When Chahine Yavroyan, who has died of cancer aged 68, arrived in London in the early 1970s, theatrical lighting was almost an afterthought: it was normally flat, white and frontal. Chahine’s innovative use of side-lights, minimalist rigs and unusual colour schemes ushered in a new era of poetic lighting for stage drama and helped to establish it as an art – and a profession – in its own right.
His love of architecture informed his approach to sets and made him a favourite with designers, his mastery of shadow and contrast earning him the nickname the Prince of Darkness.
He worked regularly for the Royal Court theatre in London, the RSC, the National Theatre of Scotland (RNS), the Abbey and Gate theatres in Dublin, and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Instantly recognisable with his trademark trilby hat, waistcoat and battered leather briefcase, he also worked extensively in dance, lighting shows by the choreographers Jasmin Vardimon and Yolande Snaith, and on fashion shows for designers including Hubert de Givenchy and Alexander McQueen.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, he was the only child of parents who had fled the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915. His father, Edward, was a hotelier; his mother, Shaké (nee Minassian), a secretary. Chahine spoke Armenian at home and Arabic on the streets and went on to speak English, French and Italian fluently.
When Egypt’s attitude towards its Armenian community began to sour, Chahine’s father left the family to secure a home for them in Beirut. Chahine barely saw his father over the next four years: he was nine years old by the time the family could reunite in their new country. In 1968 the looming conflict with Israel forced them to move again, from Beirut to Paris, where Chahine’s parents lived out the rest of their lives.
Once in France, and having joined an amateur dramatics group for the traditional purpose of meeting women, Chahine discovered a love for theatre. In 1969 he started a stage management course at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school, but left it for London and his first job, stage managing Steven Berkoff’s Metamorphosis, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel, at the Oval House in London.
He worked with Berkoff on seven other shows before being hired as a sound technician for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which put on many touring shows at a great time for the experimental arts scene.
In addition to his regular sound duties he would tinker with the crude lighting rig, doing his best to enhance the work of visiting companies. The results were good enough that groups began to specifically request his help, and at a time when theatrical lighting was often an afterthought, he became one of the first to make a career of it.
There were few specialist lighting designers at the time, but Chahine landed a job assisting one of the best, Steve Whitson. After a period of apprenticeship he was ready to work for himself, and when the work arrived, it kept on coming.
Chahine largely eschewed the mainstream in favour of the quirky and the maverick. He was always open to new forms and challenges, and in the early 80s he discovered an affinity for dance, a form that was suited to his minimalist methods.
In addition to Vardimon and Snaith, he worked with the performing and directing duo of Frank Bock and Simon Vincenzi, had a long association with the contemporary dance venue The Place, and was one of the first lighting designers for Candoco, “the company of disabled and non-disabled dancers”.
Based in Bologna, Italy, from 1988 to 1994, he worked on many outdoor projects, sometimes lighting whole towns for their annual festivals. This led him to work on site-specific performances with Geraldine Pilgrim and the London-based Station House Opera.
In 1997 he lit David Harrower’s play Knives and Hens at Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre, then under the direction of Philip Howard. Thus began a continuing association not only with Howard but with Scottish artists generally. He was involved when the NTS premiered my shows The Wonderful World of Dissocia (2004) and Realism (2006) at the Edinburgh festival. Recent credits included further NTS productions: David Greig’s sequel to Macbeth, Dunsinane, taken up after the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered it in 2010, and Jack Thorne’s Let the Right One In, toured extensively since 2013.
Chahine was also an accomplished pianist and, since 1980, a long-time member of the experimental theatre company The People Show, of which his friend Mark Long had been a co-founder in 1966. Two years ago Chahine took part in its 50th anniversary show, at Toynbee Studios in the East End of London: he understood the whole process of theatre-making and enjoyed sitting in on rehearsals, where his calm presence inspired the same in others, no matter how fraught the situation.
Since first collaborating with Chahine in 2002, on my play Stitching, I have rarely worked with any other lighting designer. The last show he lit to completion, The Prudes, earlier this year at the Royal Court, was one of ours. Whenever I asked him to work with me, he did not ask about money or the nature of the show, but just “When?”
One of Chahine’s most memorable inspirations came in Unreachable (2016, also Royal Court). It is the story of a film director whose obsession with catching the perfect light ultimately drives away everyone who cares for him. Only once there is no one left to see it does his light appear. For this moment the designer, Chloe Lamford, conjured up an entire avenue of cherry trees in blossom on stage. I asked Chahine to make the sun rise behind the trees and travel the distance of a day within two minutes. As it arced across the stage, the long shadows it cast touched every member of the audience – a poem written in light.
In 2016, after 15 years together, Chahine married the theatre director Roxana Silbert. She survives him.
• Chahine Yavroyan, lighting designer, born 17 February 1950; died 3 September 2018