At Avignon Festival, Theater’s World Gets Wider

At Avignon Festival, Theater’s World Gets Wider

Who belongs onstage at an international theater festival? It’s a thorny question for programmers with limited spots to fill. Already-famous artists bring predictable box-office returns, yet the picture of “the world” they offer rarely extends beyond a small group of countries.

The Avignon Festival, in France, is lucky to be able to go off the beaten track. Every summer, it pulls a large audience that comes to experience a city filled to the brim with theater, rather than individual productions. Artists in the official lineup typically play to sold-out crowds regardless of their reputation, and many Avignon directors have taken this as their cue to experiment.

And this year’s edition, with the Portuguese theater-maker Tiago Rodrigues at the helm, seemed to go even further. Of the 38 artists in the lineup, over half were new to Avignon, and many were unknown in France. As the first week of the festival unfolded, the spotlight shone repeatedly on amateurs and artists from countries rarely represented on the biggest European stages.

Some, like the former prison inmates from South America who star in Lola Arias’s “The Days Outside” (“Los Días Afuera”), performed at the Opéra Grand Avignon, directly expressed their disbelief at being there from the stage. One performer showed a tattoo of the Eiffel Tower on her body, explaining that it had been her dream to see France — and now, she said after a quiet pause during the show, she had.

“The Days Outside” is part of this edition’s tribute to Spanish-language theater. Rodrigues is highlighting a different language each year, and after a timid emphasis on English in 2023, he is going much further this time, with 12 productions — roughly a third of the festival’s offering — performed in Spanish, from countries including Spain, Argentina, Uruguay and Peru.

In “The Days Outside,” the lives of five women and one trans man from Argentina certainly make for heart-rending material. Arias, a filmmaker, writer and director who won this year’s International Ibsen Award, first started offering workshops in a women’s prison in 2019. She shot a musical film, “Reas,” about the daily life of the people she met there. “The Days Outside” is a stage sequel of sorts, focused on the life that awaits inmates when they leave their cells.

Arias is careful not to cast them as victims. Instead, when the show starts, they appear in front of the curtain in their evening best. They declare for how many days they’ve been free, then dance with each other and sing: “No one chooses their fate.” Like Arias’s film, “The Days Outside” is peppered with musical sequences. We learn that some of the cast members formed a rock band in prison, and hear some of their (catchy) compositions.

Yet “The Days Outside” also asks the audience to bear witness to extreme suffering. Some scenes feel like documentary theater by numbers, organized around themes, like unemployment and housing. Some of the transitions are awkward — but what the performers reveal about their lives is horrific. They evoke their conditions of imprisonment in Argentina, and the pain and marginalization they experienced on the outside, from police violence to estrangement from their children. Noelia Perez, a trans woman, recalls having her teeth broken by a man who was angry at her advocacy on behalf of sex workers, before performing a stunning voguing-inspired dance number, almost as a form of personal revenge.

It is hard to know what to make of it, because no amount of standing ovations — and there was one for “The Days Outside” — will ever provide long-term redress. Arias created the conditions for her cast to give memorable performances, each with undeniable stage presence. But you wonder what is next for them after Avignon: In the final scene, one of the performers, Estefania Hardcastle, explains she just can’t picture a better future.

Tiziano Cruz’s “Soliloquio (I Woke Up and Hit My Head Against the Wall)” is an even knottier proposal, despite an upbeat start. Cruz, an interdisciplinary artist of Indigenous Argentine origin, worked with two dozen amateurs from a local “gypsy” community in Avignon, according to a playbill interview, to open the festival with a carnivalesque parade through the city’s streets.

Yet at the core of “Soliloquio” is a similar sense of pain and injustice. When the parade reaches a garden, Cruz reads out a “Manifesto,” copies of which were passed around. The text explains that Cruz’s sister died because of negligence and discrimination in the Argentine health system, and lists other sources of trauma. In this performance, he was “saying farewell” to the “Aristotelian theater structure,” he said, describing it as a form of western colonization.

It’s not clear what this leaves Cruz with. In the second half of the show, which takes place on a regular stage after the audience is led to the theater, Cruz launches into a long monologue, composed in part of letters he wrote to his mother during the pandemic. He rants about feeling like “a traitor artist,” who “sold myself to the art market.” “In order to belong, we have left everything,” he said of artists who leave behind their Indigenous communities. “Perdón, perdón, perdón,” he chanted — “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”

Perhaps because I’m a white European critic trained on Aristotle, I found Cruz’s writing too meandering to really support his vision. Yet, as with “The Days Outside,” when the purpose of a show is to shine a light on suffering, it feels insensitive to point out its dramaturgical flaws.

The French director Caroline Guiela Nguyen has also long worked with nonprofessionals from around the world. For “Lacrima,” a new three-hour production about the dark side of the fashion industry, she has assembled a cast of Indian, French and British amateurs, who play alongside more seasoned performers as characters from different countries and generations that Guiela Nguyen brings together with a hefty dose of pathos. In “Lacrima,” the connecting thread is a wedding dress for a fictional “Princess of England.”

“Lacrima” zooms in on the supply chain behind the dress and its designer. We follow the staff of a high fashion atelier in Paris, led by Marion, a victim of domestic violence whose unraveling is stunningly conveyed by Maud Le Grévellec. Then there is the Mumbai workshop where an exceptional embroiderer, Abdul Gani (the excellent, understated Charles Vinoth Irudhayaraj), is going blind, and a studio in Alençon, France, where lace-makers are restoring a precious veil.

In a single set designed to look like an anonymous workshop, Guiela Nguyen weaves their stories together — with less delicacy that Gani, but with maximum efficiency. Marion’s caricature of an abusive husband is (deliberately) rage-inducing and the unlikely story of Thérèse, an elderly lace-maker who delves into her family past to find out whether her granddaughter has a genetic illness, is ultimately moving, thanks to Liliane Lipau, the superb amateur actress who plays her.

The point “Lacrima” makes is that lots of invisible work, much of it underpaid and done in poor conditions, goes into a fashion statement like a royal wedding dress, despite the “ethical standards” touted by the fictional designer and the royal household. As international festivals go, Avignon is working hard to tell such rarely heard stories — and overall, it’s paying off.

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