The Festival d'Avignon played a key role in the inception of the decentralisation movement and in that of public theatre, and as such was one of the originators of France's cultural policy. That history still resonates today, forever encouraging us to pick up new causes, as our loyalty is to ideas rather than to tradition. Those ideas are incompatible with the temptations of nationalism, the fear of the other, dogmatic immobility, and the banalisation of intolerance. Every summer, in this city that could be the French counterpart to the Arab-Andalusian Grenada, the meeting of different cultures and the spiritual rigor that has always been that of the Festival are the basis of a perpetual reenactment of that initial gesture of cultural democratisation to which we owe all that we are.     

This is what becomes possible again, in a city where the battlements are like so many openings: a different relationship to the world, in which politics isn't separated from thought and hope, in which culture and politics are synonymous. There is no future without culture. To talk about a political and poetic Festival means that only cultural policy is truly political. Culture is the basis of our existence as an organised community, and only culture can tell us how to transcend that state; the rest is most often nowadays little more than a desperate attempt at economic management.     

This is why, before we can talk about the artists, we always have to talk about the Festival's audience. What audience, and how? And, above all, what of tomorrow's audience? Prices and accessibility are essential questions here. We are lowering some of our prices, trying to make the Festival more accessible to veterans and newcomers alike, simplifying the ticket-buying process. We reward curiosity by opening more doors. Beyond this question of accessibility, we need the audience to make theirs this outdoors thought workshop that is the Festival, and to identify with it.     

This relationship with the audience must be thought of as a major social gesture. How can we continue to grow, not so much in terms of attendance numbers but of diversity, in terms of age, cultural and social background, and therefore geographic origin? How can we make the Festival d'Avignon a driving force for popular education, both as a shared experience of a world culture and as an acknowledgment, within it, of individual cultures? What is at stake here is the renewal of a dialogue in which all of us, insiders and outsiders alike, can take part. It also means that we have to work on this new cultural decentralisation we have yet to invent. A decentralisation that would move things not from France's capital towards its regions, but from the centre of Avignon towards its periphery. The Festival is now present in the city year-round, outside the battlements, an experiment that began last September in La FabricA and that aims to make the Festival an institution open eleven months out of twelve and dedicated to the sharing of ideas and opinions, of a work that's always ongoing. That new decentralisation would only take us three kilometres from where we started, from the Place de l'Horloge to the ring road, but if we want it to be successful, we have to recognise that it isn't those neighbourhoods that need us but we who need them, that it isn't reality that needs poetry so much as poetry that needs to stay connected to reality.         

The question of the border, be it wall or rampart, social perhaps, real or imaginary, is at the heart of the work of many of the artists present this year, who hail from all five continents. How to define a border, what it feels like to experience it, to breach it, or to struggle against it... Those questions arise in the works of artists from Israel to South Africa, from New Zealand to Romania, from Egypt to Brazil. The goal will thus also be to overcome limits, to give back to people and ideas a freedom of movement that only commerce seems to enjoy nowadays. We want those feelings of understanding, of emancipation, of beauty, all those feelings that allow us to cross borders, to be conveyed by the theatre, by dance, by music. We want the Festival to be a Festival of indisciplinarity, opened to anyone and everyone.     

It is its artists that make, and reinvent, the Festival, and it was our wish not only to showcase a large proportion of new creations, but also that this year's edition welcome a majority of companies, be they emergent or already well-known, that had never come before, so that they could offer a fresh outlook on the Festival, draw and perhaps even invent a new audience. Twenty-five of the choreographers, directors, or company directors in this programme had never been to Avignon before, and almost half of them are under the age of 35. The same is true for the poets, whom we cannot consider simply as providing other artists with texts. From Greece, France, or the Persian and Arab worlds, they are the tale, the spoken word, the body and the sound of words. It is through them that the dialogue between North and South can be reinvented. Perhaps the Festival will help poets find their place in the heart of the city, or better yet, in its periphery, where one can find the energy the centre so badly needs.         

We must not think of the world in terms of inside and outside, of “in” and “off,” of inclusion and exclusion, but as a never-ending voyage from an elsewhere to here, from here to an elsewhere. And perhaps will we reach this goal when, in the Cour d'honneur, under the starry sky, the words of a German Romantic poet are made flesh by French and Belgian actors through the imagination of an Italian director, creating a world where fantasy becomes action and action is truly the twin sister of dream.     

In the mineral city of Avignon, every year meaning blooms, giving the lie to political disillusionment and lamentations. We will always come back to the few words Jean Vilar used to define the Festival: “le ciel, la nuit, le texte, le peuple, la fête.” But a sky that would be benign rather than severe; a night that wouldn't belong to despair; a text, be it classic or new, would necessarily speak to our times; a people proud of its differences; a celebration of the mind.     

The values of the Festival are those of universalism. The fate of France is universalism, and it manifests itself through culture. Our country imagined a culture that would be neither local nor national or that of a specific community, but a culture created by all and shared by all, a culture that believes that all cultures find their source in the same essential interrogations. Any concept of a culture that would be sectarian, partisan, nationalistic, or protectionist, is an inherent contradiction, and stands in contradiction with the history of France. Our cultural identity resides in the fact that it has managed to grow beyond its national limitations in order to listen and talk to every man and woman, according to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The pride of France, and of Europe, should be its absence of fear, and thus of borders, the claim of a common cosmopolitan culture that would be the product of our political history, the legacy of the Enlightenment. This France that is both European and internationalist, that thinks that the word of the other is but another source of meaning, that is eager to explore what lies beyond itself, that looks beyond its petty territorial worries, that finds its strength in tolerance, openness, and plurality, this France is the one that, every year in Avignon, we make a living reality.         

Olivier Py

© photo Christophe Raynaud de Lage