Olivier Py at the time of the balance sheet

Olivier Py at the time of the balance sheet

After nine years, the director, playwright and actor bows out. Opportunity to look back on his mandate at the head of the largest theater festival in the world.

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 in particular.

Also a comedian, playwright and prolific director, Olivier Py also did not hide a kind of incomprehension in the face of criticism suffered 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 spit in your face”he said to his 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).

Theater a political art

First artist to have directed the head of the festival since its founder Jean Vilar, he defended with passion a “verb theater”a “popular and world-conscious theater”, while its predecessors, the duo Hortense Archambault, 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 female directors will increase significantly under his mandate (nearly 45%), even if feminists 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, worn by the Comédie-Française; the Germans Thomas Ostermeier and Frank Castorf and of course the Russian Kirill Serebrennikov, star of the 2022 edition. But he especially gave pride of place to the young generation -Thomas Jolly, he was a king in Avignon, Julien Gosselin, Jean Bellorini , Caroline Guiela Nguyen-, to emergences and extra-European voices, 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 hammered home, in an interview with AFP in 2019: “theatre is political, even if that bothers some”.

“Keep on doing theatre! I would like to return to directing a theater throughout the year

Olivier Py

He personally worked with inmates in a penitentiary center in Avignon, transforming them into Macbeth or Antigone; established a “theatrical drama” 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 invited rap and electro into the programming. Himself a director of theatrical marathons (of The servant in 24 hours which revealed it at the festival in 1995 at My exalted youth this year, in ten hours), he reinforced this tradition launched since The Mahabharata legendary 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? “Keep on doing theatre! I would like to return to the direction of a theater throughout the year»he told AFP recently.


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