Une Semaine d’art en Avignon

Upon its creation, the Festival wasn’t called “Festival d’Avignon” right away. It had a more modest, yet more poetic, name: “Une Semaine d’art en Avignon” (“An art week in Avignon”), and Jean Vilar, its founder, never subscribed entirely to the title of Festival. Later, he dreamt of changing back to another name, using the word “encounters,” which he saw as the core aspect of the event.

Yet while “Une Semaine d’art en Avignon” was a sort of vague dream carried by Vilar and his team’s enthusiasm, all the fundamental ideas that would make the Festival were there already: to change art in order to change the world, to change the relationship with the audience in order to redefine democracy, to invent a new theatre and a new way of being citizens, and beyond to push the boundaries of decentralisation, of cultural public service, and of the democratisation of knowledge.

In the middle of confinement, and dismayed at having had to cancel the Festival, we thought about returning to this original idea, in both senses of the word. We had to go back to the beginning, since the pandemic had annihilated our plans for the 74th edition, and thus symbolically save whatever we could from this beautiful programme, revolving around the concepts of desire and death.

The idea is not to recreate the entire Festival in October, but only to invite some shows to a new sort of event, outside of the hubbub of July. The very first edition of the Festival, after all, didn’t take place in summer, either. By stepping outside of the summer sun, we’re hoping to find something of the philosophy that led to the creation of the Festival, and this shift will allow all of us together, artists, staff, and audiences, to think about what makes Avignon exceptional.

What do we have to do, and what can we hope for?

For starters, we have to dream up a new way of welcoming those shows, simpler and more humble, and invite the audience to come back inside the venues to take part in this new adventure, as if the Festival didn’t have a history going back over seventy years. We can hope to create a different form of faithfulness to our ideas, to artistic demands, and to our duty to our audience.

No one really knows what the energy of this week will be like: cosier and freer? More congenial and joyful? More introspective, with more debates? It isn’t entirely up to us to define it, as it is the happy consequence of a terrible catastrophe.

In the venues now at our disposal—La FabricA, the Théâtre Benoît-XII, the Chapelle des Pénitents blancs, the auditorium of the Collection Lambert, the Complexe socio-culturel de La Barbière in Avignon, Le Tinel in the Charterhouse in Villeneuve lez Avignon, the community centres of Barbentane and Saze, and the Pôle culturel Camille Claudel in Sorgues—and in a city and its surroundings calmer but as beautiful as ever, it will also be an opportunity to think once more about the role of the audience.

It might also be the occasion to give local audiences, who usually make up a large part of our public in July, another opportunity to feel proud and enthusiastic. Far from the whirlwind of the summer, this moment of encounters may very well be more discreet but also freer, informal, and invigorating.

Avignon will never cease to surprise us in the way it can summon the present.

This week is probably an answer to something we all hope for, to be able to continue the Festival beyond itself and its traditions. Let us therefore rejoice to be able to see the city and these shows with new eyes, and let’s not waste any time on regretting the chant of the cicadas. Even though health standards will probably be a source of some constraint, we will doubtless find in this event a reason to hope for the future of theatre beyond the pandemic.

In the simplicity of sharing and of the love of art, everything begins, everything continues, everything remains to be invented. Who knows what the gods of theatre have in store for us?

Olivier Py