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What Aix-en-Provence is to opera, Avignon is to theater. During the month of July each has a festival and for one month Avignon becomes the theater capital of France. It is impressive enough to know that Avignon puts on over thirty "official" productions (le festival "In"), but the "unofficial" shows (referred to as "le Off") far outnumber the official program and have become to some the festival of choice. Take a look at these numbers for the "Off" festival in 2009: 825 companies put on 983 different shows in 105 permanent or temporary theatres during the sole month of July. Boggles the mind, doesn't it?
When Jean Vilar founded the Festival Annuel d'Art Dramatique in 1947, he could not have dreamed how immensely successful this event would become, attracting not only celebrated actors and directors to Avignon but also untold thousands of spectators from all over France and from neighboring countries. As always, the festival opens with a play by that year's "associate artist" performed in the imposing Cour d'Honneur of the Popes' Palace, and then spreads to the other theaters in town as well as to its cloisters, some churches, schools, and even an abandoned quarry. This première is often an exceptional event, for instance an 11-hour play by Wajdi Mouawad or a disturbing production by Belgium's controversial Jan Fabre, and may involve a big-name star. But let's take a look here at the less structured "Off" with its spontaneous combustion of youthful talent, energy and creativity, but with very little money.
The gamut of styles and subjects ranges from Greek drama to puppet shows, from Shakespeare to Schiller, from Molière to Marivaux to Oscar Wilde, from Sam Shepard to Amos Gitai and other contemporary writers, and many plays will have film, music and dance components as well. Shows start at 10 in the morning and continue throughout the day and evening, some in theaters of up to 300 seats but many more in smaller theaters of less than 100 seats. The catalog of "Off" performances is the size of a telephone book and can be consulted by author, location, theater company, and time table. Most of the "Off" plays last around one hour—some are as short as 45 minutes but none are longer than one hour and a half—and it is entirely feasible to see three plays in a day, as we often do.
For example, you can select a one-hour play that starts at 11:00 AM, after which you sit down to a leisurely two-hour lunch. You pick another play at 3:00 PM and a third one at 5:00 PM (all theaters are within walking distance) and afterwards find yourself comparing the relative merits of each show over a cool drink or an ice cream on a terrace under the platanes. If you don't want to stay around for dinner, you take the one-hour freeway drive back to Aix in time for the evening news and dinner at home. All in a day's work.
Of course, it is hard to tear yourself away from the street theater of Avignon where actors and actresses walk around in costume and stage make-up handing out leaflets of their show to pedestrians and customers at café tables. "Come and see me at 6," they'll say, or "Last chance to see us at 8 tonight before we pack it in!" and so on, all with a pleading smile and perhaps a little dancing shuffle. Here comes a Dracula type with "blood" dripping from his chops who slips a blood-stained leaflet under my glass. And over there stands Don Quijote with a most unlikely looking horse, stoically waiting for Sancho Panza who has just accepted a proffered beer. There are musicians and dancers and masked harlequins from a Commedia dell'Arte group from Italy, and just as you think the show is over here comes a bearded bride with "her" bridesmaids and an unclear message.
All the world's a stage has never rung so true, and all the players here have earned their spurs by sheer versatility and dedication. These "Off" performers are more than actors; they have to do their own publicity, costumes, set design and sometimes even the writing of their show. They are the worker bees who turn this town into a crazy quilt of posters, pasted on boards or wrapped around lamp posts or tied to gates and parking meters. Not a single façade in the old center remains uncovered and the hapless tourist who wants to see the sights would do well to come back in August.
Of course, you will not see Jeanne Moreau or Isabelle Huppert doing this. They appear in the "In" productions at night at the biggest venues in town where you need to book well in advance. "Off" plays, on the other hand, rarely require reservations. Tickets to these shows are inexpensive and do not always cover the cost of the production. That is why an actor may ask you after a show to spread the word and send your friends, to sign the guest book, or to come and see him in another play at another theater. The best or the luckiest among them may get a contract or go on tour, some will get a favorable review in the press and a possible return engagement the next year, but all will have savored their taste of "Avignon" while it lasted and perhaps thought the thoughts that dreams are made of.
With this many productions there are bound to be hits and misses. I have seen some excellent plays here that were written and acted by outstanding young artists who are just one stroke of luck away from discovery and stardom. And I have seen others that had their amateurish slips showing. But it is safe to say that if you like the theater you will not be disappointed in Avignon, no matter where you go.
Most theaters have six to eight different shows a day running well into the night, and the streets won't empty until long after the last theater goes dark and the last diner has left the table. On your way to the car you notice new posters, or do they just look different under the street lights? You decide to check it out tomorrow when you return for another helping.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France.