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 2017 "In" was 6-26 July. The "Off was 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, 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 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 popuar 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.

Py has announced his theme for the 2018 Avignon Festival. It will explore gender: “trans identity, transsexuality and the freedom to be what you want”. Full programme details are revealed in early 2018.

The 2017 Avignon Festival had a special focus on sub-Saharan Africa and on stories centred on strong women. It opened, as usual, in the Cours d'Honneur, the vast inner courtyard of the Palais des Papes, pictured, with a production (in Japanese, with surtitles) of Sophocles' Antigone.

The Festival d'Avignon at the Palais des PapesThe director was Satoshi Miyagi, who previously presented an acclaimed Mahabaratha in Avignon in 2014. His Antigone was one of the critical hits of the 2017 festival.

Africa was represented by seven productions, majoring on dance and music, including a piece about the Nigerian musician-politician Fela Kuti.

This strand also featured hard-hitting dramas, such as Dorothée Munyaneza's Unwanted, about the Rwandan genocide, and The Last King of Kakfontein, a South African piece by Boyzie Cekwana exploring the disillusioning aftermath of apartheid. In addition there was a big exhibition of contemporary African sculpture all across Avignon, which continues until January 2018.

Britain's Katie Mitchell staged Jean Genet's The Maids - with a male actor in the role of the mistress. Australia's Simon Stone had a piece, Ibsen's House, based on several plays by the Norwegian author, while the contribution from Germany's Frank Castorf was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Py himself directed a (rather poorly received) stage adaptation of his own recent novel, Les Parisiens, and a production of Hamlet created with inmates of a local prison.

On the starry front, the Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) presented a homage to the French singer known simply as Barbara while Isabelle Adjani came to the festival for the first time to give a highly applauded reading.

Fiesta, a new piece by the maverick flamenco dancer Israel Galván, was a critical flop, but there were plaudits for Ramona by Rezo Gabriadze, the master-puppeteer from Georgia.

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

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 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 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 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 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 2017: see the Off festival website for details.

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 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, it's worth trying 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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