“In” and “Off” at the Avignon Festival: I interview a festival talent agent

facade of an Avignon theater - ProvenceAn Insider’s View of the Avignon Festival: the “Off” and the “In”... A conversation with someone involved in the Avignon Festival reveals a fascinating universe.

While the “In” portion is the official Avignon festival features top theater companies and directors from around the world, over the years the “Off”, or alternative, festival has evolved into a major theater event of its own, with hundreds of small theater troupes participating.  Both take place at the same time, turning Avignon into a giant three-week theater extravaganza.

Jean-Pierre C., a talent agent who has been working with actors in the “off” festival for some 20 years, goes to Avignon every year.  He talks to us about the festival. 

“They call it ‘the biggest theater on Earth’ on the 2010 “off” festival poster.  Twenty years ago, some theater companies improvised in garages, which were converted into theater spaces, and most of the shows were obliged to take place inside the city walls.  Today there are also events outside of Avignon, in particular on Barthelasse Island.  In 2000, there were over 1,000 performances per day, and in 2010 there are 1,750.” 

“The difference between the ‘in’ and the ‘off’ has to do with the fame of the actors and the shows.  This distinction was first made by Jean Villar [the festival’s founder] when he was selecting who would be included.  The ‘in’ takes over the Carmes Cloister or the Courtyard of Honor of the Pope’s Palace and plays hard to get.  That’s where in 2009 the 16-hour play Soulier de Satin lasted all night.  The ‘off’ comes to Avignon to introduce new artists to the public and experiences an exhilarating month from the first to last day of the festival.” 

“First of all, let’s talk about the posters:  they are only authorized to be posted three days before the festival, which means that the marathon starts early for those who need to post.  Avignon is literally covered in posters in the space of one night, to the extent that every stone is covered.  In 2009, Warren Zavatta, the grandson of Achille, rented an enormous ladder and placed his posters very high up—you could see them from very far and they stayed up through the entire month.  The posters that are less high up risk more damage.” 

Poster collages at night, street parades of artists giving out handbills, day and evening shows, the festival’s participants keep busy non-stop.  Artists and companies come to be seen, to get talked about, and to get attention.  Agents and other theater professionals all come to Avignon to discover new talent. 

The ‘off’ theaters can be found on streets like rue des Teinturiers, one of the most beautiful cobblestoned streets in Avignon, where cars can barely get through and high-heeled shoes are a definite disadvantage.  A few of the more well-known theaters:  Le Chêne Noir, Le Chien Qui Fume, La Tâche d’Encre, Les Béliers.  Avoid, if you can, the Place de l’Horloge and the rue de la République, which are inundated with tourists. Les Halles d’Avignon is worth a visit, with its vertical garden on the front wall and its wonderful covered market.  To unwind after a dose of Avignon theater madness, a swim in the Gardon River by the nearby town of Colias is highly recommended. 

“The Avignon Festival is completely crazy, and creates an extraordinary atmosphere that demands a lot of oneself and leaves you exhausted at the end of the month.  You are completely out of contact with what is happening in the rest of the world—it’s an amazing experience.”

by Isabelle Brigout

Good restaurants recommended by a festival insider:
Restaurant Brocante, rue du Chapeau Rouge
Le Bazou (Chez Stéphane)
Photos :
©Benoît Vignac, David Lefranc, Guy Hocquel for the ADT Vaucluse Tourisme (www.provenceguide.co.uk)
©Jean-Pierre Campomar/Mairie d'Avignon
©Vincent Flachaire (www.horizon-provence.com/festival-avignon/)

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