The Avignon Experience
‘Le Festival d’Avignon’ is the biggest theatre festival in the world. With its two versions, ‘IN’ and ‘OFF’, it remains highly popular and offers an extremely rich calendar of dramatic performances. Chintan Pandya, of Alliance Française d’Ahmedabad shares his experiences.
“During my stay in France, I had the opportunity of attending ‘Le Festival d’Avignon‘, which has two categories: ‘IN’ and ‘OFF’. ‘IN’ is the original version of the festival, which was initiated in 1947 by Jean Vilar. ‘OFF’ was subsequently created as a protest against the elitist ‘IN’ festival, where the idea was to render theatre more democratic and accessible to all. However, both performances draw an equal number of people from all over the world.
For any thespian, it is a dream to go to Avignon, the ‘Kashi‘ of theatre at least once in his lifetime. Some statistics on the ‘OFF’ festival are very interesting to learn. There were more than 1,200 performances during the festival, out of which 746 were plays, 132 cafe-theatres, 71 musical plays, 58 dance recitals and 120 children’s theatre shows. Other than that, 27 countries and 25 regions of France participated. There were 125 venues, 3,646 professionals and 52,390 enthusiasts subscribed for the concession pass. The city of Avignon spends 115,000 euros every year just to clean up the streets after the festival. This year, 50,000 copies of festival catalogues, the size of a telephone directory, were printed.
Here, one can eat, drink, dream and breathe theatre! One can feel the presence and participation of the city in every single corner, like ‘Uttarayan‘ in Ahmedabad! From early morning to late at night (the last show started at 12.30 am), one can line up for performances and still cannot get enough of them. I watched 18 plays in 4 days, and it was only 1.5% of the festival!
But this experience also disillusioned many fancies that I had envisaged of this festival. ‘OFF’, which had started with an original philosophy of making theatre more accessible and less elitist, is now growing more and more expensive, especially to the detriment of the artists. The performers have to manage and pay from A to Z. I saw artists distributing pamphlets 10 minutes before their show time to lure as many spectators as possible. Most theatre companies set aside as much as their annual budget for this festival. Many of them get completely ruined!
Usually, tickets are priced between 16 and 22 euros, concessional tickets cost between 12 and 16 euros and between 5 and 10 euros for children. These rates can easily burn a hole in one’s pockets, especially for the youth. As a result, most spectators are in the age-group of 40 and 60. The young audiences have to work out a special budget, as besides the play, the cost of lodging including camping and food remain quite high during the festival. Thus, it is a paradox! What was meant to be anti-elitist and more accessible, has now fallen prey to the contrary.
All said and done, the enthusiasm, the energy and the passion for theatre over here is just unparalleled. Up-to-date planning, French professionalism and the richness of content make this festival one of the most enriching, thrilling and unique experiences in the south of France.”