For three weeks each July, the entire city of Avignon turns into a gorgeous giant theatre. Founded in 1947, the Avignon Festival today consists of two strands, the main festival and the fringe, known as the "In" and the "Off" respectively. The dates of the 2013 main festival are from 5 to 26 July, while the Avignon Off will run from 8 to 31 July.
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Each year the main festival works over a long period with a different Associate Artist, a lead guest artist who shapes the theme and overall flavour of the programme over an extended period of meetings and discussions and also presents his or her own work in Avignon.
The Associate Artist has been announced for 2013. In fact, there will be two (pictured below): the Congolese author, actor and director Dieudonné Niangouna and the French actor-director Stanislas Nordey, who won an Olivier Award in Britain for his 2008 Covent Garden production of the opera Pélleas et Mélisande.
Nordey will be bringing his own production of Peter Handke's 1981 poetic drama Über die Dörfer (Walk About the Villages) to Avignon. The story of a dispute between three siblings over a family inheritance, it will star Emmanuelle Béart, Jeanne Balibar and Nordey himself.
Meanwhile Niangouna also comes to Avignon with a new piece called Shéda, a choral fresco performed by a dozen African and European actors and musicians about life and death, violence and love, wisdom and folly, despair and hope.
This work will be presented in the Boulbon stone quarry and promises to be one of the most exciting and original events at the 2013 Avignon Festival.
Click here to read the full programme for the 2013 Festival d'Avignon. Apart from the two pieces by Nordey and Niangouna (which have been two of the hottest tickets so far), it will open with a free fireworks show by the French master-pyrotechnicians Groupe F. The show is held at the FabricA, a large, brand-new rehearsal and performance space which was constructed this year outside the city walls in Montclar.
The FabricA will also welcome the the German director Nicolas Stemann with an epic, eight-hour production of Goethe's Faust - parts one and two. Other highlights include Britain's Katie Mitchell, a regular in Avignon. In 2013 she brings her adaptation of 84-year-old Austrian Friederike Mayröcker's 1984 novel Reise durch die Nacht and a King Lear from France's Ludovic Lagarde and Olivier Cadiot .
Also likely to be sought-after: the one-night-only shows from some of the directors who have been most acclaimed at festivals in recent years. These include the Italian Romeo Castellucci, Belgium's Jan Fabre, France's Patrice Chereau, Switzerland's Christoph Marthaler, and Thomas Ostermeier from Germany.
Both Nordey and Niangouna will appear as actors elsewhere as well as directing their own productions and the Festival as a whole will have a strong African flavour. The box-office for the Avignon Festival opens on 17 June.
Website for the Festival d'Avignon
In 2012, the Associate Artist was the British actor and director Simon McBurney. Previous Associate Artists have included Thomas Ostermeier of Berlin's Schaubühne theatre, the French dancer-choreographer Boris Charmatz and the Lebanese director-playwright Wajdi Mouawad.
The main Festival d'Avignon was founded in France's heady post-war years by the actor-director Jean Vilar, with a production of Shakespeare's Richard II - a play then relatively little-known in France - in the Cours d'Honneur, the vast inner courtyard of the Palais des Papes (pictured left).
Aiming to make culture more widely accessible, Vilar acted as the Festival d'Avignon's Artistic Director until his death in 1971 and his work, and the history of the festival, are commemorated in a museum in Avignon, the Maison Jean Vilar.
Today the Festival d'Avignon forms a quartet of prestigious midsummer arts festivals in Provence alongside the Festival d'Aix (classical music), the a-part Festival of Contemporary Art in the Alpilles and the Rencontres d'Arles (photography).
Unlike the two other festivals, Avignon suffers, of course, from the handicap of language. Though the city is in the heart of one of the most popular regions in Europe for English-speaking tourists, the Festival d'Avignon admits to difficulties in attracting these.
The Festival has been attempting to combat this by including a generous component of dance, mime, and visually-oriented events as well as by inviting English-speaking artists and providing an English-language newsletter and multi-lingual synopses to many of the productions.
The directors of the main Festival d'Avignon since 2004 have been Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller (pictured right; photograph by Ilka Kramer).
They will be succeeded in 2014 by the flamboyant actor-director-playwright Olivier Py, who was offered the future directorship of Avignon after being controversially sacked from his highly successful tenure at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris.
The spectacular setting of the Cours d'Honneur, which can accommodate 2,000 spectators, is still the Festival's principal focus, though today it spills over into several dozen other venues all over - and around - the walled city.
A rich mix of theatre, dance, comedy, film and mime, the Festival d'Avignon premieres many new works and productions, a number of which go on to tour nationally and internationally: around two-thirds of them are either French or international premieres. Pictured: Juliette Binoche and Nicolas Bouchard in August Strindberg's Miss Julie at the 2011 Avignon Festival.
Running concurrently, the Festival du Off in Avignon, established over 30 years ago, is one of the largest independent theatre festivals in the world, comparable in size to the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2012 it will offer nearly 1,200 shows from over two dozen countries, a slight increase on 2011.
The complete guide to the Off Festival is a mighty tome - nearly 400 pages - but you can view the 2012 programme online here.
Unlike the main Festival, which invites and subsidises a select handful of top-flight international companies, the Off is open to anyone who can fund and find a venue for their production.
Churches, schools, shops, museums, open-air cloisters and not least the streets: the visiting actors stage their shows and spectacles anywhere they can.
These venues, too, are dotted all over town, though the heart of the Off is around the picturesque rue des Teinturiers.
In this area you can also find the big air-conditioned circus tent which acts as the headquarters of Avignon's Off Festival. Here you can buy tickets, get a copy of the programme, attend debates, listen to live music nightly between 7pm and 9pm and, most importantly, hang out in the festival bar.
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The main Festival d'Avignon is based at the Cloître Saint-Louis, a 17th century monastery converted into a hotel (pictured left). Cloître Saint Louis, 20 rue du Portail Boquier, 84000 Avignon. Tel: (+33) 4 90 27 66 50 Website for the Festival d'Avignon
Tickets go on sale online in mid-June. You then pick them up later at the Cloître Saint-Louis or, immediately prior to the performance, at the venue itself. If you are in France, Belgium or Switzerland, you can also buy tickets for the Festival d'Avignon at the chain of FNAC music and book stores.
The Festival du Off is based at Ecole Thiers, 1 rue des Ecoles, 84000 Avignon. Tickets are also on sale at the Avignon Tourist Office (41, cours Jean-Jaurès), Monoprix department store (24 rue de la République) and the Town Hall (l'Hôtel de Ville, place de l'Horloge). Website for the Off Festival
By showing your theatre ticket at the monuments and museums in Avignon and Villeneuve lès Avignon, you can benefit from the special "Avignon Passion Pass" price which offers reduced admission. Information at the Tourist Office.
Another attractive deal was offered in 2012 by the Off Festival. Buy a pass, La Carte du Off, for16 €uros and you were entitled to 30% off ticket prices to every Off show as well as discounts on trains and local transport and half-price admission to the Palais des Papes and many of Avignon's other tourist sights.
Click here for our full guide to the best places to eat in Avignon, from Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurants to great-value informal brasseries.
Accommodation is at an absolute premium during the Festival, especially if you are planning to be in Avignon on or around Bastille Day (14 July). Be sure to pre-book a room. It is worth considering staying just outside the walled city, on the large Piot and Barthelasse Islands in the middle of the Rhône river or in nearby Villeneuve lès Avignon. Click here for more suggestions for where to stay in Avignon.
The Festival du Off has an online page of classified room ads. If you read French, it's worth trying the Off Festival site's French-language page of classified room ads, which usually has a lot more offers.
And if you are unwise enough to arrive without a reservation, the tourist office maintains a daily list of available accommodation for you to try your chances on the spot.
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