As our taxi entered the city walls of Avignon, it was evident that something was happening. I had seen online that a festival would be starting the day after our arrival, but didn’t think much about it. I just thought it was nice that there would be a little festival going on. But, from our taxi window, my husband and I were amazed to see the entire city being plastered with posters. Every flat surface was covered and when those were full, strings were hung from trees and signposts to make room for even more posters. When the taxi driver informed us that it was the famous theatre festival of Avignon that would start the next morning, my thoughts of lavender flew out the window. We planned to use Avignon as a base to see the lavender fields that were in full bloom in the surrounding area, but plans can be changed!
Avignon – The Biggest Theatre in the World
In Avignon, we sat in a square and watched the, mostly young, poster hangers at work. Later we discovered they were performers in the shows they were advertising. The next morning these same people were handing out flyers and talking to anyone who would listen, about their wonderful show. Sometimes in costume, sometimes singing or playing an instrument. Small groups performed “tasters” on the street to entice people to come and see their production. The atmosphere was electric and very carnivalesque.
The performers were so enthusiastic talking about their shows and I am such an “easy sell” that it’s lucky for me they weren’t selling tickets on the street. I would have bought far too many. With more than 1300 shows per day, we had to be selective.
During the festival, the city of Avignon turns into one giant theatre. There are 132 venues used for performances. Gymnasiums, churches, garages – any suitable space is pressed into service. Each one of these theatres runs a succession of performances every day with just a few minutes between shows. With minimal setup time, stage props are kept to the basics.
The Festival of Avignon is actually two festivals that run simultaneously, the IN and the OFF. The IN festival started in 1947, and is sponsored by the government, the city, and art groups. The IN artists tend to be more known and work in professional conditions, performing an average of 7 shows during the 3 week festival period. They usually don’t need to be on the street trying to get people to come to their show.
The OFF festival started in 1965, and is open to anyone who can afford to come and pay for a venue. Those who come to the OFF are artists who believe they have something special to offer the public and may have hopes of being “discovered” at the festival. These people bring amazing energy to this city. They know they have to go out every day and convince people their show is worth seeing, because if no one comes, they may have to close it down early. These artists perform one show per day for 3 weeks, often without time off. And they work just as hard when they are not on the stage. Every day, they are on the street drumming up business. With more than 1300 shows, the competition is tough, there is no time to relax. Their energy seems boundless and the heat wave we were experiencing during our stay didn’t seem to affect them at all.
The catalog for the OFF festival is an 1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and contains something for everyone. The choice is overwhelming, but has been made easier by the index which groups the shows into categories. Search by artist, style, time, location, public, etc. Under “public” there is even a section for “non francophone.” These are shows that might contain a lot of music or dance or be very visual – shows that someone who doesn’t speak French could still enjoy without understanding the words.
I tend to like the classics, so I persuaded my husband to see Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cyrano de Bergerac, and with a little whispered interpretation now and then, as he doesn’t speak French, he was fine. Although, to be honest, I think the fact that there was a heat wave outside and the theatres were air conditioned might have had something to do with his enjoyment. We also went to other shows that were mostly musical and easy to understand. We saw 8 shows in 4 days and we even had time to take a half-day tour to see the lavender fields. We had an unexpectedly wonderful time at the Festival d’Avignon. It was what the French would call an heureux hasard, a “happy accident.”
The Festival d’Avignon is held each July. The shows run between an hour and an hour and a half, and cost around 10-15€. There is a card that you can buy at the tourist office for 16€ that gets you 30% off all entry fees.
For more info see: http://www.festival-avignon.com/en/
Margo Lestz blogs at curiousrambler.com and is the author of Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Provence – available from: curiousrambler.com/margos-books