In Avignon, end of the game for Olivier Py, defender of the “utopia” of the theater

published on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at 3:10 p.m.

For nine years, Olivier Py was the bearer of an Avignon Festival somewhat in his image: committed, utopian, poetic, in love with the text, many texts.

“What is more beautiful on this earth than our Festival?”: two days before the closing of the 76th edition of the festival, the outgoing director, moved, read a real love letter 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, Mr. Py also did not hide a kind of incomprehension in the face of criticism during his two terms of office (2014-2022).

“Keep your heart pure when the endless nonsense about elitist art, self-segregation, intellectualism, or the institution will be spat in your face,” he said to his address. successor, the Portuguese Tiago Rodrigues.

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).

– “Theatre is political” –

First artist to have directed the head of the festival since its founder Jean Vilar, he passionately defended a “theater of the verb”, a “popular theater” and “concerned about the world”, 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 migrants.

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.

He invited big names like the Dutchman Ivo van Hove who will cause a sensation in 2016 with “The Damned”, carried by the Comédie-Française; the Germans Thomas Ostermeier and 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”.

– Theatrical marathons –

He personally worked with inmates in a penitentiary center in Avignon, transforming them into Macbeth or Antigone; established a “theatrical soap opera” accessible free of charge in a public garden in the city, and the tradition of a traveling show around the City of the Popes; involved 5,000 college and high school students each year in theater workshops, favored shows for young audiences and included rap and electro in the programming.

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 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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