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 date of the 2014 main festival is 4-27 July and the Off is 5-27 July.
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Nouvelle: the new Director of the main Festival d'Avignon is the flamboyant actor-director-playwright-musician Olivier Py. It's the first time the post has been held by an artist since Jean Vilar, the founder of the festival who ran it from 1947 to 1971.
After being sacked from a successful tenure at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris in 2011, amid some controversy, Py - who is a convert to Catholicism and openly gay - was offered the directorship in Avignon for four years, starting in 2014.
He takes over from Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller, who jointly ran the Avignon Festival for ten years and made it their mission to broaden the programme to include music, video and performance art. As a result, the festival attracted a reputation for boldness and innovation while, at the same time, achieving box-office records (over 94% capacity).
In September 2013, Py, pictured, raised the curtain a little on his plans for the 2014 Avignon Festival. In an effort to attract more young theatre-goers, he wishes to place a greater emphasis on emerging talent rather than on well-known names.
Py intends to invite fewer productions (around 30, as opposed to around 40 in previous years), but to run these for more performances in order to enable more people to buy tickets. He would also like to offer more low-price tickets.
The 2014 Festival d'Avignon will last slightly longer than in previous years, taking up most of the month of July. In terms of artistic focus, Py is still vague at this point but has revealed that Greece and Brazil will be at the centre of the programme.
It will pay homage to Vilar with The Prince of Homburg, the brilliant tragi-satire by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist which was staged by Vilar in Avignon in 1951, starring the legendary French actor Gérard Philipe. A new production by Giorgio Barberio Corsetti will open the 2014 festival.
Also on the programme: Hyperion, by another German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin, directed by Marie-José Malis and Mai, juin, juillet by France's Denis Guénoun, directed by Christian Schiaretti.
Thomas Jolly is presenting Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy in its entirety - an epic production lasting 16 hours - while at the other end of the spectrum Nathalie Garraud and Olivier Saccomano will be in Avignon with a show called Othello, Variation for Three Actors.
Py himself is writing a new play for the festival. Full details of the 2014 line-up will be announced in spring 2014.
In 2013 Py, pictured, had a show in Avignon - in the Off Festival, playing the transvestite cabaret singer Miss Knife.
Click here to read the full programme for the 2013 Festival d'Avignon, which opened with a free fireworks show by the French master-pyrotechnicians Groupe F at the FabricA, a large, brand-new rehearsal and performance space outside the city walls in Montclar.
The FabricA also welcomed the the German director Nicolas Stemann with an epic, eight-hour production of Goethe's Faust - parts one and two.
Other highlights included Britain's Katie Mitchell, a regular in Avignon, with her adaptation of the Austrian Friederike Mayröcker's 1984 novel Reise durch die Nacht and a King Lear from France's Ludovic Lagarde and Olivier Cadiot.
Stanislas Nordey directed and acted in Peter Handke's 1981 poetic drama Über die Dörfer (Walk About the Villages), while the Congolese artist Dieudonné Niangouna brought a new piece called Shéda, a choral fresco performed by a dozen African and European actors and musicians.
Also sought-after: the one-night-only shows from some of the directors who have been most acclaimed at festivals in recent years. These included the Italian Romeo Castellucci, Belgium's Jan Fabre, France's Patrice Chéreau, Switzerland's Christoph Marthaler, and Thomas Ostermeier from Germany.
Website for the Festival d'Avignon
The main Festival d'Avignon was founded in France's heady post-war years by 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).
Aiming to make culture more widely accessible, Vilar acted as the Festival d'Avignon's Artistic Director until his death in 1971.
His work, and the history of the festival, are celebrated in a museum in Avignon, the Maison Jean Vilar.
Today the Festival d'Avignon forms a quartet of 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 three 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 has admitted in the past to difficulties in attracting these.
The Festival has been attempting to combat this by including a generous component of 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.
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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 later 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 roughly 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.
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.
In 2013 over a thousand companies attended Avignon's Off Festival, staging 1265 shows. More than a million tickets were sold.
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 has been offered in the past by the Off Festival. If you bought a pass, La Carte du Off, 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.
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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.
If you read French, it's worth trying the Off Festival site's French-language page of classified room ads, which usually has offers of accommodation.
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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