Shakespeare Tavern suffers arson attempt, raises funds to repair damage 

Officials say the shows will go on at Shakespeare Tavern and Playhouse despite an arson attempt in the early hours of August 13 that resulted in significant water damage to the space after the sprinklers were triggered.

According to a statement and photos posted by Artistic Director Jeff Watkins on the company Instagram this past Sunday, the fire began when someone poured lighter fluid through the location’s mailbox. The fire was extinguished by sprinklers, which ran for about 30 minutes before the Atlanta Fire Department turned them off.

The resulting gallons of water soaked the costume shop and flooded the bar area and the pit under the stage and virtually destroyed the production offices. 

Watkins said he learned of the fire at 2:35 a.m. that morning, but the quick actions of ServPro helped prepare the theater for that day’s performances.

“It was awful,” he said about getting the call.

The police investigation into the fire is ongoing, according to Watkins. No suspects have been publicly named.

A mitigation specialist from the tavern’s insurance company is working with the staff and will cover most of the damage, though Watkins said the business will face financial hardships beyond its deductible. He said they want to upgrade their security systems, as well.

Damage caused by sprinkler water affected the production offices, but shows have continued since the crime.

“We are just enormously grateful that no one was hurt and that the vast stock of period costumes we’ve built over 30 years remain unharmed,” Watkins wrote. “It’s a mess to be sure, but it could have been much worse.”

The current show running is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), featuring an all-Black cast, improvisation and references to current events.

Director Charlie Thomas said cast members Ebony Jerry, O’Neil Delapenha and Trevor Perry may include mentions of the fire in remaining performances. The show closes September 3.

“Depends on the three actors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did,” Thomas wrote in a text message. “They do update ad-libs as they go, so it’s possible.”

Watkins said the audience response to the crisis has been gratifying.

“It’s a terrific feeling to know your community has your back,” he said.

To donate to the Tavern’s arson recovery fund, visit website.


Benjamin Carr, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at the Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival and at the Center for Puppetry Arts. His novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant in 2021.

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