of a sudden Siouxsie and the Banshees played there."

That show, which was designed by LD Peter Barnes (whose credits include the challenge of the Spice Girls' 1997-98 world tour), sparked Normandale's interest in rock show design for the first time. "After postgrad at university I had a year off, and my vacation job at the theatre blossomed. Then a friend, Chas Banks, showed me a video of the Sugarcubes' single 'Birthday' in 1986, and asked if I would fancy doing the lighting design--13 years later I still design for Bjork. Along the way I was lucky enough to design for bands that I listened to and enjoyed. They never realized I knew nothing about lighting, and still don't, really. The Cocteau Twins, Charlatans, Curve, P.J. Harvey--all these tours involved bits of plastic, rags, wooden fences, and anything that lit well. These sets have served the purpose of amusing crews around the world of so-called independent music."

In 1990, Normandale founded Lite Alternative with Jon Greaves. Its offices are located outside Manchester, England, rather than the much more populous London. The company also became one of the first Vari*Lite(R) Series 300(TM) dealers in 1994. "I started Lite Alternative Ltd. purely out of a desire to use effects and lights that made no fiscal sense, and allowed myself, and, I hoped, like-minded designers, to use toys that the larger companies dismissed," Normandale explains. "If Peter Barnes had continued Chameleon, perhaps I would never have bought a 5rpm rotator--or 10 of them. I was keen to be independent and not sell my soul to a large company, to emphasize the design rather than how many PAR cans could be fit into a lighting system within a given budget."

While the LD certainly does tours for which his company also provides gear, this is definitely not always the case. "It's important to stress the difference between the hire company and myself as a designer," Normandale says. "It is not a condition of employing me that the client has to use Lite Alternative, but this distinction is hard fought. I do not run the company; Jon Greaves and his team do." (See "Providing an Alternative," page 32.)

By 1995, Normandale was designing sets and lights for Morrissey, World Party, Bjork, Massive Attack, and Placebo. "I could no longer be everywhere with all these bands, hence my transition to design only, and the discovery of a whole range of clever, talented people who knew all about lighting and long multiplication--the lighting operators. Some drink too much tea, I might add."

Here Normandale is referring to Fraser Elisha, who has worked with the LD on everything from Bjork and the Cocteau Twins to All Saints. "I can't say we've ever gone in and done something exactly the same as another job before," Elisha says. "We always approach each show from a different angle and Paul is getting quite into creating backdrops and sets to light through. He likes the shadows. People like Bjork would have some really strange pieces kicking around onstage, like trees for instance, and those were always good for shining lights through--they cast quite rich shadows. The Cocteau Twins tour we did was like that--it was quite a long time ago, but it looked beautiful."

For pop bands such as All Saints, Steps, and Boyzone, the approach is obviously a bit different. "The pop bands do like sets, but a lot of their stages are quite open, purely because they've got dancers and big bands, so the logistics of fitting all those things in certainly comes into play," Elisha explains. "Nine times out of 10 it comes down to just another way of raising it and having a couple of different levels and entrances.

"The majority of the tours we do make full use of moving lights, but not necessarily Vari*Lites," Elisha continues. "We try almost everything new--Paul quite likes automated lights because it gives him less lamps. He doesn't like to see a lot of lights in the air; doesn't ever want one of his shows to look like a heavy-metal rig. He's definitely not one for ACLs, and he always likes to have the lamps hidden. Or, if they're in view, they become a very prominent part of the set. For All Saints we went to great lengths to hide the lights on the truss, but the rest were all down on pieces of metal so they were all visible, more accentuated. The ones in the air were hidden by drapes, so you actually see the beam and not the lights themselves. That's how his designs tend to be."

When possible, Normandale likes to have both a conventional and an automated console to control the lighting for a show. "He'll run the conventional board and do something odd like control the intensity of the VL5s(TM) from there. He likes the flexibility of two desks because that means he can do what he wants, and, in theory, the intelligent lighting will do the same thing every night--depending on who's behind the desk," Elisha says. "He's not the most technical of fellows, but he has great ideas and a wonderful rapport with artists. Quite often he'll have a better rapport with them than their managers do--or at least a better idea of what they want. He hit it off quite well with the Beastie Boys. He can get on the same wavelength as them. And someone like Bjork--she'll say something and no one will understand what she wants but Paul, and he can translate that to the rest of us. He's got a cryptic brain in there."

Elisha has toured with Normandale as well as taken tours out as the lighting director. "Paul likes touring America more than Europe; he can be more English there. I've also taken out quite a few--Sean Nugent and Mike 'Oz' Owen have as well. He's quite a pleasant chap to work with--very laid-back. He only gets wound up if he thinks what we've got isn't going to work, like if a venue doesn't provide what they've promised and it won't look the way he wants it to. Under that exterior he is very serious about the work. We get on really well with each other and we understand each other. Most importantly, he makes a really good cup of tea."

LD Graham Feast worked with Normandale for the first time on the recent Boyzone tour of Europe. He concurs with Elisha on Normandale's amiability. "I've actually worked with Paul and his company for a number of years now, on numerous different projects, such as large industrials, which is Jon Greaves' side," Feast says. "So when the opportunity came along to operate the Boyzone shows 18 months ago, I thought that would be great. Paul is very accommodating and receptive to other ideas, as long as it doesn't compromise his overall vision of what he wants to create. He'll always give you the time to program--he'll tell you what he wants and then he'll wander off and come back. It's a pleasure to work with him because he always tries out different ideas and ways of doing things and it's quite refreshing, really. He's a very down-to-earth person, which makes for a very comfortable working environment. He works very much like Patrick Woodroffe, who is very laid-back. He likes to see things happen, but he'll give you the time and opportunity to make it happen, as opposed to other people who just get completely stressed-out. Paul's only problem that I've seen is that he's far too modest."

Indeed, Normandale professes puzzlement at having been voted Lighting Designer of the Year by Live! magazine for 1996-97 and 1998-99. "By 1997, I was somehow getting awards for lighting design, and the client list had expanded into bands that I had never listened to. But the challenge of doing pop bands in a different way was there," he says. "Hence Boyzone, Cast, Tears for Fears, Beautiful South, All Saints, Another Level, Steps. Then in 1998, the Beastie Boys saw a Bjork show and asked me to design their in-the-round world tour."

The Beastie Boys had been impressed with Bjork's Homogenic tour and had their production manager, Bill Rahmy, get in touch with Normandale. "Bill and the Boys had some fairly clear ideas on the tour's in-the-round concept," Normandale says. "When I met the band, it was evident that at all costs they wanted to do the shows on their terms, playing any song in any style."

Working with the tour's lighting company, Upstaging, and programmer Richard "Nook" Schoenfeld, Normandale created a palette of different looks: 15 jazz, 15 hardcore, and 20 rap. "We found that come showtime it really did not matter which look went with which song within the style," says the LD. "This produced a free form, which really appealed to the band. In terms of the rig itself, the challenge was one of accommodating the production values of an in-the-round show, including a massive PA system from Brittania Row. Nook programmed the Wholehog to oblivion, while I just wandered about aimlessly. Mike Hosp from Upstaging made sense of it all, and even let me hang a lamp or two--as long as it was the same lamp in the same place every day.

"There were also masses of TVs too small to be seen in the great voids of basketball/hockey arenas that provided almost subliminal images of Mix Master Mike and company, as well as the bug zapper and frailing moles, and 16 four-lights on high-speed motors, which provided more headaches for Jon Bahnick of Upstaging."

The bug zapper was a motorized, 360-degree array of 8-light Molefays and quick-fire 4' phosphorescent tubes that formed the centerpiece of the stage's design when lowered. Frailing moles are twin-sided, four-light DWEs on high-speed motors that were lowered randomly from the rig to just above the audience's reach. "Live! gave me another award for it--but I still don't go to other people's gigs so as not to get depressed about how good they always look."

Mike "Oz" Owen, who originally programmed the 1998-99 Boyzone tour, first met Normandale when he was working full-time for Vari-Lite, and Lite Alternative had taken on the Vari-Lite franchise. "After I'd been working on a few megatours, like Pink Floyd for example, Paul would sometimes bring me back to earth with an occasional visit to Manchester where northern humor and Paul's self-effacing manner dictate that he now continually calls me 'O Great One,' " Owen laughs. "Our styles are pretty much polar opposites, so our programming sessions mainly consist of Paul trying to stop me from programming too much so we can get down to the essential looks."

"I struggle endlessly with operators to de-mechanize the timing process, using feel and mood, and a highly skilled moving-light operator promotes many strange looks," Normandale says. "I am indebted to the patience and vision of these programmers who put up with me. A long time ago a friend of mine, Warren Flynn, programmed my first-ever moving-light show for the Sugarcubes tour, and on the first night, he placed a large sign behind the desk stating, 'This is the way he wants it.' "

This approach is just fine with Owen. "Working with Paul is always a refreshing change and a learning experience," he says. "His style is to use lighting in a restrained but thoughtful and fundamental way that is more concerned with the human qualities of the performance than visual hyperbole."

Normandale approaches each performer's show on its uniquely individual terms. "Artists vary immensely in their input on design matters," Normandale says. "The pop bands usually involve show producers, people who have a creative concept and try to tie the technology to the performance. The artists themselves are rarely directly involved one-on-one with the LD. Morrissey, the Cocteau Twins, and Tears for Fears were all about establishing a style by interacting with the artist, and representing them visually. The Cocteau Twins over the years have been well received.

"Artists such as Bjork, P.J. Harvey, and the Beastie Boys, for example, have very specific ideas on certain issues," he continues. "The word 'trust' features highly in these cases, and this produces a more personal and very rewarding end result. You end up in conversations about why that song is red--it just is. I take very seriously my role in interpreting visually the undercurrents and themes of the music, often at the expense of the specifics."

Certainly he's doing something right. "At one stage I was working with Liz Fraser [vocalist previously with Cocteau Twins and Mortal Coil], Polly Harvey, and Bjork," he says. "Really, what more could an unknown Englishman want?"

Far from London's crowds, Lite Alternative is a friendly, neighborhood lighting company based near Manchester, England. LD Paul Normandale founded the company with general manager Jon Greaves in 1990. "Paul and I went to school together in Scarborough, and we both started working in the same theatre there," Greaves says. "Then he went in with another lighting company and avoided proper jobs and traveled around the world with bands. Occasionally, I would give him a hand doing lighting-related work. Paul instigated Lite Alternative, although I certainly was in from the first moment. With no mad leaps or jumps, we've steadily and progressively grown. We started off doing the Pixies, the Curve, and the Charlatans--just oddball bands that not many people had heard of. It ended up becoming this non-specific, or specialized, operation. We offer whatever expertise or experience we have to anybody and everybody."

Anybody who works in Northern England, anyway. "We have for the last nine years offered an option, a small haven, to few," Normandale says. "Luckily, we have worked with some of the people whom I watched and admired as designers. We are low-profile, which suits me fine."

The company's profile was sufficiently high for it to become one of Europe's first Series 300 dealerships. "Vari-Lite approached us in 1994-95 with the idea of making VL5(TM) and VL6(TM) automated luminaires available in local markets," Normandale says. "It's worked out quite well. As a company, it allowed us to lease the latest technology as opposed to investing vast sums in kit that is superseded by the turbo version within months."

Since the Vari-Lite dealership, Greaves' role in the company has been more administrative. "I used to look after a few bands and teched and crewed, but for the past five years, I've done less of it," he says. "I now tend to stay in the office, answer the phones, and drink coffee. Certainly within the past two to three years we've really been building up the industrial side of the business. We've done lots of conferences and exhibitions and a few other special projects, like Billy Graham Crusades."

Other key people at Lite Alternative include: administrators Julie Lawton and Brigid Heap, company secretary Susan Whittle, warehouse supervisor Michael Oates, and Vari-Lite supervisor Chris Cooper. "The majority of jobs we do, whether they be conferences or rock and roll, are in-house design projects," Greaves continues. "We have quite a lot of our own LDs. We still do a portion of work with freelance LDs or production managers who come to us. But the key factor is that we offer a service. Yes, we do own equipment, which we maintain to the best possible standards and we have a reasonable reputation for that. But most of it is dealing with other people's problems and trying to make them go away for them, really. It's the attention to detail and fussing and fiddling to get it right. We may seem a fairly disjointed, small-scale operation, but in the real world we are running a proper, level company up here."

The company's current corporate customers include Gardiner Merchant, Reebok, Doc Marten, Cellnet, British Telecom, Norweb, ICL, Fujitsu, British Airways, Airtours, Honda, Playtex, Marks and Spencer, and Disney. "Corporate work at Lite Alternative is left to the real designers, notably Phil Wiffin," Normandale says. "I enjoy doing fashion shows, but the corporate designs I would come up with would frighten most speakers away. Still, corporate work now accounts for 80% of our workload here.

"I use a whole range of companies including Lite Alternative, and lots of other designers [such as Phil Wiffin, Pete Barnes, Dereck McVay, and Andy Watson] use our company for clients such as Suede, Mansun, Del Amitri, Lightning Seeds, Supergrass, and Lamb," he continues. "We offer a range of equipment from Flying Pig Systems Wholehog consoles to Chroma Qs, Avolites control desks and dimmer racks, Columbus McKinnon Lodestars, and trussing from Slick Systems, Thomas, and Tomcat."

"As Paul has now ended up designing tours for Boyzone and All Saints, you can't really say they're alternative anything!" Greaves says. "But he still likes to do different projects and he got a smile out of doing the Beastie Boys. That was something that was very popular, but still a bit left of center."

That tour was also not a company project. Greaves says, "That was a project of Paul's that he took out and did quite well with. It's difficult for everyone else to get through their heads, because people will assume that because Paul is a designer doing a show, we are bound to be doing it as well--but that often isn't true at all. Sometimes it's to our benefit, but sometimes it's not, because people might not offer a project to Paul, as they'll say it has to go out to quote. It's something other people need to try to address. They make assumptions which are not necessarily true."

Given his list of clients, the confusion hasn't been too troublesome for Normandale's career. "In Paul's world, he likes to do things slightly odder, given the chance," Greaves says. "Or if it's a pop music band, he'll try to give them a different slant than perhaps the straightforward approach another LD might take. That's just Paul's quirky nature. Paul is still obviously the main man who looks after everything here, but on a day-to-day basis he also likes to do his own projects, so he leaves us to fiddle on our own. After nearly 10 years of operation, we've got half a company that works in the industrial world and the other half seems to be still in the rock and roll world. We offer all things to all people, really."