The Off Festival smallEach July, the entire city of Avignon turns into a gorgeous giant theatre. Founded in 1947, it today has two strands, the main festival (the "In") and the fringe (the "Off"). The date of the 2018 "In" is 1-31 July. The "Off" is 6-29 July.

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Since 2014 the Director of the main Festival d'Avignon has been the flamboyant actor-director-playwright-musician Olivier Py. It's the first time the post has been held by an artist since Jean Vilar, the founder of the festival, who ran it from 1947 to 1971.

Py was previously sacked from a successful tenure at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris, amid some controversy. A convert to Catholicism and openly gay, he took over the directorship in Avignon from Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller. After an initial four year mandate, Py's contract has been extended for a further four years until 2021.

Olivier PyPictured, Py has declared that he wants a politically engaged festival, and he has certainly done that. Like the organisers of the Festival d'Aix classical music festival, he has also been determined to make his programme accessible and to defend it against accusations of elitism.

To that end, he lays on a number of free events and emphasises emerging talent alongside well-known names. Some productions are staged outside the walled city in working-class areas of Greater Avignon.

Py also aims to attract more young audiences with a popular new children's strand and a terrific ticket offer: theatre-goers under 26 are able to see four shows for 40 €uros (i.e. 10 €uros each).

Another policy is to invite fewer productions but to run them for more performances so that more people can see them. Blocks of seats are held back for sale during the festival, so that if you arrive half-way through July you won't find everything sold out.

In 2018 the festival will open, as is traditional, in the inner courtyard of the Palais des Papes, pictured below, with Seneca’s Thyestes, directed by Thomas Jolly.

Jolly, 36, is something of a wunderkind in French theatre. His 18-hour production of Shakespeare's Henry VI was the stand-out highlight of Avignon in 2014. Written in the first century AD, Thyestes is a bloody revenge drama in which Thyestes unwittingly eats his own children after they were slaughtered and served at a banquet by his brother Atreus.

The Festival d'Avignon at the Palais des PapesThis year's epic looks set to be an eight hour-plus adaptation of three novels by Don Delillo, Mao II, Players and The Names. It's directed by Julien Gosselin and is being presented at La FabricA, a new-ish performance space on the edge of Avignon.

One theme of this ambitious tragedy is the emergence of terrorism in the 1970s. Gosselin previously directed the 12-hour drama 2066 at the 2016 Avignon Festival. Py himself is directing several short pieces exploring the connections between politics and money.

Another theme at this year's festival is, as Py describes it, "trans identity, transsexuality and the freedom to be what you want". It's explored in Mesdames, Messieurs et le reste du monde (Ladies, Gentlemen and Everyone Else), a drama series by David Bobée presented in daily installments with free audience access.

Leading the line-up of big international names is Ivo van Hove with his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam and De dingen, die voorbij gaan (The Things That Pass) by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus.

Lithuania's Oskaras Korsunovas has a version of Molière’s Tartuffe. There will also be productions from Switzerland, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt.

Two of France's biggest stars, Isabelle Adjani and Lambert Wilson, will give a reading of letters between the actress Marie Cazarès and Albert Camus. Adjani attracted rave reviews last year in Avignon at what was her first ever appearance at the festival.

Click here to read about the Avignon Festival in 2014, in 2015, in 2016 and in 2017.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

The main Festival d'Avignon was founded in France's heady post-war years by Vilar, with a production of Shakespeare's Richard II - a play then relatively little-known in France - in the Cours d'Honneur, the vast inner courtyard of the Palais des Papes.

Aiming to make culture more widely accessible, Vilar acted as the Festival d'Avignon's Artistic Director until his death in 1971. His work, and the history of the festival, are celebrated in a museum in Avignon, the Maison Jean Vilar.

Juliette Binoche, Nicolas Bouchard in Miss JuliePictured: Juliette Binoche and Nicolas Bouchard in August Strindberg's Miss Julie at the 2011 Avignon Festival.

Today the Festival d'Avignon forms a quartet of important midsummer arts festivals in Provence alongside the Festival d'Aix and the Chorégies d'Orange (opera and classical music) and the Rencontres d'Arles (photography).

Unlike the three other festivals, Avignon suffers, of course, from the handicap of language. Though the city is in the heart of one of the most popular regions in Europe for English-speaking tourists, the Festival d'Avignon has admitted in the past to difficulties in attracting these.

The festival has been attempting to combat this by including a generous component of visually-oriented events as well as by inviting English-speaking artists and providing an English-language newsletter and multi-lingual synopses to many of the productions.

The spectacular setting of the Cours d'Honneur, which can accommodate 2000 spectators, is still the festival's principal focus, though today it spills over into several dozen other venues all over - and around - the walled city.

A rich mix of theatre, dance, comedy, film and mime, the Festival d'Avignon premieres many new works and productions, a number of which later go on to tour nationally and internationally: around two-thirds of them are either French or international premieres.

Running roughly concurrently, the Festival du Off in Avignon was established over 30 years ago. It's one of the largest independent theatre festivals in the world, comparable in size to the Edinburgh Fringe.

And it's also an important showcase for independent theatre companies to secure national tours for their new productions over the coming year.

Village du Off, Festival d'AvignonUnlike the main festival, which invites and subsidises a select handful of top-flight international companies, the Off is open to anyone who can fund and find a venue for their production. It now attracts over 1400 companies each summer.

The Off Festival kicks off with an opening procession through the centre of Avignon. In the following weeks, the visiting actors stage their shows and spectacles anywhere they can: churches, schools, shops, museums, open-air cloisters and not least the streets.

These venues are dotted all over town and there's been an increasing effort to reach out to the outlying suburbs, though the heart of the Off remains around the picturesque rue des Teinturiers.

In this area you can also find the big air-conditioned circus tent which acts as the headquarters of Avignon's Off Festival. Here you can buy tickets, get a copy of the programme, attend debates, listen to live music in the early evening and, most importantly, hang out in the festival bar.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Hotel Cloitre Saint Louis, Avignon: the modern wingThe main Festival d'Avignon is based at the Cloître Saint-Louis, a 17th century monastery converted into a hotel, pictured left. Cloître Saint Louis, 20 rue du Portail Boquier, 84000 Avignon. Website for the Festival d'Avignon

The ticket office opens at the festival centre in early / mid June and internet and phone bookings open shortly thereafter. If you are in France, Belgium or Switzerland, you can buy tickets for the Festival d'Avignon at the chain of FNAC music and book stores. During the festival itself, tickets are also on sale at the official shop on the place de l'Horloge.

The Festival du Off is based at École Thiers, 1 rue des Écoles, 84000 Avignon. Tickets are on sale at the Avignon Tourist Office (41 cours Jean-Jaurès), at the Mairie (Town Hall) on the place de l'Horloge, at "Le Point OFF" at 24 boulevard Saint Michel or via the ticket'OFF website. Website for the Off Festival

By showing your theatre ticket at the monuments and museums in Avignon and Villeneuve lès Avignon, you can benefit from the special "Avignon Passion Pass" price which offers reduced admission. Information at the Tourist Office.

Another attractive deal is generally offered by the Off Festival. If you buy a pass (carte d'abonnement} for a modest subscription, you are entitled to 30% off ticket prices to every Off show as well as reduced-price admission to the Palais des Papes and many of Avignon's tourist sights, and other discounts besides. This deal is available again in 2018: see the Off festival website for details.

place des corps saints avignon festivalClick here for our full guide to the best places to eat in Avignon, from Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants to great-value informal brasseries. Pictured: the very popular place des Corps Saints at the height of the festival.

Accommodation is at an absolute premium, especially if you are planning to be in Avignon on or around Bastille Day (14 July), which is a national holiday in France.

Hotel prices can soar by up to a third during July and often become even more expensive than Paris. Be sure to pre-book a room. We speak from experience! AirBnB is always an option, of course: click here to get a 25 €uro discount on your first booking.

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It is worth considering staying just outside the walled city, on the very large Barthelasse Island in the middle of the Rhône river or in nearby Villeneuve lès Avignon. Click here for more suggestions for where to stay in Avignon.

Insider Tip: Where to Stay During the Avignon FestivalIf you read French, try the Off Festival site's French-language page of classified ads, which includes offers of accommodation.

And if you are unwise enough to arrive without a reservation, the Tourist Office maintains a daily list of available vacancies for you to try your chances on the spot.

Finally, car drivers should note that much of the walled inner city is pedestrianised for the duration of the two festivals. Police have cracked down on wild parking with hefty fines and a trip to the car pound. You have been warned!

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