“The Avignon Festival is not only about shows and theater, but also about thinking, searching and seeking to understand the world and its politics — and offering an opportunity for three weeks’ intellectual life experience every year,” Olivier Py, the event’s artistic director, declared with passion during a recent visit to Japan.
“There, in that beautiful and ancient city in the South of France, you can think, meet people, read books, see performances and talk about it all, then agree and disagree, and fight — it’s fantastic,” he continued with a laugh.
Though he was appointed in September 2013 to head up what is one of the world’s foremost performing-arts celebrations, Py — who was previously director of the publicly funded Odeon theater in Paris — isn’t your standard administrator. While being a Catholic who is quite open about his homosexuality, professionally he’s also an artiste who performs worldwide as chanson singer Miss Knife.
In fact it was after a hit run in that role in Taiwan that the 49-year-old stopped over at Shizuoka Performing Arts Center last month to meet his “soul mate” Satoshi Miyagi — SPAC’s artistic director since 2007 — and to stage a one-off show titled “Miss Knife sings Olivier Py” at its theater in Shizuoka City.
There, it was astonishingly moving to witness this man in a gorgeous sparkly gown and blond wig powerfully harness something at the core of human nature as he performed his original songs of life’s loves and sorrows, conflicts and betrayals.
Just hearing him deliver lines such as, “La vie d’artiste c’est l’errance, l’obscurité, la misère / Mais c’est la dernière chance de tutoyer l’univers” — which I understood as, “An artist’s life is rootless, unsung (and) wretched / But it’s the last chance to get close to the universe” — was like feeling all the melancholy and travails of artists through the ages laid bare before you.
Yet when I asked what drew him to acting, the former theology student said simply, “For me it wasn’t a career choice; it was a survival choice. A stage was the only thing I needed.
“When I was 18 or 19 and had to choose to become a priest or an artist — and I also loved music and fashion — I thought that if you can’t have several destinies at once, then theater allows you to try them all out on stage.
“All I wanted was to have a heroic life; I didn’t care about happiness, family or wealth — and I still don’t. I needed a stage like a drug.”
Then, when I asked him about the Avignon Festival, which every year attracts around 130,000 visitors to that town with its famed bridge over the River Rhone, it was immediately obvious that for this native of Grasse, the nearby “world capital of perfume,” art and politics are natural bedfellows.
Hence, while conceding that “France is in trouble economically and socially,” he berated politicians for cutting its arts budget. “Instead, they should realize that culture generates huge revenues,” he said. “So, though the town of Avignon gives us €2 million, the festival makes €25 million every year.”
Then, referring to his vow to resign or relocate the festival if a candidate from the far-right Front National party was voted mayor of Avignon in recent elections, he explained: “I could not give that party its cultural legitimacy. It would be a profound betrayal of those who founded the festival in 1947.”
Although his stand was credited with aiding the victory of a socialist candidate who had lagged in the polls, Py denied he had been playing politics, saying, “We need something special that makes me proud to be French, and we have our cultural life which is not about money. That’s how I feel about my festival: It has to be international and offer different images of today’s world — the more diverse the better.
“Text, nontext, high-tech, low-tech, music, dance, avant-garde, traditional — performances of all types are welcome. Also, it has never been just about entertainment. That’s all at the core of the Avignon Festival.”
It seemed to this writer that a similar mission statement could have been made by SPAC’s Miyagi, whose annual springtime World Theater Festival under Mount Fuji also embraces such concepts and diversity.
In fact the pair seem to have been on the same artistic wavelength since they first met when Miyagi visited the Avignon Festival in 2007 and, Py recalled, “He showed me pictures of SPAC’s various theaters, including an open-air one, and I couldn’t believe it because they were so beautiful.”
Since then, Py has been able to enjoy those facilities himself, having staged four plays at SPAC before December’s “Miss Knife” show, including his masterful “Epistle to Young Actors” in 2008 and “Romeo and Juliet” in 2012.
But besides the wonderful surroundings, he said, “I long to continue working with SPAC — and I also want to know more about Japanese and other Asian theaters and artists for the benefit of my festival. I’m always traveling and going to shows and theaters in search of new talent. That’s very exciting and it’s everything for me.
“Also, we have talked a great deal about theater together and we have a lot in common, especially a sense of poetry in our drama. I think theater is the only place, and now the last place, in which to hear poems.”
Nowhere has that shared sensibility borne more fruit that in Miyagi’s production of the Hindu epic “Mahabharata — Nalacharitam” — which Py asked him to stage in the coveted opening slot of last year’s Avignon Festival.
And as Py commented happily, “Everybody loved it. Everybody!”
SPAC’s World Theater Festival under Mount Fuji 2015 runs April 24-May 6; details to be announced very soon. The Avignon Festival 2015 runs July 3-26; for details visit www.festival-avignon.com.