This year's American College Theatre Festival, its organizers promise, will be a drastic departure from the festivals of the past. But a few things will not be new, and one of them is the participation of Indiana playwright James Leonard.

"And They Dance Real Show in Jackson," Leonard's play about a cerebral palsy victim, was widely regarded as the standout success of last year's college theatre festival (although "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid" won the top award for an original student play). Leonard will be back this year with "The Diviners," a play about the friendship between a retarded Indiana boy and a down-on-his-luck preacher in depression times.

Leonard won a $1,000 prize from WRC-TV and a good deal of attention and advice last year. He was not besieged, however, with offers to go to New York or Hollywood or to sign up with the William Morris Agency. So he turned around, went back to Indiana and set to work on another play, living -- austerely -- off of this fragile assortment of income sources:

A grant from the Indiana Arts Council.

Royalties -- at $50 an opening night and $25 for each additional performance -- for school productions of "Jackson" across the state of Indiana.

A loan from his parents (an insurance salesman and a counselor for families of alcoholics and drug addicts).

Food stamps.

Odd jobs. "I've washed a lot of dishes," he says. He has also chopped wood and been a baker's assistant, an orderly and a farmworker.

And the hospitality of his alma mater, Hanover College.

Leonard graduated in June 1978, but the rules of the college theater festival allow submissions from writers up to two years after graduation. He lives in Bloomington, Ind., now -- about 100 miles from Hanover -- but he does much of his work back at school. His director and teacher, Prof. Tom Evans, provides Leonard with a room in the same building with the theater where two of Leonard's plays have been performed. The room has a bed, a coffee not a typewriter table and a typewriter -- everything, in short, a playwrit needs. And if he wants to be a clean playwright, there's a shower next to the dressing rooms, just down the hall.

The "resident playwright" is not a new concept, but Leonard and Evans seem to have implemented it more literally than others.

"I pretty much ate, slept and wrote there for a couple of months," says Leonard. "It was a nice situation to be able to write 10, 15 pages and bring them upstairs and show them to everybody."

But Leonard insists he is not one of those postgraduate hangers-on who can never get enough of college. "I feel my association with Hanover is through Tom Evans," he says. "If Tom was at the University of Boston, I'd be doing theater at the University of Boston. He's a really fine director."

In fact, Evans has been to Washington four times with plays he first directed at Hanover. That has been a consistent goal, as he makes no effort to conceal. He is familiar with the argument that the festival only encourgages people to enter a field with too much unemployment as it is, but "I've always geared up to be there," he says. "Sometimes I shudder to think that we're training so many people when there are so few jobs. Of course, lots of girls wind up getting married. A lot of people disappear from the theater. . . But they have had an artistic experience. They never have to say they didn't try."

The major change in this year's festival is the substitution of theater professionals for academics as the judges -- but Evan's work, and Leonard's, sailed right through the new screening procedure as they had sailed through the old.

"The Diviners," says Evans, is "about an idiot boy that came so close to drowning that he has a terrible fear of water, but he also has the capacity to divine water." The author says "The Diviners" is a "better play" than "Jackson." And he starts to say it's "more marketable," but checks himself, noting that "marketable' is a distasteful word somehow." In any case, he hopes it will receive a professional production after its appearance here.

"The Diviners" will be performed at 7:45 p.m. Friday and at 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday. Here are the other plays and performance times in this year's American College Theater Festival:

"The Servant of Two Masters" (University of South Florida, Tampa). A Commedia dell'Arte by Carlo Goldoni. At 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

"Personals" (Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.). A musical review from the same group of collaborators who created "waiting for the Feeling," one of the snappiest productions of last year's festival.time, day?

"Distilling Spirits" (University of Iowa, Iowa City). An original comedy-drama by Dean-Michael Dolan, now a resident playwright with New York's Phoenix Theatre. At 7:45 p.m. Thursday, May 1, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Friday, May 2.

"Streamers" (State University College at Buffalo, N.Y.). David Rabe's bloody play of life in a Vietnam-era army barracks. At 7:45 p.m. Saturday, May 3, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Sunday, May 4.

"Philadelphia, Here I Come!" (Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich.). Brian Friel's nostalgic Irish comedy, in which two actors play the same leading role. At 7:45 p.m. Monday, May 5, Tuesday, May 6 and Wednesday, May 7.

"Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home" (Trinity University, Dallas, Texas). A joint production involving Trinity and Paul Baker's Dallas Theater Center. The play is a new comedy by actress Mary Rohde. At 7:45 p.m. Thursday, May 8, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Friday, May 9.

"The Night of the Tribades" (Arizona State University). Swedish author per Olov Enquist's play about the psychosexual struggles of August Strindberg. At 7:45 p.m. Saturday, May 10, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Sunday, May 11.

"Irene Ryan Evening of Scenes." Twelve student actors competing for two $2,500 scholarships. Hosted by Washington Post critic emeritus Richard Coe, with support from Bur Tillstrom and Kukla and Ollie. At 7:45 p.m. Sunday, April 27.