Gérard Philipe, Jean Vilar, Léon Gischia in the Cour d'honneur - 1952 © Agnès Varda - Ciné-Tamaris
"La Tragédie du roi Richard II" by William Shakespeare, mise en scène Jean Vilar - 1947 © Agnès Varda - Ciné-Tamaris
Rehearsal for "La Mort de Danton" by Georg Büchner, direction Jean Vilar - 1948 © Agnès Varda - Ciné-Tamaris
Gérard Philipe et Jeanne Moreau dans "Le Prince de Hombourg" de Heinrich von Kleist, mise en scène Jean Vilar - 1953 © Agence Bernand
Gérard Philipe and Jean Vilar in rehearsal fot "Le Prince de Hombourg" - 1956 © Agnès Varda - Ciné-Tamaris
"Don Juan" by Molière, direction Jean Vilar - 1953 © Collection Marc Enguerand
The Festival d'Avignon was founded by Jean Vilar in 1947.
Jean Vilar was invited to present his first great successful play - Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot in the Palais des papes. At the same moment and at the same place, an exhibition of contemporary paintings and sculptures was organised by Christian Zervos, an art critic and collector, and by René Char, the poet.
Vilar initially refused the invitation as for him the Cour d'honneur du Palais des papes was too vast and "shapeless" and he also lost the performance rights of the play.
However, he proposed three creations : Shakespeare's Richard II, one of the Bard's plays that was little known at the time in France; Paul Claudel's Tobie and Sara, and Maurice Clavel's second play, The Midday Terrace. The very first Festival d'Avignon in September 1947 set the scene as a showcase for unknown work of the universal repertoire and modern scripts.
There are four distinct stages in the evolution of the Festival d'Avignon.
For 17 years, the Festival reflected the work of one man, one team, one location and thus was the embodiment of one spirit. Jean Vilar's aim was to attract a young captivated and fresh audience, through a type of theatre that was different from what could be seen in Paris at that time.
He wanted to "renew theatre and collective forms of art by providing a more open space (...) to give a breath of fresh air to an art form that's stifling in waiting rooms, in cellars, in salons; to reconcile architecture with dramatic poetry."
Jean Vilar developed an attachment to the group of actors who performed each July in front of a growing and devoted audience. Gérard Philipe - already a well-known screen actor by that time - became the festival symbol after playing title roles in Corneille's Le Cid and Kleist's The Prince de Hombourg. The Festival spearheaded a rebirth of French theatre. It served as a guiding light and encouraged other theatrical experiments led by "pioneers" of decentralisation such as Jean Daste in Saint Etienne, Maurice Sarrazin in Toulouse, Hubert Grignoux in Rennes or André Clavé in Strasbourg. The theatre was given a new lease of life thanks to the work of directors sent by the state on missions to places then considered as cultural deserts. The Festival d'Avignon became a meeting place for these stage pioneers and at the same time, an expected summer cultural event in France.
It was now clear that the Festival d'Avignon was a permanent fixture on the cultural calendar. It was time for Vilar to have a permanent stage. In 1951, Jeanne Laurent, the director of Performing Arts at the State Fine Arts Secretariat, and who encouraged Vilar in 1947 as well as lent financial support to the "Semaine d'Art" (Art week), had faith in the success of the Festival d'Avignon. She realised that the decentralisation policy in France convinced a large number of people. An interdepartmental committee wanted a report on national theatre; Laurent suggested that the report should focus on popular theatre ; what was possible in the provinces was certainly possible for Paris and its suburbs. The committee was not insensitive to Laurent's determination and approved her idea. That was on the 17th of July 1951. She immediately caught a train to Avignon and asked Vilar to work with her on this project. He hesitated, consulted the members of his group, and finally agreed. On the eve of the funeral for Louis Jouvet - one of France's greatest actors - Vilar was officially appointed director of the theatre of Chaillot in Paris. He renamed it the Théâtre National Populaire. The Avignon crew was the core of the TNP.
Until 1963, the TNP and the Avignon Festival had one unique "boss" whose work was animated by a post-war cultural militancy aiming at drawing a larger audience.
Many associations, youth movements, work councils and secular friendship groups were thus approached. Thousands of young people descended on the city, sleeping in camp-sites, in guesthouses ; schools were opened to offer them accommodation. The Orchard Urban V became a venue for debates, meetings and readings. Thirteen countries took part in the first International Youth Encounters organised by CEMEA (Centre d'Entraînement aux Méthodes d'Education Active = active methods for education training centre) and by the CEAI (Centre d'Echanges Artistiques Internationaux = International artistic exchanges centre).
The administration and the troupe set up in Paris presented memorable performances of Lorenzaccio, Dom Juan, The Marriage of Figaro, Murder in the Cathedral, Les Caprices de Marianne, Mother Courage and The Trojan War Will Not Take Place.
And every summer, at the Palais des papes, a cultural ritual, a kind of "communion" took place.
Jean Vilar was no doubt the first one to realize that this ritual was likely to change its routine. Other theatre personalities were emerging in France. So finally, wearied by the numerous and burdensome responsibilities he had accumulated, the director of the TNP left Chaillot in 1963, to devote himself to the challenging Festival d'Avignon.
Vilar invited new stage directors to Avignon, like Roger Planchon, Jorge Lavelli, Antoine Boursellier. New venues emerged like the Cloître des Carmes in 1967 and the Cloître des Célestins in 1968. He opened the Festival to other artistic disciplines - in 1966 he brought in dance with Maurice Béjart and his "Twentieth Century Ballet", in 1967 cinema made its first appearance at the Festival d'Avignon with an avant-première of Jean-Luc Godard La Chinoise in the Cour d'honneur, and finally Vilar introduced musical theatre with Orden, directed by Jorge Lavelli.
Public interest went on growing and the city became an overcrowded theatre-land during summer months.
From that time, the Festival, with its newly acquired openness, became more difficult to manage. The Festival Avignon was not spared from the effects of the student protests in May 1968, and its founding father was disputed. Confusion reigned and, Jean Vilar, who had always been so open to communication with young people, suffered to a point from which he never recovered. He passed away in 1971, after a heart attack.
Paul Puaux, with his years of experience at the Festival, was well-placed to continue Vilar's work.
In the seventies, the Cour d'honneur, was reserved for the heirs of Vilar's TNP: Georges Wilson, Antoine Bourseiller, Marcel Maréchal, Gabriel Garran, Guy Rétoré, Benno Besson and Otomar Krejca. More venues sprang up in cloisters and chapels that became new adventure grounds breaking with Vilar's aesthetic (e.g. Bob Wilson's Einstein on the Beach, Mephisto by Ariane Mnouchkine, The Conference of birds by Peter Brook and Les Molière by Antoine Vitez). Militant Lucien Attoun put on his "Théâtre Ouvert" (Open Theatre) where, from 1971 a new generation of directors like Jean-Pierre Vincent, Bruno Bayen, Jacques Lassalle, staged with little means and contemporary texts (Rezvani, Rufus, Gatti). He then provided them "Le Gueuloir",a place where the playwrights themselves were invited to present their works.
La Chartreuse de Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, a 14th century monastery on the other side of the Rhone River was transformed into the International Centre for Creative Research (CIRCA). It is a residence for artists where are held exhibitions and concerts and, it also welcomes an event called "Rencontres Internationales" (International Encounters) each summer during the Festival.
At the same time, fringe theatre started up at Avignon, giving various companies desired and desirable exposure at the Festival. The first to perform in the "Off" were local companies (e.g. Benedetto, Gélas), then young troupes from all over France started attending (e.g. Gildas Bourdet, Bernard Sobel) seeking to reach the Festival audience. Although they may not have been selected by the Festival committee to perform, they wanted to be a part of what had become the major summer event for theatre and to rub shoulders with the important players of the theatre world and the media, and to present their work to theatre-lovers.
In 1980, the Festival reached a turning point in its history. Until then, it had been administered by the City Council and did not receive subsidies from the government. It needed to be made more modern and professional to appeal to a new generation of theatre artists. Paul Puaux handed over the reins of the Festival to a younger administrator, Bernard Faivre d'Arcier, who for five years set out to achieve this end.
Paul Puaux wanted to devote his time to the history of Jean Vilar's challenge and established the Maison Jean Vilar in Avignon.
The Festival won its administrative freedom. The State joined the Festival's board. The organising team was expanded to cope with the requirements of modern management and increasingly sophisticated technology. The device in the Cour d'honneur du Palais des papes was specially modified to welcome the staging of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Richard II by Ariane Mnouchkine's company "Le Théâtre du Soleil".
So the new generation of drama and dance made its grand entrance also with Daniel Mesguish (Le Roi Lear), Jean-Pierre Vincent (les Dernières Nouvelles de la peste by Bernard Chartreux), Georges Lavaudant (Les Céphéïdes by Jean-Christophe Bailly), Jérôme Deschamps (Les Blouses), Manfred Karge and Matthias Langhoff (Chekhov's La Cerisaie, The Prince of Homburg), Philippe Caubère (La Danse du diable), Pina Bausch (Kontakthof, Walzer, Nelken), Jean-Claude Gallotta (Daphnis et Chloé, Yves P), Maguy Marin... etc. The Festival became one of the biggest enterprises in performing arts. It became a symbol of change and each year its poster was designed by a different artist.
Vilar opened the Festival to dance and cinema and to musical theatre. Bernard Faivre d'Arcier opened it to new forms and, in 1984, proposed a confrontational theme in an exhibition and in debates called "real-life and artifice" ("du vivant et de l'artificiel").
In 1985, Alain Crombecque, former artistic director of the Festival d'Automne (Autumn Festival of Paris), took charge of the festival d'Avignon and remained for eight years. His generation in theatre had earned a certain esteem that filtered into the Festival Avignon, and he added his own personal mark. He was insistent on including readings of contemporary poetry (by poets such as Michel Leiris, René Char, Louis-René Des Forêts etc.), about bringing together the public and prominent actors (Alain Cuny, Maria Casarès and Jeanne Moreau for example), about contemporary music with the Centre Acanthes and traditional culture from outside of Europe (African, Indian, Pakistani or Iranian music and performances of the Ramayana by different countries from South Asia).
From the Mahâbhârata staged by Peter Brook at the disused Boulbon Quarry, to the programme of traditions and music from South America, Avignon opened up more to other countries. Nonetheless the Festival retained its status as the focal point of France's biggest theatrical forays, adapted to outsize productions that could not have been staged very easily elsewhere, like the unabridged version of Paul Claudel's Soulier de satin (The Satin Shoe), directed by Antoine Vitez or screenings of landmark silent films accompanied by orchestra in the Cour d'honneur of the Popes Palace such as Intolerance by D.W. Griffith in 1986, and Eisenstein's October in 1989.
In 1993 Bernard Faivre d'Arcier was re-appointed to the Festival with Christiane Bourbonnaud, as administrator, and with a new goal: to make Avignon a hub of European theatre.
The structure was consolidated with a bigger budget, an audience of more than 100,000, about forty productions each summer amounting to more than 300 performances, in about twenty different venues, each one very different from the other.
The Festival remained at the centre of French stage creation with well-known directors like Jacques Lassalle, Didier Bezace, Alain Françon and Stuart Seide, and a new generation represented by Olivier Py, Stanislas Nordey and Éric Lacascade, as well as choreographers such as Angelin Prejlocaj, Mathilde Monnier and Catherine Diverrès. Its doors opened to international works of traditional and contemporary culture from outside of Europe - from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, India and South America - as well as to great European artists such as Pina Bausch, Declan Donnellan, Romeo Castellucci and Alain Platel. The Festival also welcomed artists from Central and Eastern European states with the Russian season in 1997 and the creation of Theorem, an association of theatres and festivals seeking to produce and promote young artists from those countries like Oskaras Korsunovas, Grzegorz Jarzyna, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Arpàd Schilling...
In 2003, the Festival was cancelled due to strikes which affected live performances all over France. This crisis was sparked by a change in the rules which govern unemployment benefits specific to entertainment workers in France, and which placed them in a particular vulnerable situation.
From 2004 to 2013 Festival, Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller have been co-directors of the Festival. At the heart of their project is the meeting between artistic creation and a large audience. Since their appointment, they have decided to be based with the whole team in Avignon, and from there to invent each Festival together with artists. They have reinforced the ties between the Festival and its local base and partners and have developed year-long activities for the local audience, especially young people. At the same time they have strengthened the links with Europe, making the Festival even more a crossroads of European culture. The Festival also accompanies the artistic teams in the technical and financial production of their work as well as in their circulation in France and abroad.
Another novelty in their project is to choose one or two associate artists to help them prepare each edition of the Festival. Before deciding on the programme, they enter in close dialogue with each of their associates whose sensibility and personal outlook on artistic creation and the performing arts feeds in the artistic choices. In 2004, and with the German director and artistic director of Berlin's Schaubühne Thomas Ostermeier, the Festival put the emphasis on ensemble theatre engaged in the social and political questionings of their time. With the Antwerpian artist Jan Fabre in 2005, the Festival allowed for a multiplicity of exchanges and encounters between words, bodies and images, between performing arts and visual arts. In 2006, with Josef Nadj, a choreographer of Magyar culture, the 60th opus of the Festival proposed a more oniric approach and journeys between artforms and cultures. In 2007, with French director Frédéric Fisbach, the Festival favoured the whole spectrum of stage writings and the relationship between artist and audience. With French actress Valérie Dréville and Italian artist Romeo Castellucci, the 2008 edition brought the audience along towards unchartered territories, beyond words and images, opening up on the mystery of the Human. In 2009, it's the director and playwright Wajdi Mouawad's turn to be the associate. Swiss director Christoph Marthaler and French writer Olivier Cadiot were joint associate artists in 2010. In 2011, it was the dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz. In 2012, the Festival was imagined with the complicity of the actor and director Simon McBurney. In 2013, the 67th Festival d'Avignon was prepared with the author, actor and director Dieudonné Niangouna and the actor and director Stanislas Nordey.
If each opus is a different one, based on that diversity of visions, contemporary creation remains at the heart of the Festival and of its programme with risk-taking entrusted to the artists. Most of them create new works especially for Avignon and its audiences, which remains the most acute way to interrogate the aesthetics of our age. The artistic "risk" makes the richness of the Festival where the spectators, whoever they may be and wherever horizon, environment and culture they come from, can draw that singular excitement of being faced with a reinvented classic or a modern text, a contemporary piece of dance or a visual installation. The Festival d'Avignon offers its spectators the pleasure of discovery alongside the pleasure of reflexion, turning the town into a forum that oozes the engagement in its time, turning theatre into an auspicious place for dialogue and often passionate debates for artists and audiences alike.