Step into Studio Dante and you enter two worlds. On the one hand, there's the architecture of this 66-seat jewel-box theatre, founded in 2004 by Michael Imperioli, Emmy Award–winning co-star of The Sopranos, and his wife, interior designer Victoria Imperioli. The opulent chandeliers, gold-painted moldings, and a giant bust of Dante above the bar—all designed by Victoria—recall an old-time Broadway palace, as if the building could transport patrons back to a more sumptuous theatrical past. On the other hand, there's the work Studio Dante produces, which threatens to blow the tassels off the fancy stage curtains.
"Dark, funny, and touching"—that's how Michael Imperioli describes the common bond among the four plays the theatre has produced to date. The fifth, the world premiere of Cyclone by Ron Fitzgerald, begins performances on March 15. It follows a man who struggles with despair after his father, a police officer, is killed in the line of duty. Imperioli says the play perfectly adheres to Studio Dante's mission of producing "new, progressive plays."
Is it a contradiction to mount such gritty work in a space so lavishly designed? Quite the opposite, Imperioli says. Such an unlikely pairing complements the philosophy that guides his artistic sensibility. "I guess you could say I'm gathering the troops," he explains, meaning that he sees highlighting the diverse talents of his friends and colleagues as his primary task as Studio Dante's co-artistic director.
To wit: Imperioli, who has written several episodes of The Sopranos as well as the screenplay for Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, knows plenty of writers, so it's only natural he should also be producing new plays. His wife has a particular taste for Old World elegance, so it seems equally clear that her stamp should be placed on the venue's design. And like so many in the theatre community, Imperioli says he "loves collaboration," and that love has been extended to letting members of the Studio Dante family contribute in as many ways as possible.
Last fall, for example, saw the world premiere of Late Fragment, a rumination on post–Sept. 11 heroism by Francine Volpe. Volpe also serves as Studio Dante's director of play development, meaning she winnows down the massive stacks of agent-submitted scripts considered by the theatre. Adding another title to his résumé, Imperioli directed Fragment himself, and he also helmed the theatre's first production, John Dapolito's family drama Baptism by Fire. Victoria Imperioli, meanwhile, not only designed the space; she also designs costumes and sets for each show, while her father, a contractor, helped guide the theatre's renovation.
If Imperioli cherishes the ability to let talented friends and colleagues express themselves, that's because he knows what it means to have your creativity stifled. After all, Studio Dante is not his first theatre: In the early 1990s, with a group of former classmates from Elaine Aiken and Lily Lodge's Actors Conservatory, he created a short-lived company called Machine Full. Although they did stage a production of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy, the troupe eventually folded. "It all comes down to the expense of renting a space," he explains. "We were all working in restaurants, still bowing and scraping to get money to rent a space."
This time around, of course, financial concerns are less pressing, given Imperioli's work on The Sopranos and now a recurring role on Law & Order. But the hurdles faced by Machine Full had quelled his desire to start another company, so the impetus for Studio Dante came instead from his wife: "She always said I should start a theatre, and I thought she was kind of crazy…but one day she came and said, 'I've found the perfect building. Let's do it.' " And so they did. With his wife and various "private investment partners," Imperioli bought the building—located on West 29th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues—and Studio Dante set up shop. The nonprofit theatre operates on a modest budget, aiming to produce three plays a year for about $275,000. That sum would be more daunting if the building itself didn't help keep things solvent, as it includes several rent-generating apartments.
Real estate maneuvers at this level tend to be well beyond the reach of artists at the beginning of their careers, and Imperioli knows it. He wastes no time expressing gratitude for his success. He credits his celebrity for helping Studio Dante leap some of the barriers faced by most unknown theatres. Being on The Sopranos, he claims, "helped with fundraising because it's easier for people to get excited about donating to a person they know…plus early media attention was a little easier to come by and [fans] are kind of drawn to the theatre."
Another draw for Sopranos fans has been the regular appearances in Studio Dante projects by some of Imperioli's fellow cast members. John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos' Artie Bucco), for instance, played a lead role in 2004's Ponies, Mike Batistick's dark study of immigrants in an off-track betting parlor, while both Sharon Angela (who plays Rosalie Aprile) and Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack) appeared in Baptism by Fire. Angela and Curatola have also come on board as two of the theatre's acting teachers. Along with Imperioli and Nick Sandow, who directed Ponies and the theatre's production of John Belluso's Henry Flamethrowa, they meet every Tuesday night with a group of students.
It's no surprise the theatre has an acting school, for Imperioli says it was his own acting classes in the 1980s and early '90s—with Elaine Aiken and with Susan Batson's bicoastal Black Nexxus company—where he gained the contacts and the discipline needed to survive in the industry. He particularly credits Batson for "kicking me in the ass and saying I should be supporting myself as an actor…saying I should quit whatever [else] I'm doing and force myself to support myself."
Now that he's established, Imperioli aims to give similar encouragement not only to theatre artists but to filmmakers as well. Studio Dante recently installed a state-of-the-art DVD projection system, which will allow feature films to be screened when there isn't a play on the boards. "I'd love to have weekly screenings of films that can't find a distributor," he muses.
Sure, it might feel overwhelming to add "film producer" to his lengthy list of personal and professional responsibilities. But Imperioli welcomes juggling a hectic schedule. "I only get involved in projects I really care about," he says, "and you have to be willing to be busy." Turning reflective, he continues, "I get to work with inspiring actors and writers through both [Studio Dante and The Sopranos].… [They] truly enrich my life and make balancing my schedule all worth it."