Final tally of theater after Avignon

I am repeating regularly these days that I am through with theater. I thought I’d see a couple of plays here at the Festival d’Avignon and then decide for myself whether this position is justified. Avignon has the reputation for programming the best theater of Europe. A reputation that turns out to be mostly unfounded.

I’ve seen four pieces here of which three turned out to be very poor. Yesterday I walked out of both plays that I had for that day, of which the first was boring as fuck and the second piss poor (see the Guardian about La Mouette) and without English surtitles1. This from a festival that deems itself an international theater festival, where international means the rest of the world is allowed to cater to a French audience.

I think I am allowed to judge theater because I have seen a ton of theater (most of which poor) and critically I am rather close to one of the Netherlands’ leading theater critics. Added to that my media consumption is not that of the geriatric theater audience. My current point of view increasingly is that things that are not interactive are more or less broken.

The discipline of theater is changing, but not quickly enough. The current European funding cuts will be good in so far as they expedite change. There are some things things that still work in plays:

  • Large scale plays by some well-known European auteur-directors (Luk Perceval, Kornél Mundruczó, Johan Simons, Theu Boermans, Gisèle Vienne) who break new ground and stage interesting treatments of old and new plays and draw large audiences. Figuring out who these are at any point in time is the difficult part. I have been pleased with what I’ve seen and heard of the names above.
  • Performances such as musical theater, opera, dance or regular theater with music integrated add a much needed liveliness and reduce boredom for audiences that are used to sophisticated media mixes. Most music will have an effect, but here too you see famous electronic musicians combine with the directors above: Sun O))) with Gisèle Vienne, Ben Frost with Falk Richter, Junkie XL with Ivo van Hove.
  • Mixed media is underused in almost all plays, but when done well it achieves dramatic parity with the actors. Projections are only one form and much more work needs to be done still in this area. Traditional directors are however very squeamish when it comes to time-based media and computerization of stagecraft.

I will be far more reticent in visiting theater from now on. I have enough to do not to spend my money to rid myself of free time.

  1. I tried to get my money back to no avail. The English website does not list a language for the play which obviously means it is in French. Obviously.

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