I’d heard about the Festival d’Avignon for years – three weeks of theater in the south of France. Theater in the streets, theater in cafés, theater in makeshift theater houses, theater in garages and in just about any nook and cranny you could fit theater. This summer I’ve finally experienced it first hand.
My better half is writing his third book set at the Festival and so we’ve come down to do two things: introduce me to the phenomenon, and do a little research. While he’s been running between interviews with actors and les metteurs en scene, I’ve been soaking up the atmosphere.
Founded in the late 1940s by Jean Vilar, French theater actor and director, the official festival is the In where about 40 shows – some created just for the festival – are preformed in the prestigious and beautiful Palais de Papes.
Did you know (love historical tidbits): back in the middle-ages France briefly split from Rome, or more precisely the Roman Catholic church, and created their own Pope. Guess where they housed him? You got it: Avignon, lending for ever more the chateau its name…
Vilar’s original idea was to bring art to the public in a relaxed, more accessible atmosphere and to do so after the war had almost broken the French spirit. The city, for their part, wanted to breathe a little life back into the walled town after the terrible bombings of WWII. The inaugural year brought something like 5000 spectators to the festival. Today, under the current direction of Olivier Py, the festival boasts over 100,000 visitors, making it the largest festival in France and one of the biggest in the world.
If I told you there was a place somewhere in the southeast corner of France that hosted 1400 plays in July, I bet you’d think I was lying. I’d think I was lying. That’s a lot… it’s about 3 times larger than Broadway (on and off combined) or – if you can imagine – about 40 theater troupes playing all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays simultaneously in one city not any larger than 25 square miles around. That’s a lot.
So if 40 or so of these shows are in the In that leaves something like 1350 on the Off program, which means that rather than being played at the Palais de Pape, the shows are hosted in a long string of makeshift theaters. That’s the fun part. You can get a thick catalogue of everything playing, then pick and choose till your heart’s content. (Tip: go get a Off membership card and get discounts on every show!)
Before coming down, I was warned about the heat, the crowds, the lines, the heat, and – did I mention – the heat? Luckily this year has apparently been relatively mild and graced by the powerful presence of the mistral (the great winds that sweep through this region of France). Let me relative this for you, it’s still 40*c outside (or thereabouts) but it feels much more bearable than the images that temperature might conjure up in your head. Having spent a large part of my childhood in Florida and Alabama, I can tell you the dry heat of Provence seems much less frightening that the humidity of my youth.
What I found was a pleasantly busy festival with posters plastered all over the place, people handing out ads for the plays by the handfuls, others preforming a part of their show in the streets, and still others in full costume talking on their cell phones during the intermission. People are sprawled all over the cafés and terraces. While you’re having a tea your neighbor to the right speaks of a play that sounds really good and you start to research it in the Off catalogue. Meanwhile the fellas to the left are destroying all hope you might have had in the play your scheduled to see in 10 minutes. You rethink your plan; throw all to the wind, down your glass of rosé and head for the neighbor’s recommendation. That’s Avignon.
(Another tip: Many of the shows can be reserved in advance, so if you’ve had a recommendation beforehand, go online before you head out.)
Here are a few photos to whet your theatrical appetite!