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Fringe in France: How Villereal is providing a springboard for new wave

Villereal FEstival-HQ Villereal Festival headquarters
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Villereal has developed a unique experience for performers and visitors alike at its annual festival. Ian Herbert enjoys the difference

As the Avignon Festival – arguably the largest and most prestigious in Europe – gets into its stride, a much smaller but no less interesting enterprise is bearing fruit in Villereal, a village of only 450 inhabitants in Lot et Garonne, deep in the wine and prune country of south-west France.

The motto of the week-long festival – Un Festival a Villereal (A Festival in Villereal) – is ‘Voir le theatre autrement’ – a different way to look at theatre.

Now in its ninth year, it began as the initiative of a young actor, Samuel Vittoz. “At the beginning,” he says, “I got friends and their friends to come along, young theatre professionals.

“It went down well. Local organisations gave us their support, as well as the villagers, who put the actors up in their homes.”

The event is now a favourite part of the region’s theatrical calendar. It enjoys the enthusiastic support of the community, led by mayor Pierre-Henri Arnstam, who returned to preside over his home village after a distinguished career in French television (he started the nation’s Telethon, a kind of Gallic Red Nose Day).

Following a now well-established routine, some 30 actors arrive in June and spend the month preparing.

Most of the festival productions are created on the spot during this time, very few of them relying on established texts. This year sees a dance-oriented version of Racine’s Berenice and a Dostoevsky adaptation.

By the time of the festival’s opening, there will be around 100 participants making the events happen, all giving their services in return for board and lodging provided by the village. Performances take place in found spaces, this year including Villereal’s historic market square, its boules stadium and the recently opened English pub. Vittoz remains the director of the festival, together with his partner Iris Trystram.

They are the only members of the team who live in the village year round. Their mission statement is simple: “Villereal has no theatre of its own; it has to be invented. We are establishing a relationship between artists in search of new creative forms and a village looking for a theatre that matches it. This meeting of two impulses has created a unique festival, in which theatre can find a democratic role – the concrete expression of a shared way of living together.”

Apart from the large theatres, which plough their own state-subsidised furrows, France offers very few opportunities for professionals to develop new work, particularly those at the beginning of their careers.

Villereal’s festival has provided a model that is gradually winning notice from the country’s theatre community. Last year, Trystram was invited to develop a similar event in Normandy, while this year one of the festival’s recent creations enjoyed a successful run in Paris. Writing of an earlier festival, Le Monde’s critic said: “This is the place to go if you want to feel the pulse of a new generation, one that has decided to make theatre in a different way.”

That view is now endorsed by more and more members of that generation, actors and creatives, not to mention a steadily widening audience, who have had the Villereal experience.