Olivier Py during the balance sheet

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

For nine years, Olivier Py has brought an Avignon Festival somewhat in his image: accomplished, 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 true letter of love to this theatrical event, the most famous in the world with Edinburgh. “this is 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 the criticisms suffered during his two terms of office (2014-2022). “Keep your heart pure when endless nonsense about elitist art, isolationism, intellectualism, or institutions is spat in your face”he said to his successor, the Portuguese Tiago Rodrigues.

Under his leadership the festival achieved a record attendance rate (95.5% in 2019), a slight decrease this year after two years of health crisis (92%). He prided himself on introducing a price of 10 euros for those under 26 (20% of the public under 30, against 16% when he was in office).

Theater is a political art

The first artist in charge of 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 Hortense Archambault duo, favored aesthetics and artistic radicalism. Guest artists often deal with ecological questions, LGBT+ rights (the 2018 edition will be dedicated to them), feminism, or migrants. The number of female directors increased significantly under his mandate (almost 45%), although feminists criticized him because he did not program a woman for the opening of the Festival.

He invited big names like Dutchman Ivo van Hove to cause a sensation in 2016 with The Damned, put on by the Comédie-Française; the Germans Thomas Ostermeier and Frank Castorf and of course the Russian Kirill Serebrennikov, star of the 2022 edition. Jean Bellorini , Caroline Guilela Nguyen-, on emergencies and extra-European voices, from Latin America to the Middle East through Africa.

Facing criticism that sometimes ridiculed him for giving too much priority to politics, he hammered home, in an interview with AFP in 2019: “The theater is political, even if that bothers some”.

“Keep doing theater! I want to go back to managing a theater year round

Olivier Py

He personally worked with the inmates of a penitentiary center in Avignon, making them Macbeth or Antigone; built a “theatre 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; engages 5,000 college and high school students each year in theater workshops, favors shows for young audiences and invites rap and electro to the program. Himself a director of theatrical marathons (in The servant in 24 hours it was revealed at the festival in 1995 at My exalted youth this year, in ten hours), he strengthened this tradition launched since The Mahabharata legendary by Peter Brook (1985, nine hours).

Like a theatrical character taken on lyrical flights, Olivier Py, born on July 24, 1965 in Grasse (Alpes-Maritimes) became director of the National Dramatic Center in Orléans then patron of the Odéon in Paris.

Known for his taste for the baroque and flamboyant, he continued during his mandate to write and direct, in theater as well as opera, infuriating himself against those who felt he could not do everything. What’s next? “Keep doing theater! I want to return to the direction of a theater all year round »he told AFP recently.


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