Meet the millionaire behind West Auckland's new outlandish playspace Whoa! Studios

by Alice Harbourne / 21 December, 2016

It started with an idea to build an outlandish treehouse, and ended with something much more impressive.

Hear the word “millionaire” in 2016 and the gaudy mise-en-scene of Trump Tower springs immediately to mind. Maybe that’s why an eyebrow raise was all the enthusiasm I could muster when I heard about a man with money opening a new breed of theme park in west Auckland.

So it came as a sweet shock to learn that this particular millionaire, David Sutherland, isn’t a stereotypical, line-the-walls-with-gold kind of guy. Rather, he’s a Willy Wonka-like millionaire, spending his riches on an imaginative wonderland for the sheer fun of it.

I discovered all of this on my first trip to the park, Whoa! Studios, exactly a week after Donald Trump was declared President-Elect. Leonard Cohen tributes accompanied the melancholic drive there, through wispy, non-committal rain. But by the time I left, having jumped on a crochet trampoline, toured a film studio and heard chef Ben Bayly’s vision for an epic new eatery, all #fuckyou2016 vibes had drained away.

Sutherland’s road to riches began when he fell into an IT career “by accident”, and in 1993 set up a business in his Henderson garage, Integral Technology Group. In 2010, he sold it for $64 million. Suddenly wealthy, he bought some disused farm machinery buildings in Henderson with a vague idea in mind: to do something good for the community.

He started with a single idea – to build an outlandish treehouse – and ended up creating something completely unique: a playpark, restaurant, studio-tour-meets-theatre-wonderland named for the reaction the aforementioned treehouse routinely provokes: ‘Whoa!’. It was my reaction, too. Housed in one of three industrial warehouses, the treehouse is a stage built to look like a burrow in a huge, gnarled tree, created by local set builders of Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and Power Rangers calibre. Live, pantomime-style puppet shows will be performed up to four times daily, priced to make live performances accessible for families.

Through double doors to the left of the theatre is another shed containing more theatrical sets in addition to props and state-of-the-art film-making technology. This might sound completely random, but there’s method behind the madness. Having first built the treehouse, and invented and created characters and puppets to represent them three and a half years ago, Sutherland’s growing team of film creatives decided they may as well actually make a kids’ movie. It’s called Custard’s World, and is currently in pre-production. Having seen the magic behind making movies, Sutherland thought it would be cool to share the experience with children by offering a short studio tour, and using the world of the film to create the live theatre shows.

An upmarket toy emporium rounds off the experience for the children inside, while outside there’s a playpark with slides and rockets, pirate ships and castles, all created by New Zealand set builders. On hot, sunny days and for special events, a giant inflatable slide and obstacle course will occupy the site’s main lawn. The most Instagrammable feature is the giant, crochet trampoline-like net, hand-woven by 76-year-old Japanese artist Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam. The psychedelic nylon structure, which can accommodate up to 50 children, is the first in Australasia and likely to remain the only. To enter, kids crawl through a series of small holes that lead to various layers of netting to hide in, and the main, springy clearing.

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Visitors to Whoa! Studios can expect to eat well, both in the daytime, on weekends and school holiday evenings. Sutherland called on Ben Bayly, executive chef at The Grove and Baduzzi, and My Kitchen Rules judge, to create The Grounds, a grown-up restaurant and tuck shop catering to family eating without recourse to a kids’ menu. Using seasonal produce from west Auckland, there’s casual grab-and-go food like Cuban sandwiches, cold pressed juices and handmade ice cream, alongside an à-la-carte menu featuring food cooked on a Japanese grill and plenty of on-trend fermented foods. Mike Shatura is leaving his position as The Grove’s head chef to run the kitchen day-to-day.

As you can probably gather, the project developed in a meandering, organic fashion. After years of working in an industry Sutherland calls his trade, not his passion, building the park was, he says, “very much a rebellion against my profession”. He says when he told people he was building the treehouse, they didn’t really take him seriously until they saw the epic scale of the professionally-built set. And when he said he had an interest in puppets, “they imagined a branch and a bit of cloth, because puppetry is typically very poor here compared to what you see in the States.” But he was serious, and sent his puppeteers on courses, leading American puppeteer Peter Linz of The Muppets to connect with the project. Similar adventures in film-making led him to Wallace & Gromit scriptwriter Bob Baker, who has just completed the second draft of the Custard’s World script.

He didn’t hand over all the fun, though. He developed the film’s villain, Dr. Gloom, in his spare time over the course of three months. The villain wants to wipe the smile off every face on earth by chucking everything bad – parking tickets, bad coffee, everyday sexism (probably) – into his Gloomsday Machine to generate ‘Depresso’, a gas designed to make us all miserable. In any other year, a kids’ film about a funny-looking guy vying for the title of Super Villain on the Year would be whimsical, but in 2016 it feels a bit like a gentle way to introduce our young people to a real-life, Trumpian sense of doom.

A conversation with Sutherland is the opposite of a puff of Depresso. He speaks in puns and has a way of making complex things seem simple, in a manner typical of good parents. A father of two (now adult) children, he says his biggest achievement isn’t creating his own multi-million-dollar IT business, but the fact he managed to see his kids before they went to bed nearly every night when they were growing up. “I’m glad the price tag for my so-called commercial success – which is very hollow – didn’t mean sacrificing that,” he says.

You can tell he means that by the way he’s freely invested in the studios. As the launch neared, however, he was excited at the prospect of the park generating income. “You get towards the tail-end of the project and you think, ‘oh gee, I don’t have quite as many millions left to throw at it’.” He’s hoping to attract corporate sponsorship to keep prices reasonable for families, particularly when it comes to live theatre. Puppetry and storytelling workshops, dance shows, corporate events and special charity days are all part of Whoa! Studios’ plan, though really, the potential for the site seems limitless.

Sutherland says the main goal is to provide a bit of magic for people. “There’s still in our DNA that desire to create a sense of magic, that moment where you can break out of what you’re going through.” At the end of this year, of all years, it’s pretty wonderful to hear those words spoken by a millionaire. 

Whoa! Studios is now open to the public at 8-14 Henderson Valley Road, Henderson.

This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
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