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Chahine Yavroyan obituary

Chahine Yavroyan – Lighting Designer, musician, performer, artist

Born February 17 1950; died September 3 2018

Chahine Yavroyan, who has died aged 68 following a short battle with cancer, helped revolutionise what a lighting designer could achieve onstage, both for text-based work and the more playful abstractions that the dance world opened up. Beyond a stream of collaborations with world class artists as a lighting designer, Yavroyan was a polymath and renaissance man. As a musician, sound designer and performer with People Show, the pioneering live art troupe he joined at the end of the 1970s, he was an artist in every way.

As everyone who ever came into contact with Yavroyan observed, he was the epitome of cool. This wasn’t just about his immaculate approach to dress, which saw him perennially clad in a white shirt and waistcoat combination alongside an array of hats that was the everyday attire of the Egyptian men about town Yavroyan grew up beside in Cairo. It was as much to do with an attitude that was both inscrutable and quietly anarchic.

As described by People Show founder Mark Long, Yavroyan was “a beautiful mystery,” who could speak umpteen languages, but “spoke English posher than any of us”. He was also, by all accounts, wonderful in drag.

As outlined in Long’s history of People Show, Nobody Knows But Everybody Remembers, Yavroyan was a sea of calm as all about him floundered. It was such attributes running alongside a bohemian self-assuredness which helped Yavroyan look the part as well when he appeared as one of a trio of shady-looking wheeler-dealers in the nightclub-set video for Smooth Operator, the 1984 nouveau-jazz hit single by Sade.

This was but a playful diversion, however, from a career that put Yavroyan at the centre of an increasingly ambitious and ever forward-looking set of collaborations that were experimental expansive, and which shed light on the overall staging of a production in every way.

Yavroyan was put into the spotlight himself in 2005 in People Show 114 – The Obituary Show, in which he played a pianist who dies at the start of the play, with the rest of the show following a civil servant’s efforts to find out everything he can about the pianist in order to write a government-sanctioned obituary. The show ended with a sharing of people’s real life memories of Yavroyan that made for a moving display of affection towards a man adored, not just by his peers and close friends, but by passing acquaintances too. Even the owner of the local café he frequented had something to say in a homage that showed just how powerful and charismatic a spell Yavroyan cast.   

Born in Cairo as the only child of Armenian parents, Yavroyan was initially brought up among the city’s Armenian diaspora. As a child, Yavroyan moved to Beirut, where between the ages of ten and eighteen he lived with his mother and grand-mother, where he was sent to music lessons, excelling on the piano.

Aged eighteen, Yavroyan enrolled in Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he studied stage management before moving to London, and ended up working on some of Steven Berkoff’s early plays. In the late 1970s, Yavroyan became sound technician at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, then a hothouse of institution-baiting avant-garde activity. It was here that Yavroyan fell in with People Show, the UK’s premiere live art troupe, who had formed a decade earlier in the ferment of London’s counter-culture.

Yavroyan worked on sound collages for the company, gradually moving into lighting design, an art which until then was barely acknowledged. As a performer, as well as The Obituary Show, Yavroyan played the title role in People Show 85 – Dentist, and took part in People Show 108, Cabaret, alongside Long and fellow People Show regulars Emil Wolk and George Khan.

While Yavroyan remained an integral part of the company over four decades, as his skills as a lighting designer developed, he moved into other areas, always looking forward, forever teaming up with increasingly world class collaborators who, as his CV shows, he returned to again and again.

During the 1980s Yavroyan spent seven years in Bologna, where he effectively lit the city in a swathe of artistic activity focused on illuminating buildings. This experience had a huge impact on his work, both in conventional theatre spaces and what came to be known as site-specific work.  

In the 1990s, he worked extensively at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh at a crucial time in the theatre’s history. Under then artistic director Philip Howard, Yavroyan lit the original production of David Harrower’s modern classic, Knives in Hens, David Greig’s early play, The Architect, Perfect Days by Liz Lochhead, directed by John Tiffany, and Mike Cullen’s play, Anna Weiss, directed by future National Theatre of Scotland and Royal Court artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Yavroyan also lit Gagarin Way by Gregory Burke, again directed by Tiffany, Iron by Rona Munro and other plays by Greig including Outlying Islands and Damascus, all directed by Howard.

The Traverse’s current chief electrician, Renny Robertson, who knew Yavroyan for thirty years, describes him as “the Tom Waits of lighting, pushing in directions no-one had thought of before and few dared to follow.”

It was at the Traverse too where Yavroyan met theatre director Roxana Silbert. Yavroyan would go on to light numerous productions by Silbert over the next twenty years, including extensive work with Paines Plough and Birmingham Rep right up to this year. Yavroyan and Silbert were married in the Highlands in 2017.

Elsewhere in Scotland, Yavroyan lit Jane Eyre and Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me at Perth Theatre. With the National Theatre of Scotland, he lit two Anthony Neilson plays, The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Realism, as well as Neilson’s production of Caledonia and John Tiffany’s revival of Chris Hannan’s play, Elizabeth Gordon Quinn.

Yavroyan was also lighting designer on David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth, Dunsinane, originally directed by Silbert for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Let The Right One In, directed by Tiffany, and a collaboration with American company The TEAM, Anything That Gives Off Light, at Edinburgh International Festival. Yavroyan also worked extensively at the Royal Court, with Birmingham Rep and at the Gate and Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Yavroyan never saw any barriers between artistic disciplines, moving easily between them all as he shook things up, always thinking outside the box in terms of what theatre and performance could be. In dance, he worked extensively with choreographer Jasmin Vardimon over seventeen years. At the Royal Opera House he collaborated on a new piece by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and at the Royal Festival Hall with Simon Callow on the Shakespeare400 Gala Concert. Also at the Royal Festival Hall, Yavroyan lit a performance by mercurial singer Diamanda Galas as part of the Meltdown festival.

In terms of range, vision and personality, Yavroyan was looked on in awe by the lighting design community, lighting shows in a way that nobody else did, ignoring convention and a ‘proper’ way of doing things in favour of something more creatively radical. Yavroyan’s lighting expanded on the ideas of directors and set designers, no matter how abstract, in a way that was effectively painting with light.

Yavroyan’s final completed work was on Anthony Neilson’s play, The Prudes, at the Royal Court in April this year, before his illness forced him to step down from other planned projects. These included Vardimon’s production of Medusa, and Rona Munro’s Inspector Rebus adaptation, Long Shadows, with Birmingham Rep. A planned update of People Show’s Cabaret will now only feature three of the original performers. Yavroyan’s spirit, his cool and his subversive artistry will undoubtedly shine down on each show’s every moment.

Yavroyan is survived by his wife, Roxana Silbert.

The Herald, September 19th 2018


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