Mikhail Fiksel emerged from Siberia as a sound designer to be reckoned with. He makes his home between Chicago and New York, with design work at Playwrights Horizons, Goodman Theatre, The Civilians, Dallas Theatre Center, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and many others. Since 1997, Mikhail has performed as “DJ White Russian” (or his alter ego, “The Red Menace”) for venues ranging from underground dance floors to the New York Marathon’s finish line. He has taught sound design at Loyola and the University of Chicago. His awards include numerous Jeff Awards and nominations, the 2011 Michael Maggio Emerging Artist Award, Lortels for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and A Life, and two Drama Desk nominations. Discover below his site-specific work in a four-story building and where you can hear his design work this year!
What are you working on at the moment?
I just did a production of Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band at OSF with Chay Yew. And now I’ll be doing whole other production of the same play with Marti Lyons at Victory Gardens in Chicago. Both productions are slated for additional remounts in 2019, so this will be very much a Lauren Yee year for me, which I’m not mad about. Also, I’m amidst editing several new audio plays being released as a podcast season by Make Believe Association, which, too, has been an exciting and exhausting process.
What is the most exciting thing happening this season that you are not working on?
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Novosibirsk, Russia. (Yup, in Siberia). Currently, I keep residencies in NY(Brooklyn) and Chicago.
Describe one of your most successful collaborations in the theater. How or why was it successful?
Probably the most exciting (and memorable) project was Learning Curve, an immersive piece by Albany Park Theatre Project (a youth theatre group in Chicago) and Third Rail Projects (immersive theatre geniuses from Brooklyn). The performance took place in a 4 story building, with multiple simultaneous audience experiences for 40 people across 2 hours. It was a big logistical challenge (45+ discreet speaker zones, a lot of layered diegetic and musical content, etc) and it was a 2-year development process and about 2 months of tech. All resulting in a tightly integrated design across all disciplines – I collaborated with scenic and object designers to create sound installations and conceal my sources, interfaced with the lighting team to coordinate cabling and remote triggering, and closely worked with directors and choreographers to create music and movement pieces. It was definitely the most ambitious thing I’ve done, and we are all very proud of it. So much so that the same team is reuniting on another 2-year journey to create our next immersive experience, this time diving into the subjects of the immigrant experience and low-income housing.
You have a serious DJ career in addition to being a very busy sound designer. What is your favorite gig as a DJ?
I’ve been lucky to do some fun and weird gigs, especially with the now-shuttered spectacle company, Redmoon – playing from a 30-foot hydraulic lift, controlling a Fire Organ, collaborating with 60 person choir, etc. But among my favorites is probably the NYC Marathon, which I’ve done a few years now (as a DJ, not a runner). It’s a different kind of thing – no dance floor, but lots of people and a very particular vibe – so it’s all about maintaining supportive and positive energy for everyone (myself included). Plus, I made it a challenge for myself to play the whole thing – I play non-stop for 12+ hours – a bit of a marathon for me, as well, and I get to dig pretty deep in my crates. It is especially fun for the last couple hours when the final finishers (non-runners, first-time marathoners, disabled runners… ) are genuinely fighting to get to finish line. At that point, I’m shamelessly inspirational, anything goes – Vangelis, John Williams, Puccini, Daft Punk, Queen, whatever “gives you wings”
Who or what makes up your support structure?
An interesting question. I’ve been fortunate to form some long-lasting relationships, with several directors and/or choreographers, and I continue to work with them. Some for over 10 years, many of them are now friends and confidants and I guess we provide support to each other, as we navigate our lives and careers. More often than not, it is a conversation about life/work balance. On that note, my fiancee has also become quite a positive influence in my life – inspiring me to take care of myself, both physically and spiritually – often offering the muggle’s perspective.
What is your favorite piece of music at the moment?
I don’t know about favorite, but the cut that is almost on constant repeat in my head right now is a track called “Eleven” by a Korean group “Hitchhiker”. It was introduced to me as a reference for some original music I was working on – and it’s a very silly and catchy dance track and the video for it is bananas, so it kinda stuck. Otherwise, more longterm… Chopin’s “Prelude No.4 in Em” is almost always right below the surface of my consciousness.
Name a pet production peeve.
Improper/inconsiderate conference call behavior. Phone/video calls are becoming more commonplace it seems, but it is amazing how often individuals/institutions don’t make an effort to make these (often crucial) conversations more user-friendly – investing in quality equipment, finding/creating a quiet space, muting your mic when not speaking, etc, etc…
What is your favorite meal during or before tech?
I often have nuts or trail mix at the tech table. My challenge is that I often forget to stop eating it 🙂
Do you play an instrument?
My original music education was on classical piano, and so piano/keyboards are where I feel most comfortable. I’ve been trying to translate that to other “chromatic” instruments – vibraphone, melodica, accordion, etc – but hardly proficient, just enough to get into trouble. Also a little bit of bass and the turntable.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be involved in theatrical sound?
1st year of college is where I discovered the notion and understood that I enjoy it. It took another 8 or so years to embrace the idea of doing this as an actual vocation.
Does your family understand what you do?
To be completely honest, my somewhat sudden shift into “art” was a hard sell with them. It doesn’t’ really fit the immigrant idea of The American Dream – no clear career path, questionable financial stability, etc. At least it has that perception and something I’m interested in changing for further generations. But anyways – it was a source of contention for a while… When I started teaching – that somehow provided more legitimacy, so things calmed quite a bit. Now, at this point, after 15 years and various accolades, I don’t think they are as concerned, though they don’t always understand what/why I do.
Did you have a sound design or composition mentor? If so, how did they help or guide you?
Unfortunately, no. Probably, in part, because I didn’t have a formal education in this field… There were people I admired and looked up to and was inspired by – some, I even had the honor to work with. But I didn’t have a chance to find true mentorship, despite my sincere desires for one.
Where do you find inspiration?
Often it’s best not to look too closely… I’ve been trying to travel more (one of the many positive influences of my fiancee) so that is proving to be a great resource of new stimuli and vantage points. I also have a lot of very inspiring friends – they are such curious, erudite, hard-working creators and sometimes, they ask me to work with them – and that is an honor and an inspiration.
Was there a show or experience that drew you to sound design or composition?
It was a gradual descent down the rabbit hole, but the show that comes to mind was a production of The Night of The Iguana by Tennessee Williams that I worked on in college. Much of the design was environmental, and I really got into using diegetic sound to support the narrative and to shape the experience. But it was also one of the first times I did some original composition. Plus, I got my hands on a 4-track MiniDisc player (yup, that’s right) and I discovered the joys of immersive design. So I think that project really opened up a lot of ideas and possibilities for me.
What programs are we likely to find open on your computer?
I’ve been a long time Ableton Live user, so that’s a sure thing, Along with various Native Instruments products and other VIs – especially Spitfire, Soniccouture, Output, and various plug-ins. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of editing in Logic and keep wanting to dig into Max/MSP, but not finding the time. When DJ-ing, I mostly use Traktor with various controllers.
Was there a piece or type of gear or program that revolutionized how you work?
The AKAI APC40 and the Ableton Push both have had profound effects on my relationship with music – in performance and composition. The APC opened up the possibility of being able to truly improvise with sampled content (via Ableton), and then Push has taken another leap, unlocking me from linear scales, and got me into finger drumming (which I’m still only beginning to really dig into).
If you couldn’t have a career in a field related to this one, what would you want to do?
Well, technically, my official education was in Psychology, so maybe that. But also – I keep thinking a lot about urban planning and public policy, and sustainability-driven design… Whatever that means…
What do you hope TSDCA can accomplish?
I think we owe to ourselves and the industry to be a reliable resource in the ongoing efforts to provide access to emerging talent and to foster new voices and new narratives. Ultimately it has always been about advocacy. For ourselves and for others.