West Yorkshire’s Production Park is at the forefront of the live events industry and now plans to open Wakefield’s first university and an innovation centre. Laura Drysdale reports.
Tucked away on an industrial estate in a corner of West Yorkshire is a complex “where live industry lives”.
The companies based at Production Park have worked with some of the biggest names in the world, welcoming the likes of Little Mix and The XX to on site rehearsal facilities, supplying equipment and staging for touring concert artists including Ed Sheeran, Metallica and Muse and supporting clients from Fast and Furious Live to Sony and Formula 1.
“I suppose the one stand out for me really is a young lady who came when she was 19” unassuming founder Adrian Brooks recalls. “She was supporting another group so she wasn’t in the big time at all. She couldn’t go into the main studio because the main act were in there so she rehearsed in one of the smaller spaces. When she left, I said ‘How has it been Rihanna, South Kirkby?’ She said ‘It’s been great.’ I said ‘Will you come back again?’ She said ‘I will but next time I’m going to be in the big room.’ She hasn’t been back yet so I need to chase her up on that - but she’s done well!”
Seemingly, the park has too, with more than 15 live events businesses, as well as rehearsal studios, overnight accommodation and education centre Backstage Academy, with its cohort of over 200 students. Next year Adrian hopes it will continue to develop, with plans for its educational arm to become a university and the proposed creation of an innovation centre on site to drive forward technological advancements in the sector.
An application has been submitted for Backstage, which currently has its courses accredited by the University of Bolton, to be handed its own degree-awarding powers. “That would be Wakefeld’s first ever university and that is a game-changer. If you don’t have a university, you ain’t a player in my mind,” says Adrian. “It means that we can be more fleet of foot in developing and writing new courses.”
“If we can achieve that university for Wakefield, hopefully it will be the catalyst for lots of people to join on the back of,” his son Lee adds. They have a masterplan for the site and see the park as a commercial contribution to the council’s ambition for the district to become a creative hub of the North. They plan to use a share of the £4.4m boost confirmed for the area last month as part of the Government’s £20m Cultural Development Fund towards the innovation centre.
“It is a vision based on bringing together the talent and the knowledge within the university and the wider industry to come to Wakefield to figure out all their technical problems,” Lee says. It is hoped it will lead to students launching businesses focused around new ideas and technologies, incubated and supported on the park, which was formally founded in 2015.
Its humble beginnings go back to 1998 though and its roots even further. In the late 1970s, Adrian began working for manufacturing company Access Equipment Ltd that sold and rented out aluminium scaffolding structures. Born in new Mills, Derbyshire, he had trained as a teacher in Manchester but decided early on, it wasn’t for him - “I liked the kids, but I didn’t really like the staffroom” he says.
He took a sales role at the scaffolding firm in Manchester instead and was later moved to a company site in Leeds, which also had a repair depot. It was there he met Steve Oakes, a colleague, who, like him, could weld aluminium.
They decided to give it a try on their own and Adrian set up a firm, manufacturing aluminium scaffolding towers in the city’s Dark Arches. “We got a big job to put a scaffold up outside the ABC theatre on Briggate, which was a few doors down from where Opera North had recently set up in the Grand Theatre.
“Mike Roberts, he was the technical manager there, saw the scaffold we had put up, he liked it and he phoned me up and said ‘I think there’s a project you can help me with’.”
The company was asked to provide two aluminium towers with a piece running between them, from which lighting could be hung - and that beam, says Adrian, “was the first aluminium truss in the world”. “That was the beginning really of something that helped the live entertainment industry develop,” Adrian says.
It was the 1980s, and with boy and girl bands starting to evolve around the same time, Adrian soon realised the trussing system he had created - Astralite - could be used to create aluminium structures for live arena performances.
“The aluminium scaffolding market was a very competitive one and the entertainment business was different,” says Adrian. “It was almost a fledgling industry at that time - certainly the notion of bands touring arenas was a whole new idea.” “Aluminium trussing and staging were not commodities,” he adds. “They were highly sought after so the margins were better.”
In 1990, the company was sold and Adrian founded a new business at Rutland Mills in Wakefield city centre, focusing solely on trussing and staging. For nearly three decades, Litestructures has designed and manufactured aluminium structures for art installations, motorsports and live events.
After running the business for a stint on another site in Wakefield’s suburbs, Adrian moved the firm to Langthwaite Grange Industrial Estate in South Kirkby in 1998 - drawn in by the cheap price of land. It remains there today.
At first, manufacturing was done in one small building and stock was held in a neighbouring concrete barn. Rehearsals with all the equipment were done 20 miles in Hangar 1 at RAF Finningley.
When Adrian heard about plans to develop what is now Doncaster Sheffield Airport on the site, he used land next to Litestructures to build a studio for music acts to use to rehearse major tours and as a space to assemble staging and set. Completed in 2005, it welcomed Coldplay as its first act.
Since then, Adrian and his team have worked quietly, but tenaciously, to expand and to transform their corner of South Kirkby into an international destination for live events production.
In 2009, Adrian founded Backstage Academy on site, offering live events and production degree courses and putting students right at the heart of the industry. It is one of five organisations that now come under the umbrella of Production Park Ltd, a parent company of which Adrian is chairman and Lee CEO. Founded in 2015, it also encompasses Brilliant Stages and set design firm Perry Scenic Creative.
They all call Production Park on the Langthwaite estate their home - alongside other live events businesses offering services in areas including tour catering and lighting that have been attracted to the site. Across all firms and sub contractors, there are more than 350 full time members of staff.
“The point of the park is to take a vision or a dream or a sketch and turn it into a spectacular show,” says Lee.
“We see it being a location for all the specialist companies who supply the live events industry,” his father explains. “In our minds, we see Production Park being for live events what Pinewood Studios was for film and TV. There is a very compelling argument as to why all these businesses that are very diverse and very specialised should all be together in one location - because knowledge transfers well between the different businesses, and of course, with more businesses, you get greater exposure.
“We see this as being the leading location in the UK and we would like to think it is one of the leading locations in the world.”
Backstage in the business
Backstage Academy students have already gone on to launch businesses in the industry.
The latest, Interactive Immersive Classrooms, is the first to be supported with investment from Production Park Ltd.
Launched last summer as content and project management team Andy Delmaine and Charlie Cooper were finishing their degree courses at the academy, it has seen immersive classrooms taken out into schools in Manchester, Grimsby and Stockton-on-Tees.
They are supported by current students Aled Evans and James Whittaker.
They plan to roll it out in more schools and are also exploring their potential use as training classrooms for those in the medical profession.