Warehousing the Arts

Class of ’89 | On a recent Monday night, Paul Ruppert C’89 is shuttling around Warehouse, the Washington arts complex. The cast for an upcoming play, “Writer’s Cramp,” has come to rehearse, while a monthly literary reading attracts upwards of 70 people in the main theater and an open-mic cabaret takes over a smaller theater. Upstairs, a weekly figure-drawing class is under way and a film is being screened. Ruppert greets arriving cabaret singers, tracks down a set of cables for the film screening, adjusts the lights in the main theater, and makes sure the rehearsal is running smoothly.

This is a typical evening for the 7th Street arts complex, which includes two theaters, an art gallery, a music hall, film screening room, and bar/café, and which has been dubbed “an avant-garde Kennedy Center” by The Washington Post. In fact, after the Kennedy Center, Warehouse is the busiest venue in D.C., with 600 events in 2006.

“I love coming in and having lots of people around—the excitement that’s only present when there’s lots going on,” explains the 39-year-old Ruppert, who handles Warehouse’s theater and film programming and day-to-day management while his mother, Molly, organizes the gallery’s rotating art exhibits.

Ruppert grew up in Washington, where he developed an early interest in theater and acted in high-school productions. As a history major at Penn, he joined a political-theater group that staged outdoor protests. Now he’s responsible for curating the theater season.

“We look for people who have a passion and vision for how they’ll fit into this space,” he says. “I think it has to be appealing to a downtown audience—a little edgy, challenging, not mainstream.”

A little edgy is a good description of Warehouse, with its spare arrangement of tables and chairs interspersed with well-worn sofas on uneven hardwood floors. What looks like a simple gumball-dispenser across from the bar turns out to be “Trashball,” a local artist’s piece that, for a quarter, dispenses “found art” (mostly leaves, drug baggies, and other debris) in clear plastic balls.

It’s unlikely that earlier generations of Rupperts ever imagined “Trashball” becoming a fixture, but for more than 120 years, the family has owned the three storefronts that constitute Warehouse. Paul’s father, Ray, runs a real-estate business out of the second floor, and his uncle managed a hardware store until 1987. The Washington Convention Center opened across the street in 2003, driving up property values, but the Rupperts never considered selling.

Paul and his wife, Sarah, spent three years in New York, where the first two of their four children were born and where Paul managed the American Irish Historical Society. But he kept ties with D.C. and 7th Street during that time, coordinating “Art Romps” with his mother and a D.C. Irish Arts festival with college friends.

In 1996, the Rupperts were approached by a director about staging Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” set in Romania. There was no stage or air-conditioning, just a raw space with a rough concrete floor and folding chairs for the audience. But Paul approached the Romanian Embassy to find Romanian artists, hung their art for the play’s run, and the idea for Warehouse was born.

In 2001, Paul and Sarah moved back to D.C., and Paul worked full-time on Warehouse, doing everything from construction work (he built the bar himself) to hunting down the liquor license. Since then Warehouse has built a reputation for cutting-edge theater. Recent productions have included the Scena Theatre’s production of Karel Capek’s “The Insect Play” and a Solas Nua production of “Howie the Rookie,” by Mark O’Rowe.

Attracting a large-enough audience is a challenge. Although there is a theater district seven blocks south, Warehouse is a bit out of the way for casual drop-ins. Still, Ruppert is optimistic about Warehouse’s future.

“I love the vitality of the place,” he says. “On a Friday or Saturday there are four different things happening in our space and there are hundreds of people at the Warehouse of every kind. You have punk kids with Mohawks coming to see a band and they’re mixing with theater patrons out on the sidewalk smoking. I love that.”

—Elizabeth Toomey

Profiles : Events :
Notes : Obituaries

Drew Gilpin Faust G’71 Gr’75 is Harvard’s new president
Alumni bring fresh food options to Philadelphia’s poor
Joan Saltzman G’70 gave her heart—and a kidney—to John Katz
Paul Ruppert C’89 stocks art and theater at the Warehouse

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Last modified 04/28/07