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" is 4-27 July. The "Off" is 5-27 July.

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News for the Avignon FestivalIn 2014 both the Avignon theatre festivals (like other cultural festivals all across France) have been threatened by strike action from arts workers protesting against incoming legislation that will dramatically affect their benefits.

The opening night of the main festival on 4 July was cancelled and the colourful procession that traditionally launches the Off festival was replaced by a sombre silent march.

Performances since then have resumed but may be disrupted by demonstrations, pickets and other militant action. In 2003 the Avignon and Aix festivals were cancelled altogether due to a similar situation. Keep an eye on the festival websites for the latest updates.

The new Director of the main Festival d'Avignon is 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 took over from Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, who jointly ran the Avignon Festival for ten years, and triggered another furore almost immediately when the far-right Front National party seemed about to win control of Avignon in local elections in March 2014.

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).

Pictured below, Py states that his main ambition is to attract more young theatre-goers to the Avignon Festival and, to that end, he wishes to place a greater emphasis on emerging talent rather than on well-known names.

Eleven of Py's 36 guest directors are under 35, including Thomas Jolly, 32, whose 18-hour version of Shakespeare's entire Henry VI trilogy - presented in one marathon block punctuated by seven intervals - will be a major event at the festival.

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

And blocks of seats will be held back for sale during the Festival, so that if you arrive half-way through July you won't find all the shows sold out. A pop-up box-office will be installed on the place de l'Horloge where you can buy these last-minute tickets.

In 2014 Py has invited fewer productions (36 as opposed to 40 the previous year), but will run these for more performances in order to enable more people to see them.

In terms of artistic focus, Greece will be 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, will be directed by Py.

The Festival poster, pictured below, is inspired by Vilar's original "three keys" logo and will also pay 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 will open the 2014 Festival in the Cours d'Honneur of the Palais des Papes.

2014 Avignon Festival poster largeAlso 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 (Vilar pops up again in this play as a fictional character).

Nathalie Garraud and Olivier Saccomano will be in Avignon with a show called Othello, Variation for Three Actors. Like the organisers of the Festival d'Aix classical music festival, Py wants 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 is substituting the word "Arab" for "Moor" in Shakespeare's text to underline the topical resonance.

As well as directing two plays by others, Py himself is writing a new piece for the festival, a political comedy called Orlando, ou l'Impatience (Orlando, or Impatience).

Set in the world of theatre, it's about a man in search of his father. In 2013 Py had a show in Avignon - in the Off Festival, playing the transvestite cabaret singer Miss Knife.

The 2013 Festival d'Avignon opened with a free fireworks show by the French master-pyrotechnicians Groupe F at the FabricA, a large, brand-new rehearsal and performance space outside the city walls in Montclar.

The FabricA also welcomed the the German director Nicolas Stemann with an epic, eight-hour production of Goethe's Faust - parts one and two.

Other highlights included Britain's Katie Mitchell, a regular in Avignon, with her adaptation of the Austrian Friederike Mayröcker's 1984 novel Reise durch die Nacht and a King Lear from France's Ludovic Lagarde and Olivier Cadiot.

Stanislas Nordey directed and acted in Peter Handke's 1981 poetic drama Über die Dörfer (Walk About the Villages), while the Congolese artist Dieudonné Niangouna brought a new piece called Shéda, a choral fresco performed by a dozen African and European actors and musicians.

Also sought-after: the one-night-only shows from some of the directors who have been most acclaimed at festivals in recent years. These included the Italian Romeo Castellucci, Belgium's Jan Fabre, France's Patrice Chéreau, Switzerland's Christoph Marthaler, and Thomas Ostermeier from Germany.

Website for the Festival d'Avignon

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.

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.

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 nightly between 7pm and 9pm 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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