France, 1947. The sound of the cicadas in the sun. A poet, Jean Villar. A vision: democratic art. An explosion: le Festival d’Avignon.
Fast forward to 2013: you get the largest theatre festival in the French-speaking world, rich with ground-breaking premières, artistic innovation, policy discussions and an ever-growing Fringe. It bears quite a few common points with the other big French festival, Cannes: it’s been running for over 60 years; it brings thousands of people (and euros) to a small city far from Paris, year after year; and it has a long and complex history, mixed in with politics and social issues.
Here are a few fun facts and key points about this very French cultural institution.
Birth of a Festival
The Festival starts in 1947 as a “Theatre Week” in this quaint southeastern French town (also known as the “City of Popes” and famous for its bridge and its Demoiselles). Jean Vilar, poet, theatre director and firm believer in an “elitist theatre for all”, is invited by fellow poet René Char and art critic Christian Zervos to present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral – and ends up instead proposing Shakespeare’s Richard II, then little-known in France, and plays by French playwrights Maurice Clavel and Paul Claudel. The first edition is a success and the festival is reconvened for several years, enjoying critical and audience success and allowing Jean Vilar to consolidate his group of prefered actors and his artistic vision.
In 1951, Jean Vilar also takes the lead of the Theâtre National Populaire, an artist-led, audience-focused theatre on the outskirts of Paris. The Festival d’Avignon takes its cue from this “popular” mandate and becomes a place to discuss the future of theatre and its audiences, political and social issues, cultural policy and new artistic directions. Young people are especially welcome to participate; as early as 1959, and still to this day, special accommodation arrangements are offered to encourage French and international youths aged from 14 to 27 to attend the festival at a lesser cost. Under-25 and unemployed people can get tickets for as little as €14 (and the highest ticket price is, anyway, only €40).
Le “In” et le “Off”
In the beginning, there was only one festival, actually first called “Theatre Week”. In 1966, one production was offered to the public independently from the official festival; this growing trend towards an alternative scene got recognised by the official Festival when in 1968, year of widespread social unrest in France, Maurice Béjart invited the cast and crew of a censored play (La Paillasse aux seins nus) to join him on the stage of the Cour d’honneur, the most prestigious festival space. From 1982, the “Off” (a reference to “off Broadway”) became a professional structure, and both festivals now run in parallel every summer.
“Le In” got its name fairly mysteriously (it probably sounded better that “Le On” to French ears) but is in essence the official Festival, established as a non-profit and publicly funded, whereas “le Off” is in fact a coordination and promotion service offered to participating companies: “Off” organisers put together a brochure, establish rules about street-level advertising and manage a discount scheme for audiences, but they don’t have a say in the selection, which happens organically and is left to negotiations between theatre companies and venues. Originally conceived as an alternative to the establishment that the official festival was thought to represent, it has evolved towards a commercial fair model and often comes under criticism for the high-cost venue rental market that it has created (and the resulting low or nonexistent artistic fees).
The 67th Festival d’Avignon runs from 5th to 26th July 2013.
According to its “festival in figures” page, it usually programmes 35 to 40 productions, with a total number of around 300 shows presented in about 20 different spaces, often open air and historical. It also offers artists’ talks, professional forums, art exhibitions or installations (Sophie Calle in back again this year), and dance, music, fireworks and screenings.
Its budget – 55% public funding, 45% sponsorship and sales – amounts to €12 million, and its economic impact (for the official festival only) was estimated at €23 million in 2001.
Ticket sales vary between 120,000 and 150,000 a year, and 20,000 to 40,000 audience members take part in the free events. About 35% visitors are locals, while 20% come from Paris region, 35% from other French regions and 10% from abroad. Since 2008, the festival is consistently above 93% of its capacity.
Le Festival OFF d’Avignon runs from 8th to 31 July 2013. In 2012, 104 venues and a total of 194 stages were used by 975 companies (including 143 coming from 27 different countries) performing 1161 shows.
Over 1,000 theatre companies and 1,300 shows and events are announced for this year.
For comparison, in 2012, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (arguably the largest arts festival in the world, also operating as an open-access theatre festival) counted 2695 different shows staging 42,096 performances in 279 venues by 22,457 performers.
“Le Off” is the wild and unpredictable side of Avignon, where self-funded productions compete on the street with their posters and flyers to grab the attention of the patrons and critics. The “employment” section of the Off website is actually full of job demands and offers for street promotion – but rather sadly, the only type of contract available seems to be unpaid internship. The Village is a gathering place to buy tickets and membership cards, listen to artists or critics,
As well as promoting the whole of the programme, the Off offers financial support to theatre companies who meet the required criteria, thanks to a €40,000 funding pot.
2003 Arts Workers strike
Another notable quirk of Le Festival d’Avignon is the memorable arts workers’ strike – and subsequent cancellation of the 2003 festival. In France, arts workers – artist, administrators and technicians – fall into a special employment category called “intermittents du spectacle”, because of the fluctuating nature of their work; instead of being freelance, as is more common in other countries, they tend to be contracted for a fixed length of time (“Contrat à Durée Déterminée”), and their status allows them to claim unemployment benefits if they have completed at least 507 hours over 10 months.
In 2003, following changes affecting the social protection of arts workers, negotiations between beneficiaries, unions and employers came to a headlock, and after 11 days and 11 nights of talks, the 57th Festival d’Avignon was cancelled for the very first time in its history. A few other festivals in France followed suit, including nearby Aix en Provence and the Francofolies de La Rochelle, but the Off went on with only 100 productions cancelled.
Here is an 8’ video about the strike created by Manu Larriaga for the SACD (Société d’Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques).