Tony Abeson said it himself three years ago:

"Washington so dearly wants to be like New York -- and yet it's got all this creative theater going on -- real, exciting, funky stuff. And has no idea what to do with it."

There is a whole world of off-off-Kennedy theater in Washington. Not dinner theater, not amateur groups mugging their way through Noel Coward, but small, embattled bands of serious students of theater who will work for an audience of one if need be.

They are all so different that it is virtually impossible to lump them together. Some do classics; some do not. Some are competent; some are not. Some have goals and a certain cohesion; some have not. People move from one group to another. Abeson's Theater Lab has been a seminal influence on downtown theater, and some of the actors he helped train (he studied with Grotowski, Strasberg and Brook) have moved on.

Today there are, at any one time, about a dozen drama or dance troupes in the area struggling for space, and what makes them maddest of all is that Washingtonians will go to New York for off-off-Broadway when they can find the same thing here right under their noses.

Unfortunately, some of the actors have slipped away to New York themselves -- among them Abeson, though he keeps a hand in the Washington scene. For an outsider, it is hard to keep up with that scene: The Theater Lab is defunct; Back Alley Theater has moved; The Word Is Out Company is disbanded. At the moment, one can presume that Touchstone Theater, Paradise Island Express, the Library Theater (for children) and groups allied with the Washington Project for the Arts -- notably Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange -- are thriving. Several groups are taking up residence in the old Lansburgh Building downtown. The situation, is to say the least, volatile.

Take a look at Spheres Theater. It's not typical, maybe, but what is? And it does follow the pattern, changing its name (from Three Spheres) and claiming some of its people from another group, Source Theater. And for several weeks it has been filling its 50-seat house with a pair of Tennessee Williams one-acts.

One Spheres emigre is Akim Novak, the painstaking director of "Portrait of a Madonna," who will be studying with the celebrated Stella Adler in New York. The son of a German diplomat stationed in America, Novak got hooked on theater at age 17, after a brief turn at narrating a television program. "I started for the ego," he said, "and then got serious." Today he works in the D.C. school system, teaching creative movement.

"The best acting is low-key, natural," he said, " and that's the hardest to do. You have to restrain actors, keep them from getting too . . . actory." t

Novak spent some 60 hours with Marilyn Kray, the Blanche-Dubois-like main character in "Madonna," toning down her impulses to project the role. In the narrow little loft of d.c. space, the present home of Spheres, the actors are so close to the audience that the slightest magnification would be a mistake.

Brian Hemmingsen, the head of the group, believes most actors prefer small, intimate houses.

"What we want," he said, "is live people on stage, characters that are alive, not cardboard, characters that relate to one another in a real way. So many actors are only thinking of themselves, presenting their profiles. They're totally absorbed with the impression they're making, so there's no real connection with the others, or with the audience for that matter. You have to be generous."

Hemmingsen, who has a part in "Madonna," is a Washington native who saw some experimental theater in New York, felt it was his destiny, came home and looked up a theater in the Yellow Pages. He works at a bookstore, and when Novak and the others leave he will have his hands full, for he will have to direct as well as act and produce plays.

He likes one-acts. "The field is so untapped, there are so many to do.Sam Shepard has at least 80, Robert Patrick has done hundreds. He's very big with the underground theater. There's Genet, Becket, Ionesco, Terence Minelli -- and of course Joe Orton, if the audience can take him."

When the Spheres Theater was formed last winter from Three Spheres Theater, it presented Sartre's "No Exit," a play everybody has read but nobody has seen, and it was a huge success. They also did Orton's "The Ruffian on the Stair." A later production of "Kennedy's Children" lost money, but evidently the Williams play will recoup for them.

"Our first place was a basement at GW," Hemmingsen added. "But we like this part of town [7th and E Streets], it's improving all the time, there's good ambience. We might do a play downstairs in the bar [a cafe run by d.c. space], it'd be just right for 'The Time of Your Life.'

[Except that Source Theater is putting on the Saroyan Pulitzer prizewinner -- which began last week -- for a month.]

"The big problem is space. If you don't own your own theater, you have to pay rent, and we work on such a shoestring that it's always pretty close."

Spheres needs to make $1,000 at $3.50 a seat to break even on the current show. The company can afford few ads and relies to a nervewracking degree on newspaper reviews.

"Do you know, at least 50 percent of our audience comes here from the suburbs? And those are all brought in by the reviews. The local faithful will come even without reviews."

It is the audience, of course, not the money, that draws these young people -- nearly all are in their mid-20s -- to the off-off-Kennedy stage. They work with an almost frantic concentration, far more intensely, one suspects, than those big casts at the Kennedy or even Arena, which some accuse of overproducing its plays, spending the time on sets and lights and elaborate effects to catch the dull eye of the TV degenerate, rather than on subtleties of acting.

Novak worked for two weeks with the casts of the Williams plays, both of which take up just 70 minutes, building a mockup stage in his own apartment, thrashing out character relations until they seemed natural and effortless to the actors. There are a lot of talented actors around, especially women, he observed, but very few good directors.

Though "Madonna" is performed in such tight quarters that you can't cross your legs in the front row without touching an actor, there is absolutely no sense that your personal space may be invaded or that you might be accused of wrong living.

"On a big stage, you automatically have to push harder, to project, to become more theatrical and less natural."

It is this insistence on sticking close to reality that separates these theater people from the thousands of other young American artists flocking into film and television. Not that they would turn up their noses at a movie offer, Hemmingsen chuckled. But the thing they love most about their work is that electrifying sense of a living audience -- whose responses can bring an actor to the frontiers of his or her talent, and beyond. rAnd for the audience there is the closeness of an actual person breathing, gesturing, glancing, perhaps sweating, no image on a rectangle in space but a real living fellow member of the race. That's what makes it all worthwhile.