Stage set for major festival contract

Managing director of Mainstage Ltd, Mike Sweetland, with apprentice Michael Varley on seats used in auditoriums.
Managing director of Mainstage Ltd, Mike Sweetland, with apprentice Michael Varley on seats used in auditoriums.

A LANCASTER firm which has played a major role in the world of theatre for 23 years will take centre stage at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Mainstage, based at Butler Works in Wyresdale Road, will not be performing at the world-famous arts festival – but those that are will be treading its boards.

For the firm has landed a contract to supply the stage as part of a major refurbishment of the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms, which has been closed for the past two years.

Mainstage specialises in manufacturing and selling portable staging and seating decks into markets ranging from professional theatres and village halls, to universities to primary schools and conference and religious centres.

The £70,000 contract is a boost for owner Mike Sweetland as he seeks to cement the firm’s position as one of the top three UK manufacturers of portable staging.

Mike, 58, said: “It’s a significant contract of the size we would hope to get three or four times a year.

“The assembly rooms are one of the major festival venues and are significant Georgian buildings.

“We had to come up with quite a few ideas for the project and it took nine months and 10 or so visits to Edinburgh to secure the contract.

“We are also currently working on a major seating bank for the inside of an inflatable structure which is being put up for the first time this year at the London Pleasure Gardens, and which will host things like circuses, cabaret and concerts.”

Mike said Mainstage had had to innovate in the face of competition, not only from the UK, but also eastern Europe and China.

Innovations have included an easy to use safety-first leg lock system, its lightweight Debut range, suitable for use by children, and its range of hardwood nosings to ensure it offers staging in keeping with listed buildings.

The roots of the company began with Mike’s degree in drama from Manchester University, which led to a career designing lighting for professional theatre.

Following a spell in the West End Mike returned to Manchester to join the fledgling Royal Exchange Theatre Company.

“I discovered I was never going to be the world’s best theatre lighting designer so I took a different route,” he said.

“I set up Mike Sweetland Lighting (MSL), bought some equipment and went into ‘rock and roll’ lighting working with some of the biggest names on the Manchester scene.”

Mike launched Mainstage in 1989.

The new company diversified into theatrical sales and installation work focusing on three key areas: staging systems, flame retardant sprays developed with the help of Lancaster University and a theatrical pyrotechnics business, sold in 2007, for West End shows.

The most important of these became Topdeck Systems, now the lifeblood of the company, which fills a 16,000 sq ft factory. Having married Elaine Charlton, the then manager of Ashton Memorial, Mike lost heart with Manchester and moved Mainstage to White Cross in Lancaster in 1994, where the firm expanded gradually, culminating in the purchase of Butler Works from Evans Marquees.

Mike said the firm, which now employs 14 people, had the potential to grow, but had been held back by difficulties in obtaining finance in the face of the economic downturn.

He said he felt last week’s budget had done little for small business, but remains upbeat about the future.

“We have a powerful team who take satisfaction by competing on the basis of superior marketing, adept customisation and the flexibility to turn on a sixpence to help a customer,” he added.