Festival d’Avignon

Founded in 1947 and coming to prominence in the 1960s, Festival d’Avignon has since evolved to become a firm fixture on the global arts festival calendar, presenting around 40 shows each year and generating more than €53m for the local economy. IAM speaks to festival executive director Paul Rondin.

What’s the ratio of French to non-French shows at Festival d’Avignon?
Foreign shows make up the majority of our programme, with a variable ratio of 60:40 French to non-French language productions each year. In 2014, we were pleased to host shows from five continents, but we have no quotas to fill; it’s all based on individual selection and quality. What is very interesting is that presenting a production in a foreign language is not an obstacle to engagement. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – the audience takes a simple pleasure in hearing other sounds, and actually diversity is a key factor in drawing audiences to Avignon.

Can you tell us about the process of finding national and international work? How do you select co-producers and collaborators?
The festival’s team travel internationally, particularly [festival director] Olivier Py and [head of programming] Agnès Troly. Their programming choices are made according to a set of subjective criteria, bearing in mind factors like overall programme balance, representation of a diverse range of voices, and the production costs or technical requirements of the individual shows.

Can you give us an idea of what might be coming up in 2015?
Certainly not! It’s too early just yet; the programme will be announced at the end of March.

How popular are the festival’s additional events, such as encounters with artists, readings of new texts, film projections and exhibitions?
They’re an extremely important part of the festival and its reputation. People can meet with the artists, listen to them speak, ask questions, and so on. Over the course of about three weeks, we run more than 100 such events, and they can take very different forms – this might include documentary films, narrative films chosen by the artists, or public interviews. Those events complement the artistic performances at the festival, and help our audiences to explore them further. Since 2014, we’ve also organised research and creation seminars that bring together the artists’ own research with relevant external sources. It’s an absolutely thrilling environment for knowledge sharing and innovation.

One of the stated aims of the festival is to transform the city; what do you see as being its lasting legacy?
In full swing, the festival generates an estimated 1,600 jobs – that’s without the additional indirect employment generated by extra activity across the city, such as security, hotel roles, cleaning jobs and trade services. We estimate that the direct economic benefits to the city total €25m. The festival also generates interest around other key events, with The Off [fringe festival] being the most important of these: its benefit to the wider Avignon region are estimated at between €120m and €150m. Beyond the purely economic impact, the effect of the festival on the city in terms of its image is also vital – an international festival like ours generates considerable coverage in the global media (500 journalists are accredited each year), which encourages tourism.

The mission is not only to generate public interest in the arts, but also to establish a sustainable model for cultural decentralisation, along with the democratisation of knowledge and social integration. It’s clearly an ambitious manifesto, but because Avignon is such a fertile place for artistic development, the city has become a symbol of creativity and progress – especially in the engineering and dissemination of digital forms. When creativity takes its place in the heart of a city like ours (much like is has done in other creative cities like Bilbao and Mons), it enables citizens to question reality, and to spread this thinking beyond their walls. Creative cities can in fact grow autocratically.

The Guardian recently accused French theatre (and the festival itself) of having lost its way. What’s your response to that?
What theatre has not lost its voice? The theatre is sensitive to the world in which it develops. In France, was theatre too close to politics? And indeed, what is theatre’s role in modern society? Throughout history, theatre has been a source of ideas as well as a contributor to French cultural policy. In art, as in politics, we need a spirit of adventure. We have a fascinating network of artistic groups and cultural institutions across France: the playwright Robert Abirached is a perfect example of how to marry aesthetics and politics, while Olivier Py knows how to be both an architect and master of ceremonies. Personally, I believe that culture really can be at the heart of social thinking.

The festival’s directors are appointed by the board, and must be formally approved by both the Mayor of Avignon and the French Culture Ministry. How long can you stay in your tenure, and how easy is it to make your individual mark on the festival within the allotted time?
A term lasts for four years, and tenure is renewable once, so a full tenure lasts for a maximum of eight years. Four years is a little short; eight years is more like what it takes to develop a strong, coherent brand, and to give the festival sufficient energy to power it into the years ahead. After all, we don’t use the festival for our own ends – the directorships are service roles, and they’re an incredible opportunity.