Festival d’Avignon et le OFF, the biggest theatre in the world (‘Le plus grand théâtre du monde’)

To be perfectly honest I remember almost nothing about my long-ago visit to Avignon, a pretty but sleepy medieval town in the south of France. I never imagined I would return, let alone to attend the city’s major performing arts festival, Festival d’Avignon, and its fringe, ‘Le OFF‘. Although the festival is now in its 68th edition, I only first heard about it a few months ago through a French friend who has been attending regularly for the past decade with his family and in-laws. In any case the festival is actually not as big as its fringe; the almost 400 page program of Le OFF was overwhelming whereas the Festival d’Avignon program was a manageable 80 pages.

In just over four days I saw nine performances and temporarily immersed myself in the worlds of theatre, dance, puppetry and music. The absolute best production I saw was part of the official festival, a play called Solitaritate, which was in Romanian with English and French surtitles. It was a charged political production with an energetic, charismatic cast, and introduced possibilities for theatre I’ve never seen before, like the way they kept breaking through ‘the fourth wall’ in really clever ways. Just on the strength of that play alone, I’d happily visit Romania. Romania seems to be rapidly developing with a growing middle class, but it’s not without its internal critics – and it’s the latter which makes it exciting and inspiring.

Posters for productions in Le OFF
Posters for productions in Le OFF

For the duration of both festivals, temporary theatres are erected all over Avignon in addition to the handful of permanent theatres and the town is completely taken over, plastered with posters wherever there’s space. I had a very insightful conversation with a woman from a children’s show that played as part of Le Off, and she explained that the primary audience is the theatre industry itself and the theatre-going public is secondary. “It’s about securing contracts for the next year,” she said. She’d been working as an actor and producer for more than twenty years with her husband, and that was one thing that surprised me about the performers at the festival: it wasn’t a particularly young crowd at all. Their career choice made a lot more sense to me later when I learnt about the generous financial support that artists and other seasonal workers in the arts receive from the French government. In fact, this year’s festival was also a daily site of protest about proposed changes to the scheme for ‘les intermittents’, where contract workers in the arts have nine months of generous unemployment benefits if they work 500 hours in ten months, which means about 12 hours/week (explained in this Guardian article). Suffice to say, the more I learn about France, the more mystified I am that the country isn’t yet bankrupt. Given the way the government essentially pays artists, is better art produced? I think it’s safe to say that the jury is still out on that. I only experienced a small sample size this week seeing five French productions in total, and while some of it was good, the rest of it was pretty awful. But that’s not so surprising; in every kind of scene there are the greats and those who are just hanging on. It was also interesting to see that a lot of the works being on were French adaptations of recognisable work from other languages — works from countries where no such state support exists.

My French is only a bit better than basic, but I knew enough to love a charming and professional ‘spectacle’ aimed at children called ‘Comment moi je?’ which was about a child’s discovery of herself and the world around her – with the help of a philosopher, a perfectly French trope. Another show I saw, ‘La danse immobile‘, involved performers in wheelchairs and was an intriguing concept by celebrated French dancer Clémentine Célarié. The curious energy on stage was striking, with the fluid movements of the dancers complementing the motions of the wheelchairs. ‘Odyssée d’un Homme Machine, unfortunately, was a total waste of 12 euros. It started 20 minutes late, which was a bad sign, and when we entered the theatre it was completely underwhelming. After some minutes of uninteresting electronic music and poorly executed abstract visuals on a screen to represent the evolution of man, we bolted out of the theatre and left the other four audience members to wonder why we left so hurriedly. We made it to another theatre just in time to catch a production called ‘Vie‘ – which I didn’t really rate either, though at least it was a performance with human beings. Vie had billed itself as a dance performance accessible to non-Francophone audiences but neither selling points turned out to be true, especially as there was mostly French dialogue and precious little dance (which was pretty poor). The piece relied far too much on music with lyrics to communicate ideas, as well as overacted and overwrought dialogue. I understood enough to know that if it had been in English, I probably would’ve liked it even less!

Les chassures de mon oncle
Les chassures de mon oncle

While there are cultural differences between France and other countries in Europe, to say nothing of the Anglophone world, I can’t help but feel that at the end of the day, the French aesthetic is not so different to what I know from life in Australia. The preoccupations and sensibilities may be different, but the French approach to the arts is not so out of my worldview compared to art from Asia and South America, where self-expression can take very different forms. So the festivals of Avignon provided a wonderful opportunity for troupes from countries such as Brazil, Korea and Japan. Brazil is heavily influenced by Europe, which was evident from the whimsical show I saw translated into French as ‘Les chassures de mon oncle‘, a bittersweet story about generational change, but ‘Binari‘ by a Korean troupe possessed some truly awe inspiring and original moments where I felt genuinely moved by the themes of life and death (hence, ‘binari’). While I was watching it though, I couldn’t help but feel how ‘exoticised’ the whole thing was with its traditional dress and music, and the same went for the Japanese performance I saw some days later, called ‘Okinawa San San‘. The latter was basically a big plug for Okinawa, and they even handed out glossy tourism brochures promoting the island. It was a joyful and energetic play, with beautiful stage and costumes that showcased traditional Japanese fabrics and cuts. I suppose given language barriers and general ignorance, plays from Asia with a lot of symbolism and traditional themes are more easily absorbed by Western audiences, but it’s funny how the two productions I saw showed nothing at all of the contemporary cultures of Japan and Korea, which are even hyper ‘modern’ compared to life in Europe. There really is a much bigger ‘theatre’ outside the Anglo-European sphere where “all the world’s a stage”  (and all the men and women merely players etc)

I’m really not sure what to make of a special welfare system for those who self-identify as artists. Given how much more generous it is than anywhere else in the world, it’s little wonder that those who benefit from the French system want to keep their entitlements — but I can’t imagine the rest of the population is so sympathetic in lean times. From my own experiences in the arts, I don’t know that being an ‘artist’ is some kind of right that deserves a state salary – grants, absolutely, but a weekly cheque? That could easily kill creative drive and vision by making an inspired passion into a salaried job-for-life. It’s a privilege to be able to self-express, even though it may also be a burden, which is something I personally understand as someone who spends time outside of paid work trying to create — for the love of it, not for money. But the main thing that bothers me about this discussion is that the arts world isn’t a particularly inclusive one and has plenty of gatekeepers itself. In any case, I may unwittingly be in a video that will be uploaded online that shows my support of French artists; at the end of an interpretive dance piece called Matter we all held hands to show solidarity and it wasn’t possible to opt out – because I was sitting right in the middle of the front row as an iPhone camera scanned the room.

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2 thoughts on “Festival d’Avignon et le OFF, the biggest theatre in the world (‘Le plus grand théâtre du monde’)

  1. Interesting that you mention the generous welfare benefits for artists in France. Tightening unemployment benefits is a big political football in Australia at the moment. Your point about stifling artistic creativity with a stipend is thoughtful. I’m reminded that artists of all description have always sort patronage through the ages. As you are not far away, do you intend to visit the Roman amphitheatre at Arles and check out the acoustics?

    1. Sorry about the delay in responding to your thoughtful comment, really appreciate your perspective. I didn’t get to Arles this time but I feel like I’ll visit France again soon enough. Yes I did think about the fact that patronage of artists has occurred throughout history but government benefits en masse is not the same as sponsorship…is it? And yes, it’s so politicised, including in Australia which is the scene I’m most familiar with too. The way we allocate arts funding as it is, let alone the way France does it, seems pretty problematic with certain perceived high forms of art receiving the lion’s share and the rest have to scramble around for the leftovers…!

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