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Avignon Off Festival, France

While most UK readers will have heard of, and probably indeed attended the Edinburgh Fringe, I imagine that only few will know about the Avignon Off festival. The similarities between the two are striking: they were both founded in 1947, they both attract hundreds of companies and thousands of tourists, they each last for three weeks every summer and, ironically, they both tout themselves as the largest theatre festival in the world. Sometimes it seems like the organisers of each festival are blissfully unaware of each other, and other times it seems like they are actively avoiding acknowledging each other’s existence! This amusing, and perhaps perplexing situation aside, the Avignon Off, like the Edinburgh Fringe, is a fantastic experience for any avid theatre enthusiast. Although it is traditionally a French-language festival, more and more productions from international companies are finding their place there, so even those without much French can find something to enjoy. And we are pleased to announce that Everything Theatre will be providing some coverage of this outstanding theatrical event. But first, some background.

Avignon is a medieval city in the south of France, in Provence. It has a colourful and fascinating history, the highlight of which is probably the Avignon Papacy: in 1305 Clement V became Pope but declined to move to Rome and instead chose to stay in France. This began a 68-year Papacy during which no less than seven Popes led the entire Catholic Church from Avignon. The legacy of this period is a splendid palace in the heart of Avignon, Le Palais des Papes, complete with beautiful gardens and an imposing town square. It is also famous for its ancient half-finished bridge, which many will recall from their high-school French lessons in the song ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon’.

The Avignon Festival was first founded in 1947 by French director Jean Villar. The original festival, now called the In, specialises in high-budget and high-profile productions in grandiose venues such as the inner courtyard of the Palais des Papes. More interesting, however, is the parallel festival, a spin-off of the In known as the Off which deals with Fringe Theatre. Like the Edinburgh Fringe, it has taken on a life of its own. Full of wild creative energy and enthusiasm, it has enjoyed an exponential explosion in size and popularity since it first began in the mid-sixties. With 116 venues and 1143 shows in 2011, it is second only to Edinburgh in terms of scale and diversity. Its motto, ‘Le Plus Grand Theatre du Monde’, is indeed a fitting one for this outstanding celebration of Theatre, the largest in the French-speaking world.

The festival usually takes place during the last three weeks of July, which means that true theatre buffs can easily manage to attend both Avignon and Edinburgh, which hosts its festivals in August. And they will not be disappointed: our opinion on this Festival is that it is indeed top-notch, and unlike Edinburgh, has the added benefit of taking place in the sunniest part of France during the warmest part of summer. Perhaps the biggest barrier to cross in that of the language. That being said, even a modest knowledge of French allows one to understand a big portion of the shows, and as I mentioned earlier even those with no knowledge of French at all will be able to enjoy numerous pieces of mime, physical theatre, dance, song, and of course street theatre. To add to that, the organisers of the festival have twinned the Avignon Off with the Beijing Fringe (which was founded in 2008 and takes place in September) for the first time this year. This marks the beginning of an unprecedented influx of foreign-language productions, adding to the nearly 100 international companies which have already set up shop within the ramparts of this medieval city.

And last, but not least, although it is in its closing week, we are pleased to announce that this year, and hopefully in future, Everything Theatre will become one of the few English-language review sites to provide some coverage of this exciting theatre gathering. So, stay tuned for reviews, in French and English, of the shows we manage to feast our eyes on!

The Avignon Off runs every year in the last three weeks of July. For more information, please visit www.avignonleoff.com (French) or www.avignonleoff.com/en/ (English).

About Everything Theatre

Everything Theatre is proud to support fringe theatre, not only in London but beyond. From reviews to interviews, articles and even a radio show, our work is at the heart of the industry, and we are official assessors for the Off West End OffComm awards. Founded in 2011 as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts, today we are staffed by diverse contributors - people who not only work in theatre, but also in law, medicine, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for theatre.
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