"Expansion" is a relative term in the arts. Even though budgets for performing arts and theater in the Washington area are on the rise, there are never really fat times for actors, directors, writers, designers -- or, by extension, for arts managers. In the arts, the competition for jobs is always ferocious.

"I still find the arts to be very much gut-driven," says Paul Gamble, the Signature Theatre company's managing director. Because the odds of success are long and the rewards can be limited, "it's almost not worth doing if your gut's not in it."

And if it is? Lauren Fitzgerald is an assistant managing director for the Living Stage Theatre Company (an outreach program of Arena Stage). At 23, she is just beginning her career. And it has been a calculated journey to get where she is: Fitzgerald has a degree in leadership studies with a double minor in English and theater arts. She interned with Richmond's Theatre Virginia and with the University of Richmond's fine arts center as an undergrad, learning the fundamentals of arts management. When Fitzgerald graduated, she hooked on with the summer-only Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., interning for $100 a week and living in a dorm (without air conditioning).

Fitzgerald says, "Being paid a hundred bucks a week out of school with a pretty good degree under my belt and being told that that was all I was qualified to do ... was definitely frightening."

The fact that Fitzgerald needs a second income to supplement her current full-time salary has her wondering whether she can make it in the arts over the long haul.

"I really feel as though a life in the arts is a lifestyle choice as well as a career choice," Fitzgerald says.

It's a choice that Mark Jared Zufelt is weighing these days. Last year Zufelt, 27, interned with Living Stage as part of Arena's highly competitive Allen Lee Hughes fellowship program. Like Fitzgerald, Zufelt was able to parlay the internship into solid relationships and good references; this year he will be the assistant director (under director Nick Olcott) for Arena's production of "The Miracle Worker."

But the newly married Zufelt is already realistic about how likely he is to make a secure living directing, acting and writing plays. Although he is being interviewed for possible directing gigs with other theaters later this season, by this time next year he hopes to be in graduate school working toward a master of fine arts degree in directing.

Once completed, the degree will allow him to teach. The teaching income will support his family and his artistic endeavors -- a fact of life "which so many of my fellow artists are struggling with now," he says. Currently, Zufelt works full-time as a Crown Books assistant manager.