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Director Olivier Py: ‘It’s not Frenchy French at all – the Festival d’Avignon is a way to meet the world’

Cast of Leonie Et Noelie Cast of Leonie Et Noelie. Photo: Martin Baebler
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Now in its 72nd year, the Festival d’Avignon may be just over the water, but it has few British audiences and even fewer UK shows. This is something director Olivier Py is keen to change. Nick Awde meets the man in charge

Another July in Avignon, another year marked by the absence of Brits on the stages and seats of one of the world’s essential theatre festivals. Given the long neighbourly history of the UK and France, the Festival d’Avignon deserves our attention, as it traditionally takes over this picturesque walled town in Provence for three crammed weeks in July.

“We do have some British audiences,” says festival director Olivier Py, “but not many.” He adds: “We have 10% of foreigners in the audience – it’s a lot by the way for France – but mostly from Belgium. As for [the lack of British] shows, well, I’m not proud of it – it’s work I have to do. Maybe I have to come and spend more time there [in the UK].”

But in France, Py, who took over the top job at Avignon in 2013, has consistently worked miracles in a country notoriously protective of its language and culture. Advancing the director/writer/actor’s free-thinking ideals, Avignon 2018 already offers a sprinkling of English-language shows, unthinkable a few years ago, while expanding surtitling.

“Certainly, there’s some resistance about the language and [surtitling] was a small revolution for the French people, who always feel threatened by English. It’s gone well, and it’s a help not only for the British and Americans but also for those from Asia who mostly come speaking English.”

Certaines n’Avaient Jamais Vu La Mer (The Buddha in the Attic). Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez
Certaines n’Avaient Jamais Vu La Mer (The Buddha in the Attic). Photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez

It works both ways, though, as Py is quick to point out. “When you consider there are so few French shows that go to the UK, it’s amazing because we are so close. Clearly the cultural relationship doesn’t work anymore and I’m afraid Brexit won’t help. We have that kind of cultural exchange with Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, but with the UK it’s a bit difficult. It’s a lack of effort probably. We’re all guilty of that.”

The platform of Avignon is particularly well placed to help such cultural bridge-building, says Py. “It’s a very good window on European theatre. Many shows and artists seen in Avignon tour or work in the UK. For example, you’ve had Thomas Ostermeier working in Manchester [Returning to Reims, Manchester International Festival 2017]. He’s well-known because of Avignon.”

Py staged work at the Edinburgh International Festival on two occasions during Brian McMaster’s tenure, with his epic 11-hour version of Paul Claudel’s Le Soulier De Satin in 2004, and directing Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River the following year. “I enjoyed it very much. Since then, I haven’t created any bridges with Edinburgh but that’s the thing to do.”

Along with its fringe-like offshoot, the Off, Avignon parallels the Edinburgh festivals with its potent mix of high art, international fare and hard-nosed politics.

Oskaras Korsunovas in the Lithuanian National Theatre production of Tartuffe. Photo: D.Matvejev
Oskaras Korsunovas in the Lithuanian National Theatre production of Tartuffe. Photo: D.Matvejev

Py agrees: “Avignon is not only a long list of beautiful shows, it’s more than that. I’m extremely happy we have beautiful shows, but what has changed is that it’s utterly political, with a lot of meetings and talks with great minds from everywhere.

“Avignon is about ideas: it’s politicised, spiritualised. And there is also all the social work we do in the suburbs with education. That sort of thing changes the audience – and the audience has certainly changed over these last four years.”

The capital of France in July is Avignon. I doubt the Parisians love that sentence

But, he laughs: “It’s also a gigantic party. I love Avignon, I live in Avignon. Eleven months of the year it’s a sleeping beauty then suddenly the whole of Paris comes here. The whole city is crazy for three weeks, a city that never sleeps.”

So how does elitist Paris view this upstart southern town? “The capital of France in July is Avignon. I doubt the Parisians love that sentence. We are a very centralised country, and so it’s always difficult to explain that there’s something huge happening outside Paris.

“But that was part of the political idea when the festival was created – to do something not only for the Parisians, something that could be more powerful than what you could see in Paris. That was the idea in 1947 and that’s still the challenge today.”

While Avignon is curated, it’s no surprise to hear Py declare he is “not a fan of that word”. The programme includes about 50 shows, mostly theatre with 10 dance shows, music and events.

Nino Laisne in dance production Romances Inciertos Un Autre Orlando.. Photo: Nino Laisne
Nino Laisne in dance production Romances Inciertos Un Autre Orlando.. Photo: Nino Laisne

And then gloriously infiltrating it is the Off, where “there’s no curator, people go in the city, hire a place and play freely. And that’s 1,500 shows, mostly francophone. It is less than Edinburgh, but it’s still a lot – and growing”.

The main festival this year tackles gender with a dozen or so shows exploring the issues. A notably accessible example is David Bobee’s Mesdames, Messieurs Et Le Reste Du Monde (Ladies, Gentlemen and the Rest of the World), a free show that uses a rotating cast of professionals and locals to challenge preconceptions in the leisurely setting of a tree-lined courtyard. “It’s different every day, it’s a show that we are the most proud of. And it gives a good idea of something happening [in Avignon] that could not be in any other place.”

Festival duties haven’t eclipsed Py’s activities as a practitioner and Avignon is a handy showcase for him to put his money where his mouth is. This year Py has two shows running. Pur Present is a triptych of short tragedies inspired by Aeschylus – The Inaccessible, The Unaccomplished, and The Irrevocable – that deal with the question of “how to live with dignity”.

His other production is based on a workshop he runs with inmates of a local prison. “We’ve worked with them for four years and they’re improving every year. We’re doing Antigone this year and we’re very proud that we obtained official permission to play out of the prison. That was something, that was a challenge. It’s a very political moment.”

Meduse by Les Batards Dores. Photo: Xavier de Labouret
Meduse by Les Batards Dores. Photo: Xavier de Labouret

Also political is the festival’s growing international stance. “We’ve done a great job in theatre events because now around France you have foreign shows. I could say [a large proportion] of the programme today, in every theatre in France, is made by foreigners – which is great, because this is Europe after all.

“I’ve always been super-European – Brexit kills me. It’s probably my generation, but I was also director of the Odeon-Theatre de l’Europe in Paris [one of the Union Theatres of Europe]. So I could say that Europe has been my fight for years. I began to do non-French speaking shows with surtitles at the Odeon. Twelve years ago that was surprising, but now for French audiences it’s very common.”

Faced with the challenge of rising nationalism across Europe, Py is proud to see Avignon as a political platform that doesn’t compromise its artistic remit. “If Europe falls apart, when you fight for culture, you fight for Europe. It’s the same fight. We do what we can here because it’s international. It’s not ‘Frenchy French’ at all. Avignon is a way to meet the world.”

Clearly there’s at least one part of the world you won’t meet much of at Avignon, but Py is only too aware. “I have to programme UK shows. It would be a good start for you to invite the audience over. But,” he adds regretfully, “we still only have three weeks.”

Festival D’Avignon

Director: Olivier Py (appointed 2013)
Founded: 1947, annual
Dates: July 6-24, 2018 (72nd edition)
Employees: 33 full-time, 700 seasonal
Accredited journalists: 600
Spaces/venues (2016): 18 major venues, 16 itinerant project venues, two exhibition venues
Participating companies: 39; eight ‘sujets a vif’ (‘artist encounters’), two exhibitions
Shows: 261
Talks: 100 including Q&As
Audience figures (2017): 152,000 (112,000 tickets sold and 40,000 free talks and exhibitions)
Countries represented: 19
Total turnover/budget: 13,028,523 (£11,515,590)
Ticket sales: 2,227,130 (£1,968,500), other income 3,468,000 (£3,065,280)
Touring: After the 2017 festival, 31 shows went on to be performed more than 943 times in 33 different countries, in a total of 306 cities – 222 in France and 103 abroad.
Funding: 7,333,333 (£6,481,750)
Funders/sponsors: French state (3,971,000/£3,509,870), Avignon city council 931,000/£822,890), Avignon community of towns (931,000/£822,890), region (800,000/£707,100), Vaucluse departement (625,000/£552,420)
Key contact: festival@festival-avignon.com
Website: festival-avignon.com/en

Festival Off D’Avignon

Artistic director: Pierre Beffeyte (appointed 2017)
Founded: 1966, annual
Dates (2018): July 6-29 (53rd edition)
Employees: Seven full-time, 60 seasonal, 30 volunteers for the opening parade
Spaces/venues: 133 programming venues
Participants: 1,307 companies, 4,667 artists
Productions/events: 1,538
Countries represented (2016): 172 shows from 32 foreign countries (including five shows from the UK, three from Australia, one from USA)
Ticket sales (2017): 33,518 tickets sold through the ticket’OFF box office
Audience figures: No overall figure available due to lack of a centralised ticketing system
Funders: Aside from an Avignon city council subsidy, Avignon Festival and Compagnies funds itself at more or less 95%
Website: avignonleoff.com/en

Le Off

The French concept of fringe is hazy and more often than not its mention will be met with bemusement, but Avignon’s Off programme is not only the closest thing to it in France (bar the Paris Fringe), it is also a worthy counterpoint to Edinburgh.

Launched in 1966 to run alongside the main festival (the ‘In’), the Off grew steadily and in 2006 it created the Avignon Festival and Compagnies charity to run it using a nine-member bureau and 18-member board. Among other functions, it operates the Ticket’OFF box office system, produces the programme (448 pages), and runs a foundation to support artists and develop new work “fighting against all forms of exclusion”.

Festival d’Avignon runs until July 24