4:08pm

Mon July 21, 2014
Theater

This Year, Avignon Festival Is A Stage For Both Plays And Protest

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 5:35 pm

Every July, for one month a year, the southern French city of Avignon becomes a theater. Actors, directors and playwrights converge on the walled, medieval town, where thespians perform in every playhouse, opera house, church and even in the streets. It's all part of the Avignon Theater Festival, which was started in 1947 by renowned French actor and director Jean Vilar.

"The main idea is that culture is not only for rich people but for everybody," says dramatist Olivier Py, director of this year's 68th Avignon Festival. "That was quite a change. I mean, in [Vilar's] time only people who could afford it could go to [the] theater or concerts. And so Jean Vilar chose a small city, far from Paris, to build a new way of democracy — a culture of democracy."

This time of year, Avignon's walls are covered in playbills and posters, and its streets have been invaded by comedians, mimes and musicians. For them, Avignon is the only place to be in July. Vanessa Luna Nahoum, 29, is here promoting her one-woman show, which she describes as funny, poetic and groovy.

Nahoum hopes to one day perform her show across France, so she has to be in Avignon — this is where she might be discovered. She says, "It's very important. I prepare [the show] — I write it, I play it — and it's really hard, but I love to be here."

There are just under 50 official plays in the festival, and more than 1,000 acts in the unofficial festival, known as Avignon Off. The festival has been international since 1966 and today French performances make up only 20 percent of all acts.

Festival attendee Raymond Guibout, 62, says that for as long as he can remember, Avignon has been a pillar of the performing arts world.

"I have been coming since I was, I don't know, 7 or 8, so it's been a very long time," he says. "I enjoy the festival for the ambiance and of course the plays, discovering all sorts of new authors and metteurs en scène. I love it!"

But despite appearances, all is not well in Avignon. Festival actors and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, have been striking and canceling shows. They're angry that the government is talking about reducing generous subsidies that allow them to survive on their seasonal work.

Culture is very important in France, and a majority of French people think it should be above the laws of the marketplace. But things are changing. Festival director Olivier Py says this struggle is symbolic of the unease felt everywhere in France.

Despite the beauty of the city, Py says, people are scared and unsure of the future. He says the economic crisis in France has spawned a moral crisis that is shaking the foundations of the country — and its cultural legacy.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Finally this hour, a postcard from one the biggest performing arts festivals in the world. The Avignon Festival is under way in the south of France. Every summer, actors, directors and playwrights converge on the walled, medieval city, turning it into a dramatic capital. This year, NPR's Eleanor Beardsley joined them.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Well, I'm in the streets - walking the streets of Avignon. And in fact, for one month a year every July, the entire city of Avignon is a theater. There are plays - hundreds of plays with thousands of actors - taking place in every play house, opera house, church and even out in the streets. The festival was started in 1947 by renowned French actor and director Jean Vilar. Dramatist Olivier Py is director of this year's 68th Avignon Festival.

OLIVIER PY: On this time, only people who could afford it could go to theater or concert. And so Jean Vilar chose a small city far from Paris to build a new way of democracy - a cultural democracy. The main idea is that culture is not only for rich people but for everybody.

BEARDSLEY: This time of year, Avignon's walls are covered in playbills and posters and its streets invaded by comedians, mimes and musicians. For them Avignon is the only place to be in July. Twenty-nine-year-old Vanessa Luna Nahoum is promoting her one-woman show.

VANESSA LUNA NAHOUM: It's my show - "When Victor Met Lilly." It's a romantic theater. It's funny. It's poetic and it's groovy.

BEARDSLEY: Nahoum says one day she hopes to perform her show across France so she has to be in Avignon. There are just under 50 official plays in the festival and more than a thousand acts in the unofficial Avignon, known as Avignon Off.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATBOXING)

BEARDSLEY: The festival has been international since 1966 and today French performances make up only 20 percent of all acts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAIWANESE INSTRUMENT)

BEARDSLEY: This Taiwanese troop has brought a Chinese musical to the Avignon Festival, which they tell me is very well known in Taiwan. An edgy, modern take on Mozart's "Don Giovanni" is about to start in the opera house. Sixty-two-year-old Raymond Guibout says he's excited to see it even though the reviews aren't great. For as long as Guibout can remember, Avignon has been a pillar of the performing arts world.

RAYMOND GUIBOUT: Yes. I've been coming since I was - I don't know - seven or eight. And so it's been a very long time. And I enjoy the festival for the ambience and of course the plays - discovering all sorts of new authors and metteurs en scene and all that. I love it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE)

BEARDSLEY: But despite appearances, all is not well in Avignon. Festival actors and technicians, known as intermittents du spectacle, have been striking and canceling shows. They're angry that the government is talking of reducing generous subsidies that allow them to survive on their seasonal work. Festival director Olivier Py says this struggle is symbolic of the unease felt everywhere in France.

PY: Through the beauty of the sky, the sand and the beautiful monuments and amazingly beauty of the city, there is scariness. And people are not sure that the future is sure.

BEARDSLEY: Py says the economic crisis in France has spawned a moral crisis that is shaking the foundations of the country. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Avignon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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