1989: Michel Orphelin – Theatre of the heart

By Andrew Stallybrass

13/09/2021
Michel Orphelin acting in Caux

 

In spring 1946, when the first small group of Swiss visited the derelict hotel in Caux which was to become the Initiatives of Change (IofC) conference centre, they realized its ballroom could become a theatre. Within a few years, its conversion was complete, with a scene dock and workshop, fully equipped stage, fly gallery and raked seating. 

 

Michel Orphelin photo: David Channer
Michel Orphelin (photo: David Channer)

 

Hosts of plays have been produced in the Caux theatre, and small armies of actors and stage crews have laboured here. In 1989 one of its many stars, Michel Orphelin, was back with his one-man show about St Francis of Assissi, Poor Man, Rich Man. Its French version, Un Soleil en Pleine Nuit, had first been staged in Caux in 1980.

I’m just a worker. I do what I can.

Michel is a French mime artist, singer, cabaret performer and actor, engaged in what his son François calls ‘the theatre of poverty’. The true avant-garde, Orphelin believes, lies in great simplicity. ‘What is often missing in complicated productions is that they no longer know how to speak to the heart.’

Michel and Marie-José Orphelin, 1972
Michel and Marie-José Orphelin, 1972

Theatre, he feels, is about creating and transmitting a relationship of love. It should deal with reality; be simple, without being simplistic. ‘I’m just a worker,’ he says. ‘I do what I can.’

As a young person, he never dared to admit to himself or his parents that he wanted to become a performer. So he went to hotel school. There he and two friends formed an act, Les 3 Horaces, and eventually launched out as professionals. For 12 years they toured together, appearing on television over 70 times. But he still felt a lack of meaning in his life. 

Things began to change on a holiday in Brittany, where at a time of emotional turmoil, watching the sun set in the sea, a sense of certainty flooded in. ‘God exists,’ he says. ‘I’ve met him. He was there for me.’ 

He found that his new faith did not automatically resolve long-standing problems of relationships in his work, and with his mother whom he loved, but with whom he fought continually.

It was through seeing a play in the theatre on his first visit to the conference centre in Caux that he found his life purpose. ‘It was as if I saw the Cross on stage. It was a call to transmit a luminous Cross to people.’ He rebuilt his relationship with his mother, who also found a faith.   

Then friends asked him to play in the musical revue, Anything to Declare? which took him to India. He accepted, though it was not easy being away from his wife Marie-José, a violinist, and his son and daughter.

 

Image
Michel Orphelin (centre left) performing in Caux, 1974

 

He has a vivid memory from that tour of a young man coming to one of the cast after a performance to say that he had given up his plan to kill the person he blamed for the death of his cousin. He had been moved by a sketch which dramatized the real life experience of forgiveness of Irène Laure. Few actors can know, as he does, that they have been in a production which has saved a life.

Few actors can know, as he does, that they have been in a production which has saved a life.

Poor Man, Rich Man was written especially for him by Hugh Steadman Williams, a British playwright engaged with IofC. Michel performed the play in a dozen countries during the 1980s, frequently bringing it back to Caux in the summers.

Hugh S Williams
Hugh S Williams
Michel Orphelin Poor man rich man programme
Leaflet of Poor Man,
Rich Man

The tours, with their frequent travel and late nights, had their lighter moments. In one small town, the musical director ordered a piano from a music shop, and on delivery found that some of its strings were broken. ‘But are you absolutely sure you need to play those notes?’ asked the delivery man.

Wherever it went, the play touched people deeply. After one performance, a nun said, ‘You have helped me to rediscover my calling to poverty.’  

In Belgium, a couple came to him with a dilemma: they had adopted three children – should they adopt a fourth? Some nights later, in another town several hundred miles away, they were back again. They had taken the plunge, they said, but instead of one child, they had been asked to adopt a brother and sister. They were going to name them for St Francis and his female counterpart St Clare.   

 

Michel Orphelin scene from Poor Man, Rich Man
Scene from Poor Man, Rich Man

 

Like the saint he portrayed, Michel has always been clear about the source of his gift. That’s why he has never been foolish enough, he says, to imagine he is the water himself.

‘Who am I to touch people like this?’ he says. ‘I’m just a pipe for the living water of the Creator to flow through to a thirsty public. All I can do is to try to be a clean pipe. It is essential to have pipes, but they are only pipes.’

 

Read the French script of Poor Man, Rich Man

Discover the programme of Poor Man, Rich Man

Read an article on the play

 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Watch a video of the play (1985)

 

 

Watch Michel Orphelin acting in the theatre in Caux (6"00')

 

 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

 

This story is part of our series 75 Years of Stories about individuals who found new direction and inspiration through Caux, one for each year from 1946 to 2021. If you know a story appropriate for this series, please do pass on your ideas by email to John Bond or Yara Zhgeib. If you would like to know more about the early years of Initiatives of Change and the conference centre in Caux please click here and visit the platform For A New World.

 

 

Featured Story
Off
Event Categories
75 stories 75th anniversary

related stories

Lucette Schneider

2011: Lucette Schneider – Choices which make the magic of Caux

For many years, Lucette Schneider from Switzerland organized the team which gathered in the early mornings to wash, peel and chop vegetables for the kitchens of the Caux conference centre. ...

Mohan Bhagwandas 2003

2010: Mohan Bhagwandas – Addressing the crisis of integrity

Mohan Bhagwandas is all too aware of his carbon footprint. In the 13 years from 2006 to 2019, he flew 17 times from his home city of Melbourne, Australia, to Switzerland to take part in the Caux confe...

Rajmohan Gandhi 2011 Caux Forum Human Security

2009: Rajmohan Gandhi – Bridges between India and Pakistan

25 distinguished Indians and Pakistanis came to Caux in 2009 with the aim of building bridges between their countries. The man who initiated the gathering was Rajmohan Gandhi, a grandson of Mahatma Ga...

4th Caux Round Table Global Dialogues 1989

1994: The Caux Round Table – Principles for Business

In July 1994, a set of Principles for Business was launched at Caux by the Caux Round Table (CRT), an international forum of business leaders which had been meeting there since 1986....

Iman Ajmal Masroor

2008: Learning to be a Peacemaker – ‘An eye-opener to the world’

2008 saw the launch of an unusual course on Islam’s approach to peacemaking for young Muslims and non-Muslims, devised by Imam Ajmal Masroor from the UK. The course’s coordinator, Peter Riddell, descr...

Mohamed Sahnoun credit IofC France

2007: Mohamed Sahnoun – Healing wounded memories

The Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun was President of Initiatives of Change International from 2006 to 2009 and founded the annual Human Security Forum at Caux....

Zeke Reich cropped.jpeg

2006: Zeke Reich – Across walls of fear

Zeke Reich is a psychotherapist at a community mental health clinic in Washington DC who has been to the IofC conference centre in Caux several times over the years. He remembers an encounter which ha...

Somalia - First meeting of Benadir and Hawiye – anti-clockwise from right: Sayid Ma’alow, Hassan Mohamud Geeseye, Omar Salad Elmi, Mohamed Abukar Haji Omar, n/a, Khalid Maou Abdulkadir, Dr Ahmed Sharif Abbas

2005: Omar Salad Elmi – Clearing the cloud of mistrust

‘There are two people in the Somali delegation whose names include Omar,’ said the man from the allocation team at the Initiatives of Change conference centre in Caux. ‘As we didn’t have any informati...

Housekeeping Monica and Maya

2004: The Housekeeping Team – ‘My dream of serving the world came true’

Before you arrive in your room in Caux, someone from the housekeeping team will have been there before you, to check that it is clean, that the bed is made up and the light bulbs work. If you can’t wo...

Round Table Burundi 22 April 2007

2003 : Burundi – Ten years of political dialogue

Between 2003 and 2013, Caux was the scene of seven political dialogues between deeply divided Burundian leaders. They brought together representatives of political parties and armed rebel movements, f...

Erica Utzinger and her husband Beni working in the archives

2002: Erika Utzinger - 200 metres of history

The archives of the Caux Conference and Seminar Centre, now held by the Canton of Vaud, are an endless source of precious information. Swiss archivist Eliane Stallybrass describes the work to preserve...

Sommaruga with Amina Dikedi (left) and Msgr Fortunatus Nwachukwu at Caux, 2006 credit: Isabelle Mermindo

2001: Cornelio Sommaruga - ‘Grüss Gott’

'I first met Cornelio Sommaruga at a private dinner party. He was then head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and was just back from Cuba, where he’d met with Fidel Castro, in the...

Club for Young Leaders, Angela 2014, Caux (photo Diana Topan)

2000: Angela Starovoytova and Kostiantyn Ploskyi – Taking off the masks

Around the turn of the Millennium, many young Ukrainians came to Caux. Some of them took leadership in Foundations for Freedom (F4F), a programme for young people which offered courses in the values w...

Ismar and Fabiana Villavicencio credit T Hazell

1999: Gente Que Avanza – Latin America hits town

It was a Red-Letter Day in July 1999 when more than 40 young Latin Americans burst through the front door of Mountain House, Caux, and hugged everyone in sight. Gente Que Avanza had arrived – and Caux...

Ningali Cullen speaken at the dedication of a national memorial to the Stolen Generations 2004

1998: Ningali Cullen – Journey of Healing

When Ningali Cullen came to Caux in 1998, she brought news of a growing people’s movement in Australia to acknowledge the truth about their history. ...