France restores one of world’s largest theatre festivals – with masks and health restrictions

One of the world's biggest theatre festivals gets underway on Monday in the southern French city of Avignon after a year-long hiatus caused by Covid-19, with masks compulsory for audiences but organisers relishing a return to relative normality.

France restores one of world's largest theatre festivals - with masks and health restrictions
Culture minister Roselyn Bachelot in Avignon's open air theatre. Photo: Nicolas Tucat/AFP

Theatregoers and troupes have expressed excitement at being reunited for the 75th edition of the Avignon theatre festival, which rivals Edinburgh for the title of the world’s biggest showcase of performing arts.

“I feel euphoric, as if this is my first festival,” said festival director Olivier Py, who has run the event since 2013.

Being deprived of last year’s edition had shown both the public and performers alike “how precious it is”, he said.

The festival opens later Monday with a hugely-anticipated production by Portuguese director Tiago Rodrigues of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, starring French screen legend Isabelle Huppert and staged at the Papal Palace main festival venue.

Rehearsals of The Cherry Orchard. Photo by Nicolas TUCAT / AFP

Rodrigues, 44, whose work at Lisbon’s Dona Maria II national theatre has made him one of the most sought after directors in Europe, will take over the running of the festival from its 2023 edition, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot announced.

The pandemic still looms large over the three-week-long theatre extravaganza.

A South African dance performance by celebrated choreographer Dada Masilo was pulled from the programme on the eve of the opening night after members of the troupe tested positive for the virus or were contact cases.

Avignon, a picturesque walled city which was the seat of Catholic popes in the 14th century, has put in place several measures to try prevent the festival becoming a giant cluster.

Mask-wearing will be obligatory outdoors as well as in for the duration of the festival.

And venues will be ventilated for 40 minutes between each performance.

Audience members will not need to show proof of vaccination or clean Covid tests to be able to take their seats — except for shows at the Papal Palace.

The festival’s outlook brightened further on June 30 when the government
lifted capacity limits on most public spaces, meaning venues were allowed sell all their remaining seats.

For Py the move, which sparked a run on tickets, spelt nothing short of a “renaissance” for the festival, which runs to 50 productions across 21 venues as well as hundreds of other shows in the even bigger “Avignon Off” fringe festival.

The fate of this year’s edition of the Off festival had at one point been uncertain.

With the all-clear only coming in May, this year’s Off offering of street and stage theatre, mime, dance and song comes to just a little over 1,000 shows, down from nearly 1,500 in previous years.

“We don’t know how it is going to go off,” Sebastien Benedetto, head of the association that runs the Off festival, admitted to AFP.

He cited the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in France as a threat to the festival.

“But we’re happy to be back in Avignon, which is where the whole French theatre world meets up,” he said.

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Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

The French have developed an entire cultural tradition around the idea of an afternoon snack. It's called "Le goûter" and here's what you need to know about it.

Le goûter: The importance of the afternoon snack in France

With all those patisseries and viennoiseries tempting the tastebuds in high street boulangerie after boulangerie, there can be little wonder that France  – which takes food very seriously – has also invented the correct time to eat them.

Let us introduce you to the cultural tradition of le goûter – the noun of the verb “to taste”, and a cultural tradition in France dating back into the 19th century, perhaps even as far back as the Renaissance … allowing for the fact that people have snacked for centuries, whether or not it had a formal name. 

It refers to a very particular snack time, usually at around 4pm daily. This is the good news.

The bad news is that, officially, le goûter is reserved for children. This is why many schools, nurseries and holiday activity centres offer it and offices don’t. The idea is that, because the family evening meal is eaten relatively late, this mid-afternoon snack will keep les enfants from launching fridge raids, or bombarding their parents with shouts of, “j’ai faim!”.

Most adults, with their grown-up iron will-power, are expected to be able to resist temptation in the face of all that pastry, and live on their three set meals per day. Le grignotage – snacking between meals – is frowned on if you’re much older than your washing machine.

But, whisper it quietly, but just about everyone snacks (grignoter), anyway – a baguette that doesn’t have one end nibbled off in the time it takes to travel from boulanger to table isn’t a proper baguette. Besides, why should your children enjoy all the treats? 

We’re not saying ignore the nutritionists, but if you lead an active, reasonably healthy lifestyle, a bite to eat in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to do any harm. So, if you want to join them, feel free.

What do you give for goûter 

It’s a relatively light snack – we’re not talking afternoon tea here. Think a couple of biscuits, a piece of cake, a pain au chocolat (or chocolatine, for right-thinking people in southwest France), piece of fruit, pain au lait, a croissant, yoghurt, compote, or a slice of bread slathered in Nutella.

Things might get a little more formal if friends and their children are round at the goûter hour – a pre-visit trip to the patisserie may be a good idea if you want to avoid scratching madly through the cupboards and don’t have time to create something tasty and homemade.

Not to be confused with

Une collation – adult snacking becomes socially acceptable when it’s not a snack but part of une collation served, for example, at the end of an event, or at a gathering of some kind. Expect, perhaps, a few small sandwiches with the crusts cut off, a few small pastries, coffee and water.

L’apéro – pre-dinner snacks, often featuring savoury bites such as charcuterie, olives, crisps and a few drinks, including alcoholic ones, as a warm up to the main meal event, or as part of an early evening gathering before people head off to a restaurant or home for their evening meal.

Un en-cas – this is the great adult snacking get-out. Although, in general, snacking for grown-ups is considered bad form, sometimes it has to be done. This is it. Call it un en-cas, pretend you’re too hungry to wait for the next meal, and you’ll probably get away with it.

Le goûter in action

Pour le goûter aujourd’hui, on a eu un gâteau – For snack today, we had some cake.

Veuillez fournir un goûter à votre enfant – Please provide an afternoon snack for your child.

J’ai faim ! Je peux avoir un goûter ? – I’m hungry! Can I have a snack?