Many hats of Mikhail Fiksel

Mikhail Fiksel wears a lot of hats. He is a sound designer, musician, composer, DJ and educational enthusiast. Mikhail was born in Akademgorodok, Russia, but at the age of 12 moved with his family to Madison, Wisconsin in United States. As he went on to study at the University of Chicago, he found his new home in the Windy city. Currently he is splitting his time between Chicago and New York, mainly concentrating on the upcoming theater productions. “Feathers & Teeth” opens up at the Goodman Theatre on September 19 and “Fulfillment” first premiers at The Flea Theater in New York early in September. It will then arrive in Chicago at American Theater Company in November. Before that Mikhail was involved with the production of “Feast” with the Albany Park Theater Project that took stage at the Goodman Theatre during summertime.

– Why have you decided to take part in the “Feast” project?

– Around 2006 I was brought in to the Albany Park Theatre project (APTP) to consult on a specific element of one of their productions. I got to know the company and David Feiner, its co-founder and producing artistic director. Eventually, I was asked to sound design the “Feast” in 2010; it was my first full-time project with APTP. This year’s version of “Feast” was a great opportunity to revisit my first endeavor with APTP and really improve on it. There are several layers of music in the show: straight songs performed live by the ensemble, underscoring and kind of incidental material, and hybrid of dance slash body percussion composition (choreographed by Stephanie L. Paul). I feel that this year we embraced the musical element of the show and expanded it a lot. For example, we added a new song “Mole” that was quite a challenge for the ensemble, but at the same time it was really inspiring to work on.

– What attracted you to the themes of “Feast”?

– That is a bit of a tough question, simply because there are so many themes that are really close to my heart. I even ended up directing one of the pieces, named “Francisco and his cow”, so it is hard not to be attached to it. That one is a bit of a baby of mine. The themes in the play are so different, so it is really difficult to compare apples and oranges in that way.

– Even though Chicago has been home for you for a long time, you are travelling more and more to New York…

– I am splitting my time between Chicago and New York right now. I have lived in Chicago for 17 years. I moved here for school in 1997. I got started in theater here. And let me tell you: there is A LOT of theater going on. As long as you keep saying “Yes!” to opportunities, you will get a lot of experience that way. I worked all around the city. In the last couple years I have been venturing out and doing a lot of work regionally, expanding my footprint; I would say, mostly on the east coast, specifically, to New York. Last year I started making a larger commitment there. So, now I have a residency in New York, but I constantly go back and forth, sometimes once a week. Chicago is definitely a great home for me, and I believe in the work that some of the institutions do here. It is not so much of a business as it is in New York, for example, but there is a lot of “for-the-love-of-the-game” work that happens here. It is an opportunity for people to express themselves, and grow, and be supported. One of those institutions is APTP, so is the Goodman Theatre actually.


– What opportunity does APTP in particular give you?

– It allows me to stretch myself completely outside of my usual mode of operation and comfort zone; mostly I do music and sound design. At APTP I get involved in a lot of ways. I have done some writing, got involved a bit with the choreography, and in “Feast” I ended up even directing one piece. It is such a collaborative effort and I get a chance to hone some skills that I do not necessarily get a chance to develop or work on elsewhere.

– But your next project will be at the Goodman again…

– Yes. It will be the show “Feathers & Teeth” by Charise Castro Smith. It is directed by Henry Godinez and runs September 19 – October 18 in the Owen Theatre. It originally debuted this past fall as a developing production as part of the New Stages Festival – a free festival dedicated to the exploration of new work by emerging playwrights – I also worked on that production as a sound designer.

– Mikhail, your birth home is Siberia. When did you move to the States?

– I was born in Akademgorodok not far from Novosibirsk (Russia) in 1980. In 1992, when I was 12 years old, my parents, younger sister and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, of all places. Later we moved to Minneapolis, following my dad’s job opportunities, but I only spent a couple years there. In 1997 I started going to University of Chicago and stayed here since then.

– When did you realize you have a special relationship with music and decided to dedicate your life to this craft?

– I studied piano since I was 5. During my teen years I spent a lot of time practicing different instruments and joined a band. When I was 16, I discovered electronic music; I went to my first dance party, so-called “rave”. That was a life changing experience as soon after that I started DJing. By the time I got to college I was DJing a lot and also started getting involved with the theater. A lot of people are interested in being on stage, but I pretty quickly understood that music and sound engineering did interest me more. So eventually music became my weapon of choice.

– What genres of music are your favorites?

– There are a lot of them. And it is both a good and a bad thing. I could say that I tend to navigate more towards the instrumental music, jazz, classical, electronic… things where the tonal components are where the narrative sits. Sometimes I naturally gravitate towards things that evoke space and sound of the cityscape, an urban environment of the present, and the future… There is a group that comes to mind named “The Cinematic Orchestra”. As well, I love jazz from the 50ies and 60ies. To John Coltrane I could listen forever. I was also a kid of the dance floor: funk, hip-hop, and even house music… And I spent a great deal working with Latino theater companies and really got into Latin music. Those sorts of rhythms, anything that gets the hips moving, are also ecstatic to me. So my preferences do sit somewhere amidst all of this.


– As a DJ (known under nicknames “DJ White Russian” and “The Red Menace”) and a live performer how do you describe your style?

– That is a great question! I am a slightly reluctant live performer. I love DJing. I absolutely love it! But to me it is much more about what happens outside of DJ booth. That certain energy, desire and drive that are in the room… and it is your job to translate it into musical vocabulary and throw it back at the people. That is what’s important. That is much more transparent than anybody would think. And if you do your job correctly, you will be almost invisible.

– Did you ever study theater?

– Actually, I don’t have a formal theater education. University of Chicago at that time did not have a theater program. My official education? I have a degree in psychology. But I started doing a lot of theater at the University. And my education in theater, for the lack of a better term, is on the streets. That is an interesting conundrum: now I am in the position where I teach on a university level. And there are times when I do question myself: what business do I have teaching these young impressionable minds when I am myself have never taken a class in the field? But then you shake it off and tell them what you think is best.

– How does your degree in psychology help your theatrical work?

– Theatrical design is about shaping and molding and constructing the experience of the audience. So I have to imagine that I am an audience member and see the story or the production from that perspective and do what I can to strengthen their connection to the play. So part of it is a bit manipulative. And it can get very technical. For example, from what I’ve learned in psychoacoustics, I know that subsonic frequencies have been known to make people uncomfortable, and sometimes I use ultra low pitch sound specifically for that effect. So I am using a semi-scientific approach to an artistic form. Sometimes, it’s a little more conceptual. For example, in “Feathers & Teeth”, we are using a Foley artist (Caroyln Hoerdemann) to create the sound of unseen creatures. Foley, originally, was used in film and radio to mostly reproduce everyday sounds – footsteps, squishing of clothing, etc., and it was unseen by the audience. In this case, the Foley is visible. We are being honest about being representational, acknowledging the theatricality of our “creatures”, – an instance of “visual dissonance” of sort. But the theory is that by doing that, we are asking the audience to use their imagination to “bridge that gap”, and, thus, hopefully, engaging them in the storytelling and having a visceral connection. I did similar things for “Francisco” in “Feast” and I think it was successful in accomplishing those goals.

– Theater, film, DJ and а live performer, composer, and educational enthusiast… Where is your heart?

– It is about that time, when you begin to ask yourself, where is the anchor of your life and the desire to streamline. I don’t have necessarily an answer to that yet. But even though it seems that I have been all over the place, there is a consistency in the way I work.

– What are you currently mostly concentrating on and what the future holds for you?

– In the next year I will be working on a lot of the very interesting projects. Both in Chicago and elsewhere. Right now, in addition to “Feathers & Teeth” there is another project that I am doing in New York that later in the year we are bringing to Chicago…

– And what is that?

– It is called “Fulfillment” by Thomas Bradshaw (directed by Ethan McSweeney). This world premiere is co-produced by The Flea Theater in New York and American Theater Company in Chicago. Aside from that a few more projects I am working on will be at the Goodman Theatre. One of them is “2666”. It is an adaptation of a book “2666” by Roberto Bolano. This special event will be a five hour-long theater experience in the Owen Theatre. And then I have another project with APTP. We have been working on it for over a year now and it is called “Learning Curve”…

– The movement never stops?

– No! The hustle keeps going!


Photos: joe mazza brave lux inc.

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