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Prop Manager Andrew Thiels on 'Wild Goose Chases' and 'Making Fantasies Realities' Onstage

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Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Andrew Thiels has bought, built, and hunted down everything from dead bodies and antique refrigerators to handmade Amish wheelbarrows and vintage motorcycles for Center Theatre Group’s stages. Thiels, who became Properties Manager in 2013 and began freelancing for us in 2004, sat down with us to share some fun facts about his craft.

"You’re always figuring out how to do something that you don’t know how to do," said Thiels of working in the props department. "It’s never boring. Every show is a completely different world," he said. "It could be any time period, but fantasy is the most fun and challenging. Nothing from a fantasy world exists for purchase in the real world. Everything is built from scratch."

Being true to the time period—or the fantasy—can often require a "wild goose chase," he explained. "Often you have to find something you’ve never seen before—an antique or a rare item." His favorite prop adventure he’s undertaken for Center Theatre Group was for A Distant Shore at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, which required a row of airplane seats. "Near Palmdale there is a commercial aircraft graveyard. As far as the eye can see are dozens of retired commercial jets, just rotting in the Mojave Desert," said Thiels. "You salvage your part, and they sell it to you by weight. I got to go into a 747 and unbolt airplane seats."

I think good theatre not only makes you think and question, but also fosters a sense of community. That's the power of theatre, and that’s the power of art.

Often, the goose chase doesn’t pan out, or the found objects require altering. His favorite built prop? "The dead bodies for The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Mark Taper Forum," he said, adding that they were the most challenging to create and looked really successful onstage. "The bodies had to be very realistic so that the audience could see them being cut up, and hear bone cracking and breaking every night, and then be cleaned and reset for the next performance and done again," he said. "We worked with a Hollywood special-effects house to develop that prop."

Thiels also gave a lot of credit to his team, and the outside artists who come on board for individual productions. "I love that my job is very collaborative," he said. "A position like this is special because you work with so many amazingly talented people—many designers from L.A., New York, and London pass through here, and you get to watch and learn from all of them."

You’re always figuring out how to do something that you don’t know how to do...It’s never boring. Every show is a completely different world.

In his spare time, Thiels collaborates with friends—some of whom are Center Theatre Group colleagues—on vintage-style portraits that recreate old Hollywood. The photos "recreate the very constructed lighting" of the era and include period make-up and costumes as well. "I started a few years ago on a whim with my friend Elizabeth Leonard, Center Theatre Group’s Facilities Manager," he said. "I’ve always loved photography, and while I’m a completely untrained amateur, I’ve been taking photos of my friends in some variety for over 10 years. It’s fun, and something creative to do outside of work."

Thiels, who majored in drama at Seattle University and has been working in professional theatre for 14 years, remains deeply committed to his work, and to Center Theatre Group’s mission. "Theatre is a reflection of ourselves, and I really do believe that by watching our stories play out across a stage, by looking at ourselves in that mirror, it’s possible to better understand not only ourselves as individuals, but the people around us that make up our community," he said. "I think good theatre not only makes you think and question, but also fosters a sense of community. That's the power of theatre, and that’s the power of art."

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