The Aurillac Street Theatre Festival attracts about 100,000 visitors annually to this small town in central France, when it turns itself over completely to almost total mayhem and limitless creativity. Aurillac, for just about 361 days every year, is an unassuming but pleasant old town, with half-timbered houses, narrow streets, shady squares and a largely pedestrianised centre where you can have a leisurely coffee before wandering up to the Chateau Saint-Etienne overlooking the town. You might, for a little excitement, pay a quick visit to the Museum of the Volcanoes.
Since 1986, though, Aurillac has been hosting the International Festival of Street Theatre, so, for four days every August, the streets are clamouring with activity and boundless enthusiasm. The Festival is now not only one of France’s cultural reference points, but is also important on a European and international scale in terms of the street arts it promotes.
Back in its humble beginnings, when Aurillac was known simply as the town which produced about half of all the umbrellas manufactured in France, the Festival had just 6 official companies – and one unofficial group that turned up as well. At the present time, about 20 companies come from France and abroad to make up the Official programme with a spectacular 500 others making up the ‘off’ – Aurillac’s version of the Edinburgh Fringe.
During the Festival, every street, corner, square, public garden or scrap of open space buzzes with both avant-garde and traditional street theatre; some will be simply visually stunning whilst others will be sophisticated and thought-provoking. Some will be tightly choreographed and meticulously planned whilst others will be different every time they are staged and perhaps involve audience participation. The festival is Street Theatre at its best – and at its best it is remarkable.
It almost goes without saying that children are welcome at the International Festival of Street Theatre as there is so much for them to see and do. In fact, one of the often commented upon aspects of the festival is the complete universality of the visitors; all ages, nationalities and classes can, and do, appreciate the entertainment together.
Aurillac is not the easiest place in France to reach; it’s about 500 miles or so from Calais, although most of that can be driven on motorways. The A75 will take you to St Flour or Massiac and then the regional roads, RN122 and 120 carry on to Aurillac. There are some simply stunning views in the mountains of Cantal near the town and a few delightfully typical French regional villages such as Albinhac and Brommat which you can pass through if you drive the ‘Route des Cretes’.
There is a reasonably direct train route from Paris via Clermont Ferrand and, although there is a local airport, it only has direct flights to and from Paris. The town does have some excellent hotels, although these do get booked out well in advance of the Festival itself. There are, of course, many wonderful self-catering gites in the area and some very popular camp sites.
The International Festival of Street Theatre takes place in Aurillac during August. Dates and ticketing information are on their website.