Olivier Py bid farewell to the Festival d'Avignon

Olivier Py bid farewell to the Festival d’Avignon

For nine years, Olivier Py was the bearer of a festival in Avignon, in the south of France, a little like himself: committed, utopian, poetic, in love with the text, many texts. He will be replaced by the Portuguese Tiago Rodrigues.

“What is more beautiful on this earth than our festival?”: Sunday July 24, two days before the closing of the 76th edition of the festival, the outgoing director, moved, read a real letter of love to this theatrical event, the most prestigious in the world with that of Edinburgh. “It was my life,” he said.

Also a comedian, playwright and prolific director, Olivier Py did not hide a kind of incomprehension either in the face of criticism suffered during his two terms of office (2014-2022). “Keep the purity of your heart when the endless nonsense about elitist art, self-segregation, intellectualism or the institution will be spat in your face”, he said to the address of his successor. , Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues.

The director of the Festival d’Avignon, Olivier Py, and his successor Tiago Rodrigues (right) on July 5, 2021 in Avignon. [Nicolas Tucat – AFP]

A popular and concerned theater

It was under his leadership that the festival achieved a record attendance rate (95.5% in 2019), a figure slightly down this year after two years of health crisis (92%). He prides himself on having introduced the price of 10 euros for those under 26 (20% of the public is under 30, against 16% when he took office).

The first artist to have been at the head of the festival since its founder Jean Vilar, he passionately defended a “theater of the word”, a “popular and “world-conscious” theatre, while his predecessors, the duo Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, had favored aesthetics and artistic radicalism.

The guest artists have often tackled questions of ecology, LGBT+ rights (the 2018 edition will be dedicated to them), feminism or migration. The number of directors will increase significantly under his mandate (nearly 45%), even if feminists will criticize him for never having programmed a woman for the opening of the festival.

Big names and young generation

He invited big names like the Dutchman Ivo van Hove who caused a sensation in 2016 with the play “Les Damnés” carried by the Comédie-Française; the Germans Thomas Ostermeier, Frank Castorf and, of course, the Russian Kirill Serebrennikov, star of the 2022 edition.

But above all, he gave pride of place to the young generation – Thomas Jolly, Julien Gosselin, Jean Bellorini, Caroline Guiela Nguyen -, to emergences and voices from outside Europe, from Latin America to the Middle East via Africa.

Faced with criticism which has sometimes reproached him for having given too much priority to politics, he had hammered, in an interview with AFP, in 2019: “The theater is political, even if it bothers some.”

Baroque and flamboyant

Himself a director of theatrical marathons (from “La Servante” in 24 hours which revealed him at the festival in 1995 to “Ma jeunesse exaltée” this year, in ten hours), he has reinforced this tradition launched since “Le Mythical Mahabharata” by Peter Brook (1985, nine hours).

Similar to a theatrical character carried to lyrical flights, Olivier Py, born July 24, 1965 in Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes) had been director of the National Dramatic Center in Orléans (center) then patron of the Odéon in Paris. Known for his taste for the baroque and the flamboyant, he continued during his mandates to write and direct, in the theater as well as in the opera, irritating himself against those who felt that he could not do everything.

What’s next? “Continue doing theatre! I would like to return to directing a theater throughout the year,” he told AFP recently.

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