Sydney’s hot girl summer is here: has the lockout city finally got its party back?

With new late-night venues and young promoters diversifying the scene, the city is finally ready to celebrate life after lockouts – and lockdowns

From the outside, the abandoned Chinese cinema is so unassuming you might accidentally walk past it. In the middle of a Chinatown alley, Harbour City Cinema has sat empty for 15 years. But ascending the stairs into the venue’s foyer is like tumbling up a fuzzy red rabbit hole – into a foyer serving natty wines and dumplings, lined with old portraits and film posters, and past that into the cinema itself: now a nightclub, packed wall to wall with a heaving crowd, dancing up an amphitheatre facing the stage.

The mood is vibrant, communal and electric; the music is loud; the outfits incredible. It didn’t always look like this inside.

The staircase in the abandoned Chinese cinema
The staircase leading up to Pleasures Playhouse Photograph: Supplied

In fact when the event planner Kat Dopper first got the keys to the space, it was “a dusty, mould-infested mess”.

“I had to cover my mouth to walk in there,” Dopper remembers. “But it was also just insanely amazing.”

Dopper – the mind behind beloved queer party Heaps Gay – has spent the last couple of months transforming the abandoned venue into a party space (don’t worry, the mould is gone). Reopened last week for the first time in 15 years and renamed Pleasures Playhouse, it’s now home to a six-week pop-up event spanning 35 different late-night parties, gigs and screenings.

Mike Bennie from P&V Wines, Kat Dopper from Pleasures Playhouse, Sydney’s 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues and restaurateur Billy Wong
Mike Bennie from P&V Wines, Kat Dopper from Pleasures Playhouse, Sydney’s 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues and restaurateur Billy Wong. Photograph: Anna Hay

Dopper is running some nights herself, and has handed the reins to other parties and upcoming promoters too. As she sees it, Pleasures Playhouse “brings together some of the best stuff that is happening in Sydney” right now.

It could also be a sign of things to come for a city that’s waited too long for its hot girl summer. A swathe of new venues are opening – or reopening – around Oxford Street and the CBD. With them, a new league of party-throwers have emerged, bringing a fresh take on nightlife to both the inner city and the western suburbs.

After two years spent in and out of lockdown, this summer should – touch wood – be our first real chance to enjoy late nights out since the lockout laws and liquor licensing freezes were scrapped gradually throughout 2020 and 2021.

Party photo from Pleasures Playhouse Heaps Gay event
Interactive
Scenes from Heaps Gay at Pleasures Playhouse. Photograph: Anna Hay

“This is a sort of delayed celebration summer – that’s how I’m seeing it,” says councillor Jess Scully, the city’s outgoing deputy mayor. “The whole nightlife sector and a lot of young people came together to help us … create the pressure that rolled back the lockout laws. This huge success, which was supposed to be realised at the beginning of 2020. And then no one was able to take advantage of it.

“This summer, we’re finally getting the outcome.”

‘I’m feeling really, really optimistic’

A lot of bureaucracy went into this. A raft of government funding initiatives allowed creatives to stage events like Pleasures Playhouse without fear that a new Covid wave would lead to a cancellation and bankruptcy (a concern common among promoters right now, Dopper says). Regulatory changes have made it easier to stage small-scale culture events without having to go through laborious council approvals, with a 24-hour economy strategy set to reinvigorate greater Sydney’s nightlife. Trading hours have been extended in the city, with more venues now able to stay open until 5am, or even 24 hours – if licences align with trading hours, something Scully concedes don’t always “match up”. (In a last-minute snag, a Heaps Gay party at Pleasures Playhouse had to close its bar at midnight. But from next week, they’ll be back to selling booze until 2am – and Dopper hopes the venue will soon be able to trade even later.)

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“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Dopper says – but it’s certainly getting easier to throw parties in Sydney than it used to be.

“With Covid and the lockouts and stuff, the whole narrative was ‘Sydney’s dead’. And I think we’re finally past that,” Dopper says. “It feels good. It feels like we’re on the up … I’m feeling really, really optimistic about Sydney.”

Club 77 in Sydney
Club 77 is now open until 4am seven nights a week. Photograph: Benjamin Weser

Already, there’s a lot to look forward to. A new queer club, Heaven, cut the ribbon on its Oxford Street space in August, and a new three-level space in Taylor Square, Meraki Art Bar, is poised to open on 11 October; they join late-night city venues including Frankie’s, Big Poppas and Club 77, which is now open until 4am seven nights a week. Mary’s Group already operates a club in Circular Quay that trades until 4am, and is preparing to open a new 1,200-capacity live music venue, Liberty, in the Entertainment Quarter this October. The Lansdowne was saved from closure by the team behind Oxford Art Factory earlier this year, and gay mainstay Arq is reopening next month too.

Government funding has also brought precinct-specific “festivals” like this month’s Surry Thrills, which has been spread across pubs, bars and restaurants in Surry Hills over two weeks. And a boutique philanthropist-funded venue Phoenix Central is staging free live music shows up to four times a week in Chippendale, with anyone able to register for tickets via a ballot system; on a recent Wednesday night, the Zambian artist Sampa the Great performed two back-to-back shows to an audience so intimate one pint-sized fan was able to reach out and high-five her.

And in big news for anyone who used to tread the sticky carpet at Purple Sneakers, the Abercrombie will be reopening for the first time since 2014 just in time for summer. The venue has a 24-hour licence and will run under the direction of Solotel Group, which plans to stage several different concepts within the multilevel building – potentially including a wine bar and electronic music club.

Sampa the Great playing an intimate free show at the philanthropically-funded Chippendale venue Phoenix Central
Sampa the Great playing an intimate free show at the philanthropically-funded Chippendale venue Phoenix Central. Photograph: Jordan Munns

It’s all a warm-up to the main event in February: World Pride, a global LGBTQ+ festival that cities compete to host each year. The 2023 event, which runs for three weeks around venues throughout Darlinghurst and beyond, marks the first time the festival has been staged in the southern hemisphere.

‘It’s going to be dramatically different’

When Sydney’s nightlife returns, it will be “dramatically different than it was a decade ago”, Scully says. “And that’s a good thing.”

Hip-hop group 1300 performing at the opening night of Pleasures Playhouse
Hip-hop group 1300 performing at the opening night of Pleasures Playhouse. Photograph: Anna Hay

Dopper agrees; instead of a “mass offering” of large clubs, she hopes to see diversified, queer-friendly and inclusive smaller parties catering to niche scenes.

“I think the lull in Covid allowed lots of new and exciting young, independent producers and promoters to come up with ideas,” she says. That list is long but includes the crews behind events like Bypass, Athletica, Veereast and Leak Your Own Nudes, who are all breathing fresh life into Sydney’s club scene.

Soloman Toala is one of those young promoters: a 23-year-old producer, DJ and Triple J host who throws parties in western Sydney under the moniker of Sollyy. His new collective, Hotter Out West, recently threw their first party in a Glendenning multipurpose venue called opn.studio, which opened in 2020. That space has been a huge asset for western Sydney creatives, with many now throwing great parties in and around the CBD – but Toala feels the ’burbs need more offerings to keep nightlife strong within western Sydney too.

“There aren’t many other spaces like this out in the west,” Toala says. “There’s a lack of infrastructure for live music and for nightlife. So, if anything, we’re building it from the ground up through this cultural hub.”

The West Ball at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse
The West Ball at Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse. Photograph: Lexi Laphor

“A lot of kids from western Sydney are starting to go out and saying, ‘Hey, why do I have to go out this far to have this much fun? Where’s the solution?’ I think more people are going to start providing answers rather than constantly asking the questions.”

Adele Luamanuvae and Rebecca Manibog, the hosts of FBi Radio’s western Sydney show the Snacc Pacc, say the area is incubating a broad range of sounds.

“From the outside looking in, it could look like these are all hip-hop parties or drill parties. But that’s definitely not the case. There’s always a touch of electronic, there’s always a touch of ballroom, there’s always a touch of indie music – it’s a multitude of different things,” Luamanuvae says.

They namecheck fried chicken joint Butter in Parramatta as well as Alexander Khoury, father of ballroom family the House of Silky, who throws parties as Xaddy’s Doorlist around Sydney.

One of Khoury’s biggest parties is the West Ball – a ballroom event thrown together with collaborator Jamaica Moana. Their most recent ball was held at the Casula Powerhouse, near Liverpool, with the next to be held at a different western Sydney location.

Kush Jones from the US playing at Club 77.
‘We have to respect clubbers as much as we create safe environments’: Kush Jones playing at Club 77. Photograph: Benjamin Weser

Covid, cops and climate change

But Toala says events in western Sydney contend with overpolicing and the risk of being shut down – an experience familiar to promoters throughout the city too. Scully hopes things might change for the better at World Pride.

“We do sometimes have a – how am I going to put this sensitively – a very strong police presence in a nightlife context,” Scully says. “World Pride is an opportunity for NSW police to work more closely with the queer community and … recognise that we have to respect clubbers as much as we create safe environments. They’ve got to be welcoming environments where people don’t feel overpoliced, they feel welcomed, and they feel protected.”

Dopper is a little more pointed: “Everybody’s willing to try and make arts work,” she says. “The only people who aren’t are the police.”

Photo from the West Ball
‘It could look like [western Sydney parties] are all hip-hop parties or drill parties. But that’s definitely not the case.’ Photograph: Lexi Laphor/The Guardian

There are other issues to overcome. A third La Niña will dampen our outdoor party prospects – a bigger issue for festivals than indoor venues, Dopper says, but still “pretty annoying”. And tickets aren’t selling like they used to – partly due to health fears, partly due to the cost-of-living crisis, and partly because young people have grown used to staying at home.

While Pleasures Playhouse is currently funded for its six-week pop-up, Dopper has an instant six-month extension at her disposal, which would allow her to run the venue as a commercial space right up until World Pride – if there’s someone willing to fund it.

“Pleasures Playhouse is one of those things that may or may not stay. It might just pop up for a bit and be gone,” she says. “But there’s all this new cool shit happening in the city. There’s all this new funding and all these new spaces opening up, but punters need to get behind it and go and see things. I think they’re also going to be spoilt for choice … it’s gonna be a really interesting summer.”

Contributor

Katie Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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