Triple threat

Long-distance relationships can be tricky propositions, but, thanks in part to the wonders of modern communication, the members of Lightswitch, who are each based in different cities, manage to keep themselves connected while maintaining a sense of autonomy. The three principals--San Francisco-based Norm Schwab, John Featherstone who works out of Chicago, and Abigail Rosen Holmes who recently moved her LA office to New York--each began their careers as concert LDs, where they individually enjoyed a solid measure of success as well as abundant creative freedom. However, after touring with some of the hippest bands in the industry during the 80s and 90s, one by one each LD traded in the rigors of touring for other challenges.

By now, the trio's resumes include hundreds of other projects, which range from corporate and trade shows to architectural installations to huge special events. Yet working on the occasional concert tour still figures into their priorities; Schwab recently designed for the B-52s/Pretenders summer tour and Holmes lent her talents to lighting Amy Grant's current tour.

Schwab came up with the idea for the partnership's unique structure when, in addition to touring, he started getting offers to do more corporate work than he could handle alone. "We are the three basic partners, and we call ourselves Lightswitch," Schwab explains. "It's a consortium, and we love it. This way, we can call each other, and we have a lot of people to bounce things off. Certainly, we all have designer egos to some degree, but we're not afraid to have one or the other of us look at a project and say what they think is right or wrong with it ahead of time. We give each other ideas, so having all three of us working together makes any project a lot better."

Schwab and Featherstone first met each other in 1987; Schwab was working at FM Productions as a staff lighting designer and Featherstone had just finished up a Julian Cope tour. "We were doing a really wacky industrial show for Jeep Eagle, which is now Chrysler--it was a combination ice show and car show at the Cobo Arena in Detroit, and it was pretty huge," Schwab says. "We hired the lighting from Upstaging, who sent John out as one of the console operators and we got on swimmingly. John was mostly doing rock and roll then and I was doing some rock, but much more corporate theatre, trade shows, and industrials."

Featherstone continued to tour and would occasionally cross paths with Schwab, who in turn had become friends with Holmes in 1983. "The first time Norm and I met, I was on tour with the Talking Heads in San Francisco, and we traded T-shirts," Holmes says. "He had an excellent Roxy Music shirt and I gave him mine, which had the Rauschenberg cover of the Talking Heads. We swapped right there on the spot."

Meanwhile, Schwab kept in touch with Featherstone, who lives near Chicago with his wife and two children. "I kept daring John to get off the road and come and play with me," Schwab says. "Because when you're out on a rock tour, you generally make a commitment for six months to a year. Whereas the corporate shows really have a life span of a week. You might work on some of them for a month, but you tend to work on a lot of them at the same time. It was getting to the point where I needed help, and realized that by trying to get more people in an organization that had a name, and not just one person's name, we could (a) take on a lot more work, and (b) do it under a name that was less ego-oriented."

By 1992, Featherstone was calling Schwab up on his offer. "Right after I had my daughter Hailey, who is now five years old, I went back out on the road with Van Halen, and I realized my situation was horribly bad," Featherstone says. "I was missing great chunks of my kid's life, so it became impossible to enjoy touring any more. I called Norm and said, 'Help!' We got together and just as Norm said, our philosophy is to have a group of like-minded people trying to do work that's interesting under a neutral moniker. That's how the Lightswitch name came about."

Schwab explains that they agreed to work together on a trial basis for one year before making any formal arrangements. "That worked out incredibly well," Schwab says. "We were non-stop busy, so we decided that we could market for many by just making sure that one of us was available. Even though John continued to do some rock and roll, we began to mesh clients."

"I designed and operated INXS's Full Moon, Dirty Hearts tour," Featherstone says. "But it became rapidly apparent that it's very hard to make your schedules mesh when you're doing rock tours, because they generally fill up your schedule. Though corporate events have changed their schedules over the years, you can plan them a good deal in advance. So I was not missing rock and roll, and enjoying being home a lot more often."

Meanwhile, Holmes had also gotten off the road and moved with her husband Tom from New York to Los Angeles to work for Disney Imagineering. By 1994, she had worked on several architectural projects there; she had also taken time off to do tours with Peter Gabriel and the Pet Shop Boys. "Before I went to Disney I toured year-round. I knew that was not something I wanted to do again, but I did want a change," Holmes says. "I had been running into Norm on and off for years, so I called him for advice about what he thought I should do."

"She thought she needed different challenges, and I thought, 'Perfect, she can join us,' " Schwab says.

"Then Norm called me, and I said, 'Yes, grab her,' " Featherstone laughs. "We said, 'Hey, you could either go out into the cold, hard world and be a free-lancer, or come into the lovely, warm enclave of Lightswitch.' "

Having agreed to meet informally at LDI94 in Reno, Holmes decided to choose the warm enclave. She and Featherstone met for the first time at the show, and they all agreed to a one-year trial setup. "One of the best things about us as a company is that Lightswitch allows you to be in an organization, but you can also go off and do work that isn't quite corporate in nature. We all have the freedom to take on whatever we want to handle."

All point out that their neutral title affords them both flexibility and strength. "It doesn't pigeonhole you into any one market," Featherstone explains. "Because there is no one person's name, there is no perceived reputation to drag along with you."

Since Holmes joined Lightswitch, the number of architectural projects the company handles has grown, and those are most often handled expressly under the company name. "John and I had been getting architectural leads, but we hadn't been able to go after them because we'd been getting so many calls for exhibits, trade shows, and industrials that all these leads were falling through our fingers," Schwab explains. "Now, through Abbey, we're able to go after them and stay with them. For architectural projects it's often a matter of staying in the game with the competition because it can take years to happen. You can have a job for a year and then lose it before you've even done anything."

"The beauty of that is, because those schedules are really erratic, they allow us to send whichever person is more suitable or more available at the time," Holmes explains.

With their architectural skills now added to their entertainment production skills, the partners are equipped for a greater range of projects. "Our special niche is that our strengths are so varied, because all of a sudden there are a lot of jobs out there that aren't clearly defined," Schwab says. "Some have been permanent, some of them temporary, some of them are still in-between. We do a lot of architectural jobs that turn into entertainment jobs and vice versa."

Some events are so huge they require the LDs put together different types and styles of lighting at the same time. "The San Francisco Symphony's annual Black and White Balls, and the Cleveland bicentennial--some of these events have had 20 stages, so we need lighting for those, for the environment, and for the hospitality areas," Schwab explains. "For multiple events and some of the theme parks, often two or all three of us will be involved. And that's always great fun."

Another strength the trio draws from is its pool of associates. "We have a team of incredibly skilled, resourceful people, that drift in and out of the Lightswitch family," Featherstone says. "Some of them are more permanent than others in terms of their working with Lightswitch, and we all have our right-hand people. But there are a lot of people we consistently pull in project-by-project." A short list of those associates includes Tim Becker, Doug "Spike" Brandt, Dennis Connors, John Curcio, David Elliott, Paul Efron, Warren Flynn, Jeff Hedley, James Holladay, Mike Hosp, Jinx Kidd, Brian Kuehae, Rich Locklin, Brad Malkus, Warwick Price, and Emmanuel Treeson. "Also, Greg Cunningham was very instrumental in helping me get the Chicago office up and running," Featherstone says. "Then about 18 months later he moved back to LA, where he continues to do work for us both in Chicago and in Los Angeles. If we were the kind of people who wanted to have a bunch of employees, these would be our first choices, but they all do plenty of their own work as well."

"It's all part of building a cohesive team and a great overall crew, which can get up to 10, sometimes 20 people," Schwab adds. "One of the reasons we pick these people is that we know they can think for themselves. Because no matter how much of a plan you have, by show time most projects will turn 360 degrees on a dime."

"Plus, they're all people that clients of a variety of backgrounds would be happy to see on the job," Holmes adds. "But we're a bit careful about who they are."

"There is definitely a Lightswitch vibe, and it doesn't just go with professionalism," Schwab says. "A sense of humor is also incredibly important to us."

Depending on the project, their fellow LDs may work for and through Lightswitch, or the production might hire them directly on Lightswitch's recommendation. "We've had clients who hired the lighting company, we've had people working on the union call, and we've had others working for us as independent contractors," Schwab says. "We know a lot of union people in different cities that we can call, so that they don't necessarily have to be on a larger payroll. We also know a lot of people at different lighting companies."

Lightswitch has forged good relationships with a wide variety of vendors and manufacturers. "They all understand that when we're specifying what we need for a job, it's because we really, truly believe that we have the right company for our product and the right fixture for the job," Featherstone says. "We all have our favorites, but there is no vested interest in choosing any company over another. All those factors about how we hire people go along with the fact that we take a certain pride in doing things in a very sensible fashion in terms of budget. If there is a big budget, we're more than happy to spend it on a big production. But we do have a good reputation for bringing in projects on time and on budget."

The LDs also have a reputation for assuring that artistic flair does not get lost in practicalities. "For corporate jobs, you might not agree with what is being asked of you from an artistic standpoint, and if that's the way the client wants it, that's the way it's going to be," Featherstone explains. "But no one on the Lightswitch team takes an easy way out or easily compromises what we want to do artistically. We do pick our battles very carefully, but we always seem to achieve a good balance while doing our best to steer our clients to the end result that works best for their goals."

"Part of that is understanding where on the scale a particular job fits between being hired to create art as an individual and realizing you are there to provide a service," Holmes adds. "At which point the job is just facilitating what the client needs."

While it's not a strict rule, Lightswitch offers mainly design-only services. "Not that we won't ever get involved in buying new equipment, and ownin g it or renting it," Schwab says. "But the value is in the design and in the show. Clients don't have to worry that their show has suffered for us to make a profit."

"Our function is not to make money on the purchase or rental of equipment," Holmes says. "We're here for creative input. So when a first call about a job comes, it might not be something I would like to do, but it might be something John and Norm would very much like to handle."

In these situations, the partners often end up working on a project together or at different points in its process. "So we've really had to polish our communication skills and work out a complementary system for our drafting and paperwork," Schwab says. "It's all an interesting struggle that we continue to try to do, but it's also a very exciting process."

Yet maintaining their independent locations has been an asset for Lightswitch, especially where their corporate clients are concerned. "We work for a lot of people, but we work for a lot of the same people over and over and over again," Featherstone explains. "Sega is a good example. We started doing a very small corner of an exhibit with Sega, which was one of our first lighting projects. That led to installations in theme parks, and several booths at various trade shows like E3, and a whole bunch of state and city arcades for them."

"But then I've gone on and done Nintendo exhibits at the same shows where John is doing Sega," Schwab says. "Both groups know about us, and because we have separate offices and are able to keep complete confidentiality, it works out all right. At a lot of conventions, such as Comdex, or E3, we'll have five or six booths on the floor that can include anyone from IBM to Motorola to Ericsson to Sun Micro to Nintendo, Sega, or Intel.

"We may not do the most public events and there are certainly a lot of our shows the public doesn't see," Schwab continues. "But the amount of money that our shows do on lighting rental, and the amount of shows we do a year is substantial, and while they may not have creativity as their first priority, we try to bring that to those outlets. We all have a deep interest in different forms of art and we all have a theatrical background--or at least a great interest in theatre. Yet we each balance that with an understanding of projection, the mathematics involved in creating light plots, and a good grasp of show control, which a lot of people don't understand very well. So it's a great variety, from both the science and the artists and the business sense of the industry that makes us really valuable. You don't just get one area."

"The fact that we do a wide range of work adds a very important dimension to what we bring to each piece of work that we do," Holmes says. "We can apply everything we've learned, and provide a different way of looking at projects from the other types of work that each of us has done. It allows us to take on these very long-term projects. The architecture work can spread out over years, and it can be really hard to predict two to three years out, or even six months out, when the actual intensive period of the work will take place. So it gives us some backup, which enables us to accept that job without having the fear that we will either get caught being double-booked on something we can't cover, or have to turn down something that we just don't want to miss when the time comes."

Something Holmes knew she didn't want to do from the start was remain a resident of Los Angeles, and, after years of planning, she is once again a New Yorker. "Since the day I moved to LA, I wanted to move back to New York," Holmes says. "And Lightswitch didn't have anyone on the East Coast, so it worked out well. I do actually believe there is a certain New York line of work that was hard to do from where we happened to be located."

Lightswitch will continue to maintain a presence in LA, but both partners completely supported her decision. "Even with some of the production companies that I work with a lot, we had absolutely no success breaking into the New York market because we just didn't have a presence there," Featherstone says. "And now that we do, we've got a challenge ahead of us."

"New York is also going through an incredible revitalization," Schwab adds. "Between the rebuilding of Times Square and the increase in film production, I think it's about to take off."

"As the city does well, there is an interest in upgrading it physically, and the architectural work that we do makes for quite a bit going on here," Holmes says. "But the city is having a resurgence in production all across the entertainment fields, which was all very moribund for a while."

While Lightswitch's New York location has added to its business potential, each partner is very clear that this was not a motivating factor. "The simple fact of Abbey not wanting to live in LA any more is the main reason we now have a New York presence," Featherstone says. "Lightswitch is set up to give us the flexibility and the security of knowing that we can make sudden, drastic life changes and have the support of the other people involved to help us make that work. That's what it's all about. Eventually, our grand business plan is to evolve to where we can pick and choose the work that we find really interesting and want to do. Yet we hope to still have a team of people who are interested in doing the other work under the Lightswitch name."

"As we've gotten larger, I've been learning how to get people to do the projects that I can't do well or don't like to do well," Schwab says. "But I am also going through the horror of how big do we want to get? And when is the size of the business good and when is it not?

"It would be nice to think that we'd end up in a place where we can afford to do some jobs that we like that don't pay very much money," Holmes says. "One of our goals is not to spend as much time managing or delegating, which doesn't interest us very much. We want to spend the most time actually working as designers. And we also hope not to end up in a position of picking work for lots of the wrong reasons, in order to keep us operating."

"I don't think the money has ever been the main motivating factor for any of us," Featherstone agrees. "It's doing cool projects, and to a large degree those tend to snowball into other cool projects. You can get pushed into doing the biggest shows. But just as often you find it's very nice to do small, fun projects just because it's healthy change."

It's also a healthy way of life. "All of us would like to have enough command of our time so that we can have both lives and careers," Holmes says.

"I'm very happy with the balance that I have," Featherstone says. "There are times when we all get over-committed, but a lot of the time when I'm overloaded I'm at home, which makes a big difference in my life. And I am grateful for that. With Lightswitch, you can take on a job without necessarily having to do it all by yourself, because you know that you have other people who will take care of your clients as well as, if not better than, you would yourself."

Certainly, three heads are better than one, and while their backgrounds are similar, each LD brings a different strength to each project. "We have the ability to bounce ideas off each other and turn to each other for advice and moral support as well," Featherstone says. "It's incredibly reassuring to be able to phone somebody up and say, 'Is this actually going to work?' Particularly when you're always trying to do something a little more interesting and a little different from the formula way of doing it. It's great to have somebody who can say, 'Oh, you're insane--are you sure you want to do this job?' Or, 'Go with what you have, that's really great.'

"Just from comparing our setup to other business partnerships, the fact that we have our own little satellite worlds--as closely interlinked as they are--gives us the flexibility to do things in ways that make us comfortable, with people who make us comfortable," Featherstone concludes. "Every little detail doesn't become a big debate because we don't get involved in every microscopic detail--there is no micro-managing going on. Of course, the negative aspect is that we're so busy that we get together face-to-face far less frequently than we would really like to."

"But we burn up the phone lines," Holmes adds. As fond as they are of each other's company, absence only continues to make their shared business more productive. Meanwhile, reassurance, advice, and assistance are only a phone call (or e-mail, or fax) away.