Arson Strikes The Alley Theater Arts Caravan

Opinion by Craig Nolan Highley

Photos courtesy of The Alley Theater Arts Caravan

Entire text copyright © 2017 Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

I have been active in the Louisville theater arena for right at twenty years, having gotten started in the chorus of a musical in Anchorage way back in 1997. Since then I’ve played dream roles and bit parts in more shows than I can count and I’ve been in four feature films. As a director, I’ve been able to put my personal stamp on both classic and lesser known plays. I’ve developed strong relationships with more local theater companies than I can name, served on the board of directors for three of them, and have been writing theater reviews for over ten years (including for I’ve even recently become part of a sketch comedy group. All of this with no special training, no theater degree, and no real qualifications beyond a love of the stage.

The last two years I’ve developed a valued working relationship with The Alley Theater. With no prior experience with them, they trusted me by reputation alone with directing a couple of my dream projects, two seasons in a row, and also cast me in several plays.

Leila Toba & the author leading an Arts Caravan Storytime.

At some point during that growing relationship, I was invited to join their outreach program, The Alley Theater Arts Caravan, a directive that sends stage and library buses to various locations that don’t usually have access to theater. This has been by far one of the most satisfying experiences in my theater career. Working with the Arts Caravan, I have read stories aloud to excited children, given free books to refugees, and performed improv lessons with audience volunteers. After twenty years, it felt legitimately awesome to be giving something back.

Through it all, the people I have worked with over the years have become more than just co-workers. They have become some of the best friends I have ever had, and more than a few of them I have come to consider family.

Last week, my family was attacked.

On Wednesday morning, I checked Facebook as I normally do getting ready for work, and saw, on the Art’s Caravan’s private page, a gruesome photo of a burned-out bus. Captioning the photo was this statement from our producing director, Scott Davis: “This isn’t the best picture. At roughly 5:30 (am) someone woke us up to tell us there was a fire in our driveway. The bus is a total loss.”

Yes, someone, in the middle of the night, set fire to our stage bus. A bus that was parked in the driveway of a house on a suburban street, with another house right next door. Houses with people, including CHILDREN, sound asleep inside. This was one of three buses donated to us by TARC, the one that had a built-in portable stage, that we had spent years renovating at a cost of over $30,000, all from donations.

In a press release, Arts Caravan’s Outreach Manager, Jomaris DeJesus described it this way: “A neighbor noticed the fire and called the fire department before banging at Davis’ house door to wake him up with the sad news. With tears in his eyes and still shirtless, the director came out and started hosing the fire, but it was already too late.” When I spoke to Scott he demurred at mention of the “tears in his eyes” part of the story, but I know this man and how much the Arts Caravan means to him, so I believe it.

All indications are that the fire was deliberately set. All the power to the electrical workings inside the bus had been turned off the night before, and the fire department determined that the fire originated at the front. The official cause was listed as “arson.” Sadly, we only had liability insurance on our vehicles since they were donated.

But there is a silver lining. The loss is not as devastating as it could have been. We still have two other buses, one that serves as our traveling library, or bookmobile, and the other that is going to serve as another stage bus that is still in the early stages of renovation.

Company member Andy Szuran was one of the first to the scene to assist Scott with the cleanup. “The bus was a total loss, unfortunately,” he told me. “We were able to save most of the equipment. The speakers were singed and blackened, but they still work and the rest of the sound equipment we were able to recover and will move it to the other stage bus that is still under renovation.”

Ultimately, we have decided to continue the work we started. This past weekend we attended FandomFest, using equipment and set pieces recovered from the wreckage. Sadly, the sound system was not as undamaged as we first thought, but we still managed to perform a scene from the Alley Theater’s current production of Charles Bush’s campy comedy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to strong audience response. Today we had a company meeting where we were able to regroup, get focused, and make plans for our next endeavors.

And yes, new endeavors there will be!

Theater and the Arts are a driving force in the Louisville area, and we that find ourselves involved in its many facets are not deterred from our course so easily. Whether this outrageous act of vandalism was perpetrated by someone with a grudge or just random vandals looking to watch something burn, Arts Caravan is not deterred. The show must, and will, go on.



Craig Nolan Highley has been active in local theatre as an actor, director and producer for more than 12 years. He has worked with Bunbury Theater, Clarksville Little Theatre, Finnigan Productions, Louisville Repertory Company, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Co., and WhoDunnit Murder Mystery Theatre among others. He has been a member of the Wayward Actors Company since 2006, and currently serves as their Board President. Craig’s reviews have also appeared in TheatreLouisville and Louisville Mojo.