Q & A with TITANIC Sound Designer Mikhail Fiksel
In this time of theatrical experimentation, we wanted our audiences to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into our upcoming production, Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912). Associate Director of Marketing and Content Creation Brent Ervin-Eickhoff held a Zoom conversation with sound designer and composer Mikhail Fiksel to get insight into the process. To find out more about the incredible creation journey of this show, read on!
What’s the role of sound in the production?
The production is informed by traditional live theatre, audio plays, and investigative journalism podcasts. It’s staged in a minimalistic style, so the production’s dynamics are executed mostly through sound. The performers are inside audio isolation booths. We have microphones through those areas so we can access their voices. There’s also additional content—music, voice manipulation—that creates the transformation we’re used to in theatre. Through sound, we’re transported to the Titanic and to the internal space of the characters. What you hear is what takes you on the journey.
What were unique challenges in this production?
One of the biggest challenges has been figuring out what this experience wants to be. This piece went through many iterations. Originally, it was conceived as a live performance that was sonically driven, with audiences in the theatre and at home listening on headphones. Then, it was an audio play. Then, we tried to adapt this into a screenplay. It has found its way in the Venn diagram of all these experiences.
Another challenge is that, in rehearsal and the capturing process, we only get a partial picture. A lot happens in post-production, which you don’t have in live theatre. We have to think several steps ahead because we don’t get to experience the fully realized vision until the edited product is complete. During rehearsal, I introduce sound design so that the actors experience everything like an audience member. As they perform, they hear the sonic manipulation that is utilized. Everybody in the performance and rehearsal has to use headphones. We have a network of more than a dozen headphone stations. When you walk into the theatre during rehearsal, it’s a silent experience until you put on headphones, and that’s when you understand the play for what it is.
Some of our collaborators are not with us in person for pandemic restrictions, so we stream it for remote folks so they experience it as we do. It’s a very unique way of doing theatre. We’ve learned a lot, and I feel very good about what we’ve accomplished. I hope we can take these lessons with us when we’re back to producing live theatre.
How do your sound design and composition deepen the audience experience?
Through sound, we provide an intimacy that allows us to subvert restrictions imposed on us by the pandemic. Social distancing creates an accessibility challenge for the performer. With microphones, we provide access otherwise not available even in a live performance. You’re inches away from them, sonically. That level of intimacy creates opportunity for empathy. You experience what the character goes through, whether that’s memories of the traumatic experience or them in the moment wrestling with the aftermath.
When information is visually limited, we rely on our other senses. It’s a catalyst for the imagination, and we have visceral responses. That strengthens empathetic response and investment in the story. We rely on the audience to imagine and complete the action. This approach is meant to encourage the audience to lean in, be part of the experience, and wrestle with the questions explored in this piece. There are parallels between that situation 109 years ago and what we’re living through now; having these fresh experiences on our end and injecting them into the narrative of the Titanic aftermath creates an interesting journey.
Is there anything else you’d like audiences to know?
I encourage the audience to use headphones. It’s not a restrictive requirement, but I recommend it because we’re leaning into the fidelity and the immersiveness of the sound design to elevate the experience, so I want folks at home to get that full effect.
We as a production team are working hard to maintain the theatricality of the experience. We’re giving you the full picture; it’s captured with multiple cameras, and all are available to you. It’s designed to be as close to the experience of watching from a live audience, where you see the whole stage and you use your agency to look at what you want to. This experience is not meant to be consumed while you’re doing something else. Invite your loved ones, but everybody put on your headphones. If you can stream it on your TV as well, you get both the intimacy and the verisimilitude of sitting in a theatre. It’s a new way of consuming theatre, but it’s an interesting one and not dissimilar from how we consume other media. I’m interested in how the emerging intersection of these platforms can inform each other in future art and open up creative opportunities on all these platforms.
Do you have a favorite sound cue in the production?
Being asked that is like being asked who’s your favorite child?, so it’s tough to answer. It’s also difficult because we are mid-process. A lot happens in post-production, so I’m looking forward to making more discoveries and working with the director to expand the world we’ve built.
I also want to note how we’ve incorporated dramaturgical discoveries into the sound design. Under the leadership of director Vanessa Stalling, we found that there was a considerable amount of communication happening between the Titanic and other ships and locations via wireless radio. There were Marconi grams going back and forth before the disaster and while the ship was sinking. We found the transcripts of these transmissions, and they’ve become the building block for sonic content. There was a lot of attempted communication with other ships, but there were jamming signals. This idea of crossing wires and communication challenges feels timely but also created an opportunity for rich sonic experiences.
I’m very eager to learn from the audience experience because I’m of the opinion that we should be doing hybrid work like this all the time. It creates opportunities for playwriting and accessibility, and it can open up what we define as “theatre”. I hope this is a helpful experiment as we continue challenging and expanding the form.
Titanic (Scenes from the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, 1912) is available for streaming on demand from June 14 to July 11, 2021. Purchase tickets here.