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 2016 "In" is 6-24 July. The "Off is 7-30 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 in 2011, amid some controversy. A convert to Catholicism and openly gay, he was offered the directorship in Avignon for four years, taking over from Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, who jointly ran it for ten years.

Py declared that he wanted a political festival, and he certainly got it. He triggered a furore almost immediately when the far-right Front National party seemed about to win control of Avignon in local elections.

Py, pictured, said 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).

Olivier PyHis other ambition is to attract more young audiences and, to that end, he lays on a number of free events and places the emphasis on emerging talent rather than on well-known names.

Theatre-goers under 26 are able to see four shows for 40 €uros (i.e. 10 €uros each - a fantastic bargain). Py has also introduced a popular new children's section.

Like the organisers of the Festival d'Aix classical music festival, he has been determined to make his programme accessible, defend it against accusations of elitism and move the festival outside the walled city to working-class areas in Greater Avignon.

His policy is to invite fewer productions but to run them for more performances in order to enable more people to 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 all the shows sold out.

The main Avignon Festival celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2016. It's three days shorter than last year. This is officially because the school vacation starts later than usual (school premises are needed to stage some of the shows). However unofficially it's no secret that the Festival is struggling financially after cuts in its public subsidy.

Py says this will not affect the number of performances. This year's festival features 51 shows, including 36 world premieres and 13 national premieres. Many of the directors are young: in their thirties or even twenties.

The Festival d'Avignon at the Palais des PapesThe opening production in the Palais des Papes, pictured, is an adaptation of The Damned, Luchino Visconti's provocative 1969 film about a wealthy German family involved with the rise of Fascism.

It's performed by the prestigious Comédie Française and the director is Belgium's Ivo van Hove.

The festival also includes two pieces by Thomas Jolly, the exciting young French director whose 18-hour production of Shakespeare's Henry VI was the stand-out highlight of Avignon in 2014.

One is a quirky history of the festival in daily serial installments while the other is a version of Georg Kaiser's The Raft of the Medusa.

This year's theatrical marathon in Avignon runs a mere 12 hours: it's adapted by Julien Gosselin from 2666, the last novel by the cult Chilean writer Robert Bolaño. Py himself is directing Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

Outside the city, the Carrière de Boulbon quarry is the venue for a version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, directed by Jean Bellorini.

Also from Eastern Europe: Poland's Krystian Lupa with a controversial play by Thomas Bernhard, Heroes' Square, about latter-day Nazis in Austria, and Russia's Kirill Serebrennikov with an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

Dance is represented by, among others, the choreographers Marie Chouinard and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The festival's big exhibition is Surfaces by the French-Algerian conceptual artist Adel Abdessemed, who also designed this year's poster. And the closing night is given over to Rufus Wainwright and photographer Cindy Sherman with their 2009 opera Prima Donna.

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

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 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.

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 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. It now attracts over 1,300 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 on 11 June. Internet and phone bookings open on 13 June. Tel: (+33) 4 90 14 14 14. 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 2016.

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

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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), which is a national holiday in France. 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 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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