The Festival d'Avignon

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 2014 "In" was 4-27 July. The "Off" was 5-27 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.

After being sacked from a successful tenure at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris in 2011, amid some controversy, Py - who is a convert to Catholicism and openly gay - was offered the directorship in Avignon for four years, starting in 2014. He declared that he wanted a political festival, and he certainly got it.

He took over from Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, who jointly ran the Avignon Festival for ten years. And he triggered another furore almost immediately when the far-right Front National party seemed about to win control of Avignon in local elections.

Py declared that, if that happened, he would be forced to hold the festival elsewhere, attracting much criticism from both the left and the right (in the event, the Front National lost out to the Socialist Party). That wasn't the end of his troubles, though.

In 2014 both the In and the Off Avignon theatre festivals (like other cultural festivals all across France) were threatened by strike action from les intermittents du spectacle, part-time arts workers protesting against incoming legislation that would dramatically affect their benefits. In 2003 the Avignon and Aix festivals were cancelled altogether due to a similar situation.

That didn't happen again in 2014. But the opening night of Avignon's main festival was cancelled and the colourful procession that traditionally launches the Off festival was replaced by a sombre silent march. By the end of the month over a dozen performances in the In had been either cancelled or interrupted and the main festival had made a loss of 300,000 €uros. However in other respects the programme was viewed as a resounding success.

Olivier PyPictured, Py stated that his main ambition was to attract more young theatre-goers to the Avignon Festival and, to that end, he wished to place a greater emphasis on emerging talent rather than on well-known names.

Eleven of Py's 36 guest directors were under 35, including Thomas Jolly, whose ambitious, 18-hour version of Shakespeare's entire Henry VI cycle - presented in one marathon block punctuated by seven intervals - was the festival's major critical hit.

Theatre-goers under 26 were able to see four shows for 40 €uros (i.e. 10 €uros each) and similar bargain multiple tickets - at a slightly higher rate - were available to all comers. There was also a new children's section with three shows, one of them directed by Py himself, at a dedicated venue, the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs.

Py invited fewer productions (36 as opposed to 40 in 2013), but ran these for more performances in order to enable more people to see them. Blocks of seats were held back for sale during the festival, so that if you arrived half-way through July you wouldn't find all the shows sold out.

In terms of artistic focus, Greece was in the spotlight with three plays, all of them all of them taking as their theme the country's economic meltdown. One, Vitrioli, by the Greek writer Yannis Mavritsakis, was directed by Py.

The festival paid homage to its founder with The Prince of Homburg, the brilliant tragi-satire by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist which was staged by Vilar in Avignon in 1951, starring the legendary French actor Gérard Philipe. A new production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti played in 2014 in the Cours d'Honneur of the Palais des Papes.

Also on the programme: Hyperion, by another German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, in a production directed by Marie-José Malis, and Mai, juin, juillet by France's Denis Guénoun, directed by Christian Schiaretti, about the cataclysmic impact of May 1968 on the world of French theatre.

Nathalie Garraud and Olivier Saccomano presented a show called Othello, Variation for Three Actors. Like the organisers of the Festival d'Aix classical music festival, Py wanted to popularise his programme, defend it against accusations of elitism and move the festival outside the walled city to working-class areas in Greater Avignon.

This contemporary version of Othello substituted the word "Arab" for "Moor" in Shakespeare's text to underline the topical resonance.

As well as directing two plays by others, Py himself wrote a new piece for the festival, a political comedy called Orlando, ou l'Impatience (Orlando, or Impatience). Set in the world of theatre, it was about a man in search of his father. In 2013 Py had a show in Avignon - in the Off Festival - playing a transvestite cabaret singer, Miss Knife.

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 (pictured).

The Festival d'Avignon at the Palais des PapesAiming 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.

Today the Festival d'Avignon forms a quartet of midsummer arts festivals in Provence alongside the Festival d'Aix (classical music), the a-part Festival of Contemporary Art in the Alpilles 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 2,000 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.

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

Running roughly concurrently, the Festival du Off in Avignon, established over 30 years ago, is one of the largest independent theatre festivals in the world, comparable in size to the Edinburgh Fringe. It's an important showcase for independent theatre companies to secure national bookings 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.

In 2013 over a thousand companies attended Avignon's Off Festival, staging 1265 shows. More than a million tickets were sold. In 2014 the number of shows rose to over 1,300 but, like the main festival, the Off was badly hit by the arts workers' strike and ticket sales were down.

Churches, schools, shops, museums, open-air cloisters and not least the streets: the visiting actors stage their shows and spectacles anywhere they can. These venues, too, are dotted all over town, though the heart of the Off is 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.

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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. Tel: (+33) 4 90 27 66 50 Website for the Festival d'Avignon

Tickets go on sale online in mid-June. You then pick them up later at the Cloître Saint-Louis or, immediately prior to the performance, at the venue itself. If you are in France, Belgium or Switzerland, you can also buy tickets for the Festival d'Avignon at the chain of FNAC music and book stores.

The Festival du Off is based at Ecole Thiers, 1 rue des Ecoles, 84000 Avignon. Tickets are also on sale at the Avignon Tourist Office (41, cours Jean-Jaurès), Monoprix department store (24 rue de la République) and the Town Hall (l'Hôtel de Ville, place de l'Horloge). 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 for a modest subscription, you are entitled to 30% off ticket prices to every Off show as well as discounts on trains and local transport and reduced-price admission to the Palais des Papes and many of Avignon's other tourist sights. This deal is available again in 2014.

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Click here for our full guide to the best places to eat in Avignon, from Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants to great-value informal brasseries.

Accommodation is at an absolute premium during the festival, especially if you are planning to be in Avignon on or around Bastille Day (14 July). Hotel prices can rise by up to a third during July and become even more expensive than Paris. Be sure to pre-book a room.

It is worth considering staying just outside the walled city, on the large Piot and Barthelasse Islands 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, it's worth trying the Off Festival site's French-language page of classified ads, which usually has offers of accommodation.

And if you are unwise enough to arrive without a reservation, the tourist office maintains a daily list of available accommodation 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.

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