Custom Converse All Stars Times Two!

Two weekends a year, I spend ten hours sitting and listening to a religious broadcast. I enjoy the speeches, but if I just sit there I end up falling asleep. To keep my hands busy and my mind active, I’ve been painting during the broadcasts. And of course, what I paint is shoes.

You can see some previous painted shoes projects here and here.

Last October I began a pair of shoes for my son Nathan, but didn’t finish them. So a few weeks ago, when the next broadcast was scheduled, I knew I would need at least a couple of hours to finish the last panel and the tongues of that particular pair. I told some family friends I would be happy to do some shoes for their son Ethan if they could get me the shoes by Saturday afternoon. I managed to finish two pairs of painted shoes in one weekend, and I’m happy with the way they turned out.

Nathan’s Star Wars Shoes

Nate wanted his Converse All Stars painted with some of his favorite scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s worth pointing out again that the constraints of these shoes sometimes make it difficult to chose subjects. The panels are always taller on one end, so we had to choose movie stills that worked for the available space.

Left Shoe, Outside: AT-AT Attack on Hoth (The Empire Strikes Back)

This still might actually be from a video game, but the composition worked really well for the shoe’s side panel. I composited the T-47 airspeeder because of course I did.

Left Shoe, Inside: Light Saber Duel (The Empire Strikes Back)

Probably one of the most memorable scenes from the entire series, the duel between Luke and Darth Vader is pretty dang awesome. Yes, this is the “I am your father” scene.

Right Shoe, Outside: Death Star Dog Fight (Star Wars: A New Hope)

It’s tricky to paint space without just making it all black. The angle of the shot make the Death Star look lopsided, but it’s actually round. I had fun with the shading to make things pop.

Right Shoe, Inside: Crash-landed on Dagobah (The Empire Strikes Back)

This was the last panel I did. In retrospect, it should’ve been overall darker. I had to mess with the perspective on the X-wing just a little to get it to fit. R2 is fun to paint, even in miniature.

Tongues and Heel Straps (R2D2 & C3PO, Logos)

I always paint the tongues even though they end up getting covered by laces. Since R2 and 3PO are basically the viewpoint characters of the original trilogy, it made sense use them here.


Ethan’s Theater Shoes

Just like my kids, Ethan is super involved in theater. But unlike many theater kids, he enjoys the onstage and offstage stuff equally. So he wanted his inner panels to represent the backstage/tech work in theater, and the outer panels to represent some of his favorite musicals.

Left Shoe, Outside: Shrek, Aladdin, Newsies

Three of Ethan’s favorite shows.

Left Shoe, Inside: Lights and Sound

Because Ethan likes to do both lighting and sound work, I chose a fresnel lantern and a sound board to represent that.

Right Shoe, Outside: Little Shop, Hamilton, The Little Mermaid

Three more of Ethan’s favorite shows.

Right Shoe, Inside: Shrek, Aladdin, Newsies

Behind the scenes is all about backstage: the braced-up muslin flats, sight lines and curtains, painting and rigging and construction.

Tongues and Heel Straps (Drama Masks, Measuring Tape and Playbill)

If you’ve ever been to a Broadway show, you know most of them have the yellow “Playbill” header across the program. The companion, of course, is the measuring tape, which is used in all kinds of theater tech. The tongues got the traditional comedy/tragecy masks, in garish colors that will be covered up by laces anyway.

Here are a few detail shots of the individual show panels. Newsies was a particular challenge.

For Your Listening Enjoyment

My daughter is gonna kill me.

I can’t remember why I uploaded these audition tracks to this site. I think somebody asked to hear them and at the time it was the easiest way to make that happen. But then I found myself listening to them today and figured, why not share them?

Yep, she’s gonna kill me.

A few months ago we arranged for a couple of hours of studio time so she could record a few songs to submit as audition pieces. We only had time for a couple of takes for each song, but dang if she doesn’t sound pretty awesome—even straight out of the microphone. So, with no apologies to her or anyone else, here they are.

“Part of Your World”
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (1989), from “The Little Mermaid”

Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (1994) from “Beauty and the Beast”

“She Used to Be Mine”
Sara Bareilles (2015), from “Waitress”

“Second Hand White Baby Grand”
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (2012) from “Smash”

“Gimme Gimme”
Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan (2002) from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”

The Ramses Twins – Egyptian Statues for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”

When our local children’s theater company announced a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” this summer, I immediately began thinking about some fun projects I could do for the show. I’ve always wanted to do some larger-than-life sculpted figures, and this seemed like the perfect time to do that.

luxor-ramsesA big part of our Egypt set consisted of a large stair-step pyramid right in the middle of the stage. The plan was for Pharaoh to be lifted up to the top from  behind (on a scissor jack) and step forward onto the top of the pyramid. As I thought about dressing up the stage, I remembered photos of the Luxor Temple, with rows and rows of identical statues of Ramses II. Obviously, we couldn’t have a whole row of statues, but two of them flanking the pyramid sounded like a pretty cool idea. Add to that the painted Egyptian columns I was planning and I knew we’d have a beautiful set.

My requirements were straightforward. They needed to go up and down into the flies, so they couldn’t have much depth (less than 18 inches) and they couldn’t be very heavy. They also had to be big—I was hoping for ten feet high or more. They needed to be more or less identical and they had to have “bling,” since this was a Vegas-style version of Egypt.


I had trouble finding a good photo of the Luxor Ramses statues to use as a template. Instead, I found this very similar statue, which was pretty symmetrical except that it lacked lower legs. Also, I wanted the familiar “crossed arms” pose with the candy cane and the whip. Apparently this pose makes reference to Osiris, who (according to the Egyptian Book of the Dead) “seized the crook and the flail when … in the womb….” Sounds like a great guy.

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So yeah, I wanted that. Totes Egyptian.

Tools of the Trade

Materials for this project:

  • Template paper (on a roll)
  • Masking tape
  • 19/32″ OSB, two 4×8 sheets
  • Drywall screws
  • 2-inch construction Styrofoam
  • Wood glue (several large bottles)
  • Gold paint (base layer and top coat)
  • Acrylic paints (for details)
  • Gaffer tape (black and white)
  • 2 Wire coat hangers

Tools I used:

  • Laptop, projector
  • Pencil and Sharpie marker (for drawing and tracing template)
  • Jigsaw
  • Drill with Phillips bit
  • Serrated steak knife (for rough carving)
  • Small hand planer (for smoothing)
  • Shoe rasp (for detailed shaping)
  • Heat gun

We didn’t even have to buy any foam for this project. I had several full sheets (and some parts and scraps) still in storage from my Cave of Wonders project for “Aladdin” last year. So … yay. Big bang for even fewer bucks.

I know it sounds pretty low-tech, but I did all of the carving on this project with a steak knife that I pulled out of my camping bin on the morning I started building. The blade actually came out of the handle an hour into my first carving, so I “fixed” it with gaffer tape. So here’s a photo of my high-tech tools:

Tools of the Trade

Paper and Plywood

Unfortunately, I didn’t take photos of this first part of the process. But I’ll describe what I did.

When creating any design, one of the key elements is symmetry. This is almost impossible to achieve when you’re tracing a pattern for a design like this. The solution is to  only work on one side. That sounds counter-intuitive, but it really works.

First, I joined two long sections of my el-cheapo template paper. I buy roll ends from the local newspaper for just a couple of bucks each. They’re 22 inches wide, so I taped two strips together to make a 44-inch wide roll. Having the center line was perfect,  because it gave me a good reference for the exact middle of the paper.

I taped the paper to the wall and hooked my laptop up to a projector. I fiddled with the zoom on the image until I got it right in the middle of the sheet, at the right size for what I was hoping to do. I knew I was going to add to the height and scale of the statue by using a plinth (a traditional statue base). I didn’t bother creating a design for the plinth—that would come later.

As I mentioned, I combined two designs to make this work. Basically I just drew the outline for the first section, then projected the second image onto the chest (for the crossed arms) and adjusted until it fit. Once I had half of a design, I darkened the half-outline with a Sharpie pen, folded the design in half, and traced the other side to create a perfect mirror image. I filled in a few gaps and ended up with a completed design. Here’s what it looked like.


You’ll notice that I ended up lengthening the shendyt, or wrap-around skirt, at the request of the director. Even though the Egypt in “Joseph” is kind of Vegas-ish, we’re still in Utah and this was going to be a “family show.” Modest is hottest, right?

After cutting out the final design, I lay it on top of a sheet of 19/32″ OSB (construction waferboard). I went with the slightly thinner stuff because I knew there wouldn’t be much weight. I laid out the plinth with a yardstick and cut the thing with a jigsaw. Since the final design was about ten and a half feet tall, I started the base at the bottom of the board and used the leftover pieces at the top for the head, screwing them together with drywall screws. The screws stuck out through the front but that wasn’t a biggie. The screw points were going to be covered up soon with foam.

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The photos above are the back of one of the statue cutouts. These photos were taken after the pieces were hung on the flies, but you can see the basic shape and how I cheaped out by using scrap lumber to piece together the tops of the heads. This allowed me to get each shape out of a single sheet of OSB.

Once I had one piece cut out, I plopped it onto a second sheet of OSB and traced the outline for its twin. So far, so good.

Layering the Foam

For  the statue bodies, I used 2-inch-thick construction foam. The foam comes with a plastic covering on one side and foil on the other, so I had to carefully peel that stuff off before using it. I knew I’d have to layer it thicker in some sections than others. This was actually a very good thing. Using wood glue, I put two full layers (4 inches) on the entire bodies. Then I cut out a “torso template” and put another layer from the arms up. I added a fourth layer to the face and one of the arms (to make it easier for them to look like they were crossed. This took some time, because I would have to apply the layer and wait at least a day for it to dry before rough-cutting the shape and gluing up the next layer. I don’t know if it was absolutely necessary, but I rested something flat on top of each layer and put a couple of chairs on top to press the layers together while the glue was drying.

I ended up tracing sub-templates to help me with the layers:


Working in layers meant I could “pre-sculpt” certain areas by tracing sub-templates and cutting around the layers that needed to be built up. That meant, when I began the shaping process, I wasn’t beginning with just a great big block of foam. The basic shapes were already there … I just had to refine them.

At this point we began calling these things the “Ramses Twins.” Here’s how they looked after several days of gluing and cutting and layering:

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You can see that I’ve outlined the shendyt. Also, the feet are still just kind of shapes. I would have to wait for the plinth box to be built before building them up.

Carving the Foam

Now it was time to make a real mess. Seriously, Styrofoam is really awful to work with. I had to wear a filter mask so I wouldn’t breath the stuff in. I tried to clean up after every session, but I kept finding bits and pieces everywhere. Under my watch band. In my ears. Between my toes (if I had been wearing sandals while working). You never get it all. I would have one of the other guys give me a once-over with a Shop-Vac after each carving session, but I still found bits and pieces when I got home. it’s just how things were.

Here are a few photos of roughing in the legs:

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That was the easy part. The torsos and heads were much trickier. Oddly enough, the armpits were the hardest. It was tricky to get the right angle to cut through.

The process was one of shaping by degrees. I would use the steak knife to hack off corners and gouge out areas. Then I would work with the planer to smooth things out. That part of the process was a lot like shaping a surfboard (or so I’m told). The shoe rasp has both rough and smooth sides, rounded and flat, and it was helpful for grinding out some of the finer details. Sometimes I would hit the foam with a heat gun to shrink and firm up the surface a bit, then smooth and shape it with the rasp.

I worked on the statues side by side, trying to keep things even. You can see, though, that when I got them stood up (with my gorgeous daughter to show the scale), the heads were different shapes, and there were other obvious differences. But they were really coming along:


Still needed to box in the plinths so I could work on the feet. Kevin, our sceneshop stud, took care of that while I was doing something else. I also added strips of foam to the tops and bottoms of the plinths to give it some architectural detail. And also … feet and toes and sandals!

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The feet are intentionally foreshortened. The whole design is slightly flattened because we just couldn’t fit a full-depth statue up in the flies. But nobody would notice that from the audience. You’ll notice in the photo of the feet that I used some drywall compound to fill in some cracks and smooth some rough areas that the planer couldn’t get to. Some more examples:

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I realized at this time I had forgotten to give the Twins any ears. I carved some and glued them on, then filled in those cracks as well. After letting the drywall mud dry overnight, I sanded it and did a little more smoothing. Then I took the Twins outside and blasted them with a leaf blower to get all the dust and stuff off so they were ready to paint.

Please don’t say anything about the faces. Faces are hard.

Painting and Decorating

Styrofoam really sucks up paint, so I knew we needed at least one base coat before we got to the bling. I found some tan in the paint shop, so that’s what we used.

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Several people wanted to stop right here. With the base coat, the Ramses Twins actually look remarkably like the statues in the temple of Luxor:


(Yeah, that’s me in my work clothes.)

But no. In our version of “Joseph,” Egypt is like Vegas, and the Pharaoh is Elvis. That means they’ve gotta get blinged:

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The tan coat helped the gold paint go a lot further. It was pretty thin, and dripped everywhere. I ended up doing two coats. After that it was time to bring them in and add the hand-painted details. I used the same color palette I’ve seen in death masks and sarcophagi: blue, green, red and black. The idea was just to make them pop on the stage.

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I also added some hieroglyphs to the front of the plinths. The stuff in the middle is just gibberish (but mostly real hieroglyphs). The two cartouches actually belong to Ramses himself. Here’s how you “spell” his name in hieroglyphics:


I wanted the plinths to be as identical as possible, so I worked out the design on a piece of template paper and then transfered them to the gold-plated plinth fronts with transfer paper:


And here are the statues with the finished embellishments and hieroglyphs:


Again, please don’t say anything about the faces. Faces are hard.

Final Touches

At this point I actually had to drop this project to work on another one (palm trees that turned into painted Egyptian columns). I didn’t get back to the Ramses Twins until a day or so before opening night. I realized I hadn’t added the cobra detail on the headdress or the crook and the flail in their hands. I ended up making the flail out of a dowel, with gaff tape covering the handle and strips of twisted gaff tape hanging off it for the stripes. Quick and dirty, but it worked.

The crook is a piece of coat hanger wrapped in white felt, which I wrapped in white gaffer tape. I bent it into a candy cane shape and added strips of black gaff tape.

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I carved the cobras from foam scraps and painted them with the same paint I used on the body. Added the details (including green sequins for eyes) and hot glued everything to the Twins.

I got a lot of very kind compliments from audience members about the Ramses Twins and how great they looked on stage. But the biggest compliment came the Monday before we opened. The statues had already been hung and flown, but I needed to take some measurements to finish the crook and flail. I asked Bruce, our stage manager to bring the statues down while I got out a ladder. The director was giving notes to the cast so the stage was clear. As I was coming back, this enormous sound erupted from inside the theater. When I got inside, I saw that it was the entire cast, screaming and applauding these two set pieces, which they were seeing for the first time.

For a volunteer theater worker, that’s the best praise possible.

Last night, we closed “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” After the performance, we struck the set and hauled off the Twins to be boxed up and stored. As we loaded them onto the trailer, I kept cautioning the other helpers about how fragile the pieces were. (Foam is very delicate, and we want to be able to use these babies again.) One of the guys said, “Wow, you’re really protective of these things.”

Of course I am. They took a lot of work to create. And I’m really proud of how they turned out. Here they are on stage. My son was Joseph (center stage in the blue and gold) and my daughter is the second narrator from the left.


Until next time…


Casting Complications

Please note that the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own, and do not represent the views of my spouse, my children, my employer, my religious faith, or any one else someone might wish to complain about or to. The views are entirely mine. My own. My … precious.

When I first posted this commentary on casting, all hell broke loose. Before I say anything further, let me restate my initial point:

The crucial consideration in casting musicals is fitting the best available voice to each part.

This axiom especially applies with lead roles. I stand by this assertion, and I’m adding this epilogue to underscore that assertion.

Almost as soon as I published the post, I began receiving comments—some never published, others since removed—that speculated on specific examples I used to illustrate my point. The first comment was an off-the-handle reaction from a student at our local high school. The comment began:

“This is not okay, in my opinion. Particularly the last section….”

Based on the rambling comment, it was clear the person leaving it had jumped to a whole bunch of conclusions based on very little evidence. Here’s more:

“You all need to respect who was chosen for the parts, and, though it’s okay to be hurt, it is not okay to hate on and disrespect our cast and entire show. And I sincerely hope that your teenagers do not act the way you do when you get a part you don’t want (a ‘non-singing’ role, as you say.). I hope they don’t learn to be ungrateful and rude and turn down parts for petty reasons like, ‘it was a non-singing’ or ‘estenially [sic] an ensemble part.'”

First of all, nothing in the original post was critical of the actors actually being cast (or mis-cast) in roles. Anyone who’s ever done theater knows that it’s a crap shoot every time you audition for something. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. But whether an actor is perfect for a specific role or just completely wrong in every way, that’s never a reflection on the actor. It’s a reflection on the person (or people) doing the casting.

Nobody blames Russell Crowe for making corned beef hash out of the role of Javert. He obviously did the best he could with his meager musical talents. Instead, we blame Tom Hooper (who directed the movie version of Les Misérables) and Nina Gold (credited for casting the show) and assorted producers for giving Crowe the role in the first place.

Believe it or not, this even happens on Broadway! My wife and I witnessed a casting disaster several years ago when we saw the Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida on the Great White Way. Overall the actor-role fit was excellent (if somewhat racially motivated)—with a single exception. Someone had decided it would be a great idea to place aging Monkee Mickey Dolenz in the role of Zozer, father of Radames. Vocally, he was the weakest link in the cast. An unknown actor with an actual singing voice would have been far superior to a rock ‘n’ roll has-been.

Second of all, I had to chuckle at the tone this teenager takes with regard to what I “need to respect” and what I don’t. Leave it to a member of today’s “participation trophy generation” to instruct an adult about what he should and shouldn’t post on a personal blog. Does the school need to teach a refresher course in fundamental rights, perhaps? Maybe lessons in manners? Do a few in this rising generation need someone to explain that respect is earned … and not demanded?

Here’s my public response to the comment:

I mentioned no names or even names of specific shows in here. There is no hate in here, just a discussion of general principles. I have theater friends all around the country, and was curious to know whether I was alone in my belief that singing should be the primary factor in casting a musical. I take it you disagree with that, but I’m sure there are plenty who agree.

We saw a high school show in the Salt Lake area a few years ago that had this exact problem. One of the female leads was an amazing dancer and fine actor, but literally couldn’t sing a note. Her voice cracked and she was a quarter step flat during the entire show. You could hear an audible groan in the audience every time she opened her mouth. It was an extreme example, but one that is repeated again and again on junior high and high school stages around the country.

Speaking in general, casting someone who can’t hit the notes required for a particular part, who can’t even hear the key the song is in, is a disservice to the audience. So is casting based on who “needs” a role more. If a person can’t be found who can perform a particular role satisfactorily, then maybe the director has chosen the wrong show for the group. If better singers are passed over in favor of more popular or attractive kids (or whatever) who can’t sing as well, I see that as a problem. There is plenty of opportunity to learn and grow in a theater program. For those who have more room to learn and grow, much of that learning and growing should happen in class or workshops and not in front of an audience.

Again, I’m speaking in generalities, but theater is a giant time commitment. When I or anyone else auditions for a part, there is no guarantee that I or anyone else will get the part we wanted. We can accept the part we’re offered or we can say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Directors expect this. In fact, most put a checkbox on the audition sheet that asks, “Would you accept any part offered?” There’s no obligation to check “Yes.”

Regardless of who gets cast in a particular role, volunteer work is exactly that: volunteer. If I don’t believe a show is worth the investment of my evenings and weekends, I’m under no obligation to do it.

I should also point out that it’s not necessarily about the best voice, but about the best voice for the role. Casting an amazing alto in a part that requires a soprano range, or an amazing tenor in a part that requires low bass notes, would also be a problem. The alto may have a beautiful voice, but if she can’t hit the high soprano notes she’s not the best fit for the part.

I know that, in both school and community theater productions, it’s common to change the gender of a role (usually to allow a female actor to play a part written for a male). This sometimes works just fine, but if the female actor’s voice doesn’t fit the part as written—requiring her to jump up and down in the octaves—this can get very distracting for audiences.

The next comment was posted by the parent of an actor. Just like the student, this parent made some big assumptions and reacted to those misconceptions rather than reacting to my actual post:

“Although I see your point in some of what you have to say, you have in my opinion so inappropriately slandered many in your community.  Even though you ‘mention no names or even names of specific shows.'”

Whoa. Sensitive much?

First of all, to slander is “making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.” I think the parent actually meant to falsely accuse me of libel, which is “a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation; a written defamation.” Regardless, the accusation is utterly groundless. What specific person or persons did I slander or libel? Which example matches which show?

According to someone who actually knows the rules regarding slander and libel:

“To be successful in a defamation claim, you must show that the defamatory comment in question was unambiguous about both its meaning and the individual who was the target of the comment. In addition, truth is always a defense to a defamation claim.”

I actually went out of my way to obscure the identities of actors and the specifics of particular productions in my examples—in some cases changing details to protect those who might have delicate lilac-scented feelings. Collectively, the members of my family have been in several dozen shows, and very few of them have been in this particular community. To say I committed slander or libel is ridiculous. It wouldn’t hold up in court, and it doesn’t work in the court of public opinion either.

The comment continued:

“High School and Community Theater [sic] should be open to those who are working on developing talent. Allow growth to all Youth [sic], not just the ones who already have fully developed talent. That is what SCHOOL is all about. High School Musicals [sic] and plays are not professional productions.”

Aye, there’s the rub. This is the very mindset that all theater people need to fight against. The idea that high school and community theater should have different standards than professional theater groups is ludicrous. Sure, the budgets are different, and the actors in pro shows are paid. But the basic principles should be the same. To reiterate: when it comes to musical theater, the quality of the actor’s singing voice should be the primary consideration when casting lead singing roles. Minor roles and the chorus or ensemble are the correct place for those who are “working on developing talent.”

I replied to this parent in private and in great detail, but the parent didn’t bother to respond. I think part of my public response  is extremely relevant:

I wonder if people would say the same thing regarding high school athletics? Say you have a drama kid who decides to go out (audition?) for football. Somehow he makes the team. He’s never played football before, and he doesn’t even really know the rules, but he loves playing and spends the season learning the game and developing his skills. He has a lot of heart, but not a whole lot of natural talent. Even if the kid is super-popular or from an influential family, it’s pretty likely that this student won’t get nearly as much playing time as more talented, more experienced athletes.

Now imagine: how do you think the spectators would react if the coach benches his star quarterback and subs in the newbie during the fourth quarter of the championship game? Let’s say the kid has had limited playing time on special teams, but has never taken a snap in his life. Would it be appropriate to allow this kid to “develop his talent” during a critical game? This isn’t professional football, after all. It’s SCHOOL football. Shouldn’t ALL players have the same opportunities that the star quarterback and running backs have?

If a high school football coach did something like that, the spectators would boo him off the field. They would complain to the administration, loudly and in public. Yet somehow, when a high school drama teacher does the same thing, it’s mean and unfair to point it out.

Coaches are expected to play the best athletes they have–especially during important games and clutch plays. And they don’t play someone in a position that doesn’t make sense. What coach in his right mind would sub in a talented but undersized kicker to play on the defensive line? Nobody would do that.

Why should the performing arts be any different? Why are directors so willing to place actors into roles that are outside of their physical abilities? It does a disservice to the audience, as well as to the other actors.

The final bit of feedback I received came via email from a high school principal. Now, why a high school principal would feel the need to respond to a post on my personal blog is beyond me. You’d think a school administrator would have lots of more pressing issues to deal with. However, he voiced his concern that I was “railing on the students” who had been cast in a particular show, even though I hadn’t (of course) mentioned any specific students or specific shows. After I explained my position in detail, he wrote:

“Thanks for sharing the comments from your blog. The only one that concerns me or is relevant to the school is the comment from the student. Regardless of how many readers do not know that you are referencing [a specific show], the readers that do and connect the blog to your children and our students are a concern.

“The students, and parents, that read the blog and perceive that you are referencing them are my concern. Perception is their reality, particularly in the world of a high school student.”

He was referring, of course, to the comment from Little Miss Entitlement, excerpted above. My response to the principal, in brief:

Sadly, I have no control over the perceptions of others.

This whole episode is baffling to me. My goal in writing the original piece was to call attention to the curious phenomenon whereby directors (or casting committees) put other factors above vocal quality in making casting decisions for musicals. The whole show suffers—that’s obvious. Even worse, I’ve seen directors try to make up for their bad casting decisions by cutting out songs or sections of songs that turned out to be (surprise! surprise!) way out of the range of the actors they’ve miscast in various roles.

This isn’t just a terrible cop-out (not to mention an admission of poor casting decisions). It’s also a breach of contract and a violation of copyright. This is no joke. Note the following, from MTI’s performance license:

When you are granted a performance license, by law the show you license must be performed “as is.” You have no right to make any changes at all unless you have obtained prior written permission from us to do so. Otherwise, any changes violate the authors’ rights under federal copyright law. Without prior permission from MTI, your actions may subject you to liability – not only to the authors, but also to us – for breaching the terms of your license agreement, which clearly forbids you to make any changes or deletions.

So if a director in a high school or community theater program decides to alter a show to account for his or her bad choices, that decision can actually lead to the director, the program or the school being sued by Music Theatre International and/or by the author of the show. An even more likely outcome would be that MTI or some other licensing company might decline to license the next show at the school or theater.

Again … casting has consequences.

I have to emphasize again that the blame is not on the actor, but entirely on the person directing the show. If a director has more female than male actors, for example, and casts a girl in a role written for a boy, nobody blames the girl if she can’t (a) sing the notes in the written register, or (b) sing them up an octave. The only possible ways to deal with this curious result of bad casting would be to (1) transpose the entire song, including all vocal and orchestra parts, (2) assign someone else to sing part or all of the song, (3) cut all or parts of the song, or (4) force the actor to sing out of register. Options 1, 2 and 3 are all license/copyright violations. And option 4 is audience (and actor) abuse.

The blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the director who refused to consider vocal range and quality when casting the show.

So let’s recap. What exactly happens when directors commit this casting offense?

  • The audience suffers. Listening to someone sing outside his or her range can be painful—not to mention awkward, uncomfortable and depressing.
  • The cast suffers. When a lead part is poorly cast, everyone else still has to do their best, and often make accommodations for the leads who can’t cut it.
  • Ticket sales suffer. High school or community theater that consistently put on amazing shows draw huge crowds. The ones that put on shows with poorly cast leads … not so much.
  • The program suffers. If you’re a talented “triple threat” (singer/dancer/actor) and your local high school or community theater often puts on shows with obviously miscast leads, are you going to want to participate? No—you’ll find shows somewhere else that are worth your time.
  • The program is liable. When changes are made to a show and MTI finds out, who is responsible for the resulting sanctions or lawsuit? (And by the way, this is not theoretical.)

My high school alma mater is nationally known as a football powerhouse—so much so that it’s not unheard of for a family to move into the district from out of state specifically so their boys can play football for the program. The players get recruited by the big universities, and lots of players receive scholarship offers and all the rest. Many of them go on to the NFL. That’s the power of a strong program with good coaching.

The arts are no different. If a school has a great theater program, parents will move heaven and earth to get their kids into the program. On the other hand, if a school has a theater department with a teacher (or teachers) who tragically miscast show after show after show, is that school going to attract great singers and actors, or is it going to hemorrhage talent and get worse and worse as its program goes down the tubes?

Again … casting has consequences.

Building a Cave of Wonders for Aladdin Jr.


Our family recently had a chance to contribute to a production of Aladdin Jr. put on by Cedar City Children’s Musical Theater. My wife was the musical director and all three of my teenagers were in lead roles. After I kinda sorta designed the set, made some props and agreed to lay out the program, the director asked me to take care of a special project: the Cave of Wonders.

The project was affectionately dubbed the COW.

The picture above was the vision the director gave me to realize on stage. We knew we couldn’t make it 30 feet tall, but we wanted as big as possible. There were basically three requirements:

  • We wanted it to be as large as possible so it came off as impressive rather than pathetic.
  • We wanted the mouth to open and close.
  • We wanted the eyes to light up on demand.
  • The opening needed to be large enough for the actors playing Aladdin and Abu to fall through, in order to enter the cave where they find the Genie’s lamp.
  • We knew the piece would have to fly in and out on wires, so we knew it had to have a fairly narrow profile (about 18 inches total). That limited the number of foam layers we could use in building up the piece.

I documented the construction process, taking pictures at various steps along the way. I thought this might be helpful to someone else doing the show.

Before beginning the actual construction, I did a cardboard mockup to figure out how the height of the snout impacted the height of the opening.


Sadly, I didn’t have access to butcher paper, which would have made the templating process much easier. Instead, I visited the local newspaper office and bought a 22-inch-wide roll of paper for all of two bucks. Taping four strips together got me a manufactured sheet almost eight feet wide and about 12 feet tall.


I taped the sheet to the wall and used my laptop and a projector to throw the image up onto the paper like a screen. Then I used a trick I learned a long time ago. I traced just half of the image onto the paper. Bear with me on this.

After tracing just one side of the image in pencil, I took it down and went over the lines with a Sharpie. Then I flipped it over and traced the same image on the reverse of the paper, also in Sharpie. Then I folded the paper in half with the right side out and traced the other side using the reverse-side transfer. Unfolded the paper and voila! … a perfectly symmetrical design. Here’s what it looked like before I made my sub-templates:


Before cutting it apart, I made a few smaller cutting templates using the same paper roll. (That two bucks was a good investment). I made a template for the snout, one for the noise, plus templates for the lower jaw, upper and lower teeth, brow and ear-eye overlay, and the lower jaw extensions. Then I cut out the outline and transferred it onto two and a half sheets of OSB (oriented strand board).

After that it was time to give the COW some structure. I gave it a frame made of 2x4s. The photo below shows the frame as we originally built it. I actually tilted the framing members to avoid the mouth opening and light reflectors. We eventually changed this, redesigning the frame so that we could mount the drawer tracks on the 2x4s themselves. They had to be parallel for that to happen. I’ll have to see if I can get an updated photo showing this.


You’ll notice that the back of the eyes are made from the reflectors of a couple of aluminum clamp lights. I removed the clamps and attached the reflectors to the back of the COW with cable staples. We left off the actual light sockets until the piece was finished. I put an electrical receptacle on the back so the two lamps could be plugged in. These were connected inside the box to an extension cord, which was later plugged into another extension cord hanging down from the flies.

Before I could do the foam, I needed to do the teeth. I decided to make the teeth out of foam rubber instead of construction foam. My reasoning: when actors fall through the mouth, it was super likely that at one point they would hit a tooth or two. Since construction foam is notoriously fragile (prone to dents and chips and breaks) I wanted something that would “bounce back” if Aladdin or Abu clipped it on the way through. Foam rubber was the obvious choice.


I had on hand a sheet of foam rubber that was twice as thick as I needed. So I first sliced it down the middle with my main tool (a steak knife I stole from our camping utensils). Then I cut out the teeth by sawing them with the knife, and shaped them with snips from a pair of scissors. These photos show the upper and lower teeth taking shape.


With the COW’s dental work taken care of, I could begin cutting construction foam. For this project I used five or six sheets of two-inch white construction foam board, which I sourced from Home Depot at about $22 per 4×8 sheet.

The foam comes with a white plastic coating on one side and a plastic/foil coating on the other. Before working with the foam, we had to remove the coatings from both sides. Basically, you peel up a corner and work from the outsides in, heating the plastic slightly with a heat gun as you go. It took some time, but it was worth it to be able to use the cheaper material.

Once the foam had been denuded, I traced the shapes from the paper templates. I then cut out the pieces with my handy-dandy steak knife. For two layer pieces like the nose (pictured below) I cemented the pieces together with wood glue. To make the foam layers adhere to the OSB I used Liquid Nails construction adhesive.

Here’s the snout piece taking shape:


Here’s the COW with almost all layers in place:


Here’s another view. The only pieces left to put on are the ear-eye overlay and the brow. Sadly, I forgot to take a photo of the full piece before sculpting.


I used just a few simple tools to sculpt the contours into the foam. Rough rounding was all done using my handy-dandy steak knife. For a rounded corner I would hack off the 45-degree angle, then shave off the hard corners. At that point it was easiest to hit the cuts with my heat gun. This firmed up the cuts (actually making the foam harder where the heat was applied) and softened them at the same time.

Once the basic shape had been achieved, I would soften and refine the shape using a simple shoe rasp. My rasp has both flat and rounded profiles, medium and fine teeth. I used the fine and flat for most of the sculpting. Here’s the mostly final shape:


The eyes involved high-powered exterior floodlamps, which we wrapped with red lighting gels. I cut apart an old clear plastic bin and made “lenses” by cutting them out with my Dremel tool. I painted the COW with a tan-colored paint and added some shadowing and contour lines to give it a little more depth. We hung it from a boom with heavy-duty wire. The theater electricians ran power to the


This was the first test we did. I still hadn’t finished painting the teeth, but we needed to get the sucker hung so the kids could begin practicing with it.

Below is a video of the Cave of Wonders in action. It wasn’t onstage for very long, but I think overall it was worth the effort.

Update on Mechanics

A reader (Mary McKenney) asked for details on how the mouth opens and closes. Here’s how it works:

Drawer Track System

The snout and upper jaw piece is screwed to 2×4 pieces that attach to some 1/2″ plywood cutouts that mount onto standard drawer tracks. Look closely and you’ll see that the plywood is notched and so is the upper opening (top of the picture). This gives the mouth an extra three to four inches of travel, allowing the mouth to open wider.

Pulley System

The drawer tracks are mounted on the 2×4 framing. (Note that I repositioned the 2x4s from the photo above so they would be perfectly parallel. Otherwise the slides wouldn’t work.) A pulley mounted on the top framing member allows a rope to be pulled to raise the upper jaw. Also, if you look at where the rope kind of rubs against the upper opening I cut out a notch in the wood to give it easier up and down play.

Rope Attachment Point

The rope attaches to a screweye that’s stood off from the snout backing with a scrap of 2×4. Luckily, I thought to attach this with screws from the other side before I applied the foam. Much sturdier that way.

With the help of my trusty assistant, I made a very professional-grade video to show how it all works.

Another Great Example

Reader Mary McKenney provided some pictures of her own Cave of Wonders project, inspired by this blog post. Great work, Mary!