The Theatre Festival of Avignon IN was first organized in Avignon in 1947 by Jean Vilar, who, with his theatre company, presented "A Week of Dramatic Art" in September of that year. Vilar's intent was to bring performances of plays off the traditional stuffy stage, in houses reserved solely for the elite, and instead bring plays to the streets and public places of southern France. Beginning with productions of Shakespeare in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes, Vilar's small dramatic company struggled along for some years, with help from the residents of Avignon, attempting to bring plays to the streets, and make it accessible to everyone, particularly the young people of Avignon.

In 1964, Vilar began to devote his energies to the Theatre Festival of Avignon IN full-time. By inviting other directors, actors, and producers to participate in the project, the Festival began to expand into other venues. With these other directors, who had different visions, the Festival took off and started to become wildly popular. Jean Vilar died in 1971, and the organization and management of the Festival was taken over by his friend and assistant, Paul Puaux. Puaux headed the direction of the Festival until he resigned in 1979 to take over the direction of Maison Jean Vilar, and since then, the Festival has expanded in many directions, comprising film, workshops, lectures, music, and children's theatre; additionally the Festival has begun to embrace many more experimental forms of drama as well.

The Festival IN takes place each year in July in Avignon, France. Over a hundred thousand people come to Avignon each year to see the spectacles organized by famous and little-known directors, and dozens of spaces, some totally unsuitable for performances full-time, are pressed into service as performance spaces for the duration of the festival: galleries, museums, and other likely and unlikely venues, as well as courtyards and open spaces. If you enjoy drama, Festival IN will be a real treat for you, presenting you with three full weeks of some of the best, most inventive drama you will ever see. (Of course, most of the shows are presented in French, or other languages, and may or may not be translated.)

Why the the designation IN? Because there is another theatre festival that takes place in Avignon at the same time: The Theatre Festival of Avignon OFF. If the Theatre Festival of Avignon IN is an experience that is carefully staged to provide its patrons with unusual experiences (by staging traditional plays in unusual settings), the Festival OFF is a wild, untamed, raw exposure to the world of drama, with hundreds or thousands of performers, directors, troupes, playwrights, and more taking to the streets of Avignon each summer, and bringing performances of experimental theatre to anyone in sight. Having worked for several years during the crazy weeks of Festival OFF at the Centre Européen de Poésie d'Avignon (and I was even pressed into service in one of the plays), I can verify that it is a veritable madhouse of drama and everything that accompanies drama: troupes and performers change direction mid-festival, and the performances of the same material, by the same performers, are markedly different each night as the actors, musicians, and directors are exposed to other theatrical influences.

Theatre GilgameshCredit: Public Domain

The Festival OFF was inaugurated in 1967 by André Benedetto, whose production of Napalm was the first show to be performed outside of the official Festival IN. Because of the political unrest in 1968, some shows, including Napalm, were banned by the order of the prefect, but only three years later, in 1971, the unofficial festival had grown to thirty-eight shows being scheduled in twelve different venues, and the alternative theatre festival, the Theatre Festival of Avignon OFF, was officially recognized. And now, in the twenty-first century, there is really no describing the theatrical madness that is Festival OFF!

As much as the organizers try to put order into the Festival OFF, there is always inevitable chaos as theatre is everywhere: on the streets, on the buses, in the restaurants, and in the shops. The city is plastered with posters advertising different theatre performances, some for only one performance, and some running the length of the festival, and everything in between. Whether you stumble across a poster advertising a performance, read a critical review of a performance, hear about a performance through word of mouth, or just happen to stumble across a performance in the Festival OFF, you will have a chance to view theatre in an entirely different way from any you have ever been accustomed to think of previously.

If you wish to stay in the centre of Avignon during the Festivals, you must book many months in advance, as not only does the city have to accomodate thousands of performers, but also the hundred thousand or more visitors to Avignon that flock to the city each year for the festival. The performers generally do not stay in hotels, but are put up in the homes of staffers that work in the theatres or other venues; however, those places and the hotels are quickly filled each year, and so finding accomodation at the last moment is almost impossible, unless you have a good friend in the city! As a last-ditch resort, there is a KOA campground nearby.

If you need a break from the theatre (good luck getting one!), there are a number of museums, concerts, parks, and other attractions in Avignon that you may enjoy. There is the famous bridge of the song "Sur le pont d'Avignon," the Centre Européen de Poésie d'Avignon, the Pope's Palace and the Little Palace, as well as shopping, open air markets (buying your food there is much cheaper than eating at restaurants), and many historical sites, churches, medieval industries such as Rue de Teinturiers (Dyers Street), and many beautiful views over the river Rhone.

It is highly unlikely you will need a car to travel if you are staying in or close to the city centre: Avignon is fairly compact, and the best way to get around the centre of the city is on foot. This is even more true during the Festival, because the streets will be too crowded for cars! All you will need is a printed map with a lot of detail. If you wish, a bicycle may be your best means of transportation; be aware that the buses quit running early, well before the beginning of the evening theatre performances. So don't hesitate to make the Theatre Festival of Avignon an occasional or regular summer travel destination if you love theatre; it's an experience you will never forget!

The Opening of the 2013 Festival

The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile
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One of the most fascinating periods in the history of Avignon was the era when the Papacy moved there. Did you know that Avignon was not even a part of France until the twentieth century?