LONDON HAS "the fringe." New York has "off-off-Broadway." Chicago has "the small theater movement." Washington has . . . a terminology gap.

"We should sponsor a contest," says Bart Whiteman of the Source Theatre. The existing categories -- commercial, regional, experimental, community, etc. -- just won't do, he complains. Call a theater "experimental" and "everybody thinks of leotards, animals suits and strobe lights."

Besides, says Whiteman with the chauvinism of a transplanted Washintonian, London and New York are no longer "ascendent cities." Washington is "the Rome of its day" "on the verge."

Jane Le Grand, of the Fine Line Actor's Theater, is not so upbeat. "It's hard to survive in Washington," she says, "because there isn't an alternative audience. It's not a theatergoing town. I don't think it's any more of one than it used to be, although I could be wrong."

Le Grand takes some comfort from the increasing number of groups like her own. "The more good work there is, the more audience there will be," she says. " . . . The only time I really do feel competition with other theaters is in looking for good actors, which means non-Equity actors -- actors who will work for nothing."

Until the last year or so, the phenomenon Whiteman and Le Grand represent was hardly worth naming Only a few visionary souls had staked claims in the theatrical tundra between the likes of the Kennedy Center and Arena Stage, on the one hand, and local community players and church drama societies, on the other. And the average life span of such ventures had not encouraged imitators.

In the 1960s, the professinal theater in Washington was a meager thing indeed, amounting to little more than the National Theatre and Arena Stage Even as the Kennedy Center and the Folger Theatre sprang to life, there were few attempts to get anything started in a smaller way, and among those few were two dispiriting failures -- the Washington Theatre Club (1960-74) and the D.C. Black Rep (1970-76). In the late '70s, the sinking continued to keep pace with the launchings.

Now, suddenly, a whole fleet of new vessels has been sighted -- including Fine Line (at North Capitol and N Streets NW), the new Theatre (in the Lansburgh complex at 8th and E NW), the Pro Femina Theatre (a frequent tenant at Eastern Market, 7th and independence SE), Source (14th and S NW), the spheres Theatre (7th and E NW) and the Studio Theatre (14th and Church NW).

With these interlopers and such older brethern as the Gala Hispanic (18th and Belmont NW), New Play-wrights (17th and Church NW) and the Rep. Inc. George and New Hamsphire NW., Washington may at last have something worth naming.

Recently, a few of the people who brought something into being talked about how they did it, and about some of the hopes and traumas that attended the struggle. Studio Theatre

Joe Zinoman can't believe the set being built for her production of "Medea."

"The handwork! The detail!" she exclaims as carpentters continue to hammer and saw away at a pyramid of steps and platforms so formidable one half-expects a torchbearer to bound into the hall waving the Olympic flame. "This is really a major effort," says Zinoman, an intensely enthusiastic, unabashedly opinionated woman of 37, "The ultimate artistic ecstasy has occured."

Given the miserable history of such efforts, the Studio Theatre's success has been flabbergasting. Zimoman found a site only weeks after she started looking -- a former hot-dog warehouse that now accomodates a 100-seat theater and an acting studio. Audiences haven't been massive, but they have grown steadily. And remarkably, Studio has found grant money in a city notoriously short of locally-minded corporations and foundations.

In the four months since Studio began soliciting, Comsat, C&P Telephone and the Agnes Meyer Foundation have responded. "Financially, for some unknown reason, we've been okay," says Zinoman.

Five years ago, when she launched her acting studio, it amounted to 16 students meeting in an attic in Georgetwon. She had begun teaching theater during a 10-year Asian interval with her husband, a foreign-service officer.

At the University of Malaysia, she roughed out the current curriculum at her acting studio in Washington. The emphasis was and remains on distinct classical traditions. In the first year, her students study "basic realism" (Miller, Williams, etc.); in the second year, Shakespeare and Greek tragedy; and in the third year, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov and a comedy course.

In '74, Zimoman and her husband returned to Washington, where she enrolled at American University and completed a study of Peking opera with local actors, and a few of them became her first students -- including Bart Whiteman, who volunteered his attic for a classroom.

After many subsequent moves, culminating in shared space with the Dance Exchange on Rhode Island Avenue, Zinoman decided to found a theater to go with the school, "The theater can't afford the rent, but the school can pay two-thirds of the rent," she explains.

There is a conceptual connection between the two enterprisies: "I'm interested in styles," Zinoman explains. "I don't think anyone understands the difference in style in acting, not in the literature. . . ."

For Euripedes' "Medea," which opens next Sunday, Studio will unveil a new lobby and front in addition to the set that has Zinoman in ecstasy. The money to pay for these improvements "will drop from heaven," she says. "It will." Source Theatre

"It's a little bit like Lee Strasberg and Stellia Adler," says Bart Whiteman. "Our relationship was very stormy from the very beginning."

His relationship with Joy Zinoman, he means. It dates back to 1975. Whiteman had staged two one-act plays at American University, and in a post-performance class, Zinoman (whom he didn't know) "lit into" his work, with special negative emphasis on the placement of a couch. "I finally said, 'Okay, look, where do you want me to put the couch,'" he recalls.

He went on to take three of her courses and act in two of her shows. And today his Source Theatre and her Studio Theatre are just a few blocks apart on 14th Street.

At 32, Whiteman looks like the football player he was during his years at Yale. He graduated in 1969 with the idea of becoming a musician, and moved to Washington in '72 to sing with a small band. Then some local audition notices caught his eye.

His big break, he says, came as Jacqueline, the wet nurse, in Moliere's "The Doctor in Spite of Himself" at American University. With the help of a generous artificial bust and a half-mask that utterly failed to conceal his Fu Manchu moustache, he scored a big hit and was hooked for good on acting and the theater.

Whiteman complaints of too much "gnashing of teeth" and "malaise" among Washington theater people. They are given to "sitting in bars and moaning and groaning," he says. He founded Source in 1977 because "I wanted to take control of my own artistic destiny. I thought I could do it myself." t

On which theory, Source has mounted 20 shows in a little over three years -- in theatres, churches, lofts and "just about everywhere they would let us in."

Source hasn't shield away from plays that might strain its physical and human resources -- and the strain has sometimes been visible. Patrons have also had a tough time following the company's constant migrations. Several performances of "Henry V" had to be cancelled when only five or six people showed up. "We decided with a 22-person cast it would not be kosher for us to do it," says Whiteman.

But Source's most recent show, "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," filled several houses. And in his new 50-seat home at 14th and S Streets, prodigiously decorted with flags, coats of arms, puppets, two old barber chairs and a pinball machine, Whiteman intends to be "constantly in action." The Rep

Lyn Dyson has temporarily shelved his acting career to concentrate on being executive director of the Rep. Inc., the homegrown stepchild of actor Robert Hooks unsuccessful D.C. Black Rep.

"I feel this is more important," says Dyson, 28, who recently finished a stint with the National Black Touring Company. He played several small parts, and understudied several large ones, during a disappointing, aborted from run in Philadelphia.

At the Rep, the emphasis is on teaching. About 60 students enroll every year Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Arts Commission, among others. Staging plays is a secondary thing, and lately the Rep has done only three or four full-scale productions a year in its 145-seat facility, while also performing for schools and government agencies (Lorton Reformatory too), and sponsoring children's shows and readings.

Dyson, artistic director Jaye Stewart and administrative director Carolynn Smith have vague hopes of expanding the Rep, perhaps back into an Equity company like the parent group under Hooks. Behind that desire lies a worry. "We train people here and they get to a certain place where they need to get somewhere beyond the Rep," says Dyson, mentioning such alumni as Charles Brown (of Broadway's "Home") and Kene Holiday (of TV's "Carter Country"). The Rep is proud of its graduates, but Dyson wishes there were more opportunities for them closer to home. The Fine Line Actor's Theatre

The Fine Line Actor's Theatre recently moved into the Hanover Square arts complex at 57 N St. NW. The group doesn't have much money for renovation, but the space "will be what we need," says director Jane Le Grand. "It will be comfortable, quiet and dark. When we want to rehearse . . . we won't have to schedule with 59 other off-the-wall-groups."

Le Grand hopes to do Tennessee Williams' "The Gnadiges Fraulein" and Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" in the coming months (the first as a co-production with the Spheres Theatre Company).

Raised in Chicago and Arizona, Le Grand, now 31, studied acting at Tony Abeson's Washington Theatre Lab, another group that came and went in the '70s. In 1975 she joined Earth Onion Women's Theatre, but came to feel its feminist image led to audience "preconceptions." So Fine Line was launched last spring with "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," performed at the Washington Project for the Arts and d.c. space.

The name emerged from the idea that theater involves a "balancing act," according to Fine Line administrator Judith Miller.

"Which is not to say that we achieve this at all moments," adds Le Grand, "but it's our goal." Spheres Theatre

The Spheres Theatre Company's last show -- a double bill of Tennessee Williams one-acters -- did so well that producer Brian Hemmingsen decided to pay his actors. "I paid everybody $10 each at the end [of the run]," he says. "That's a buck-eighty each for each show."

Born in Anacostia and raised in Suitland, Md., Hemmingsen is one of the few Washington-area natives who have helped start a local theater. And with his 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds -- not to mention his striped vest, his earring, his moustache and his beard -- he cuts a generally conspicuous figure.

Which is, in part, why he started Spheres. His dimensions were getting him plenty of work, because the theater abounds with tough-looking characters and fragile-looking actors.But the parts weren't the best.

He went to "cattle-call" auditions at Arena and the Folger, and decided "I don't like being a piece of meat, although I think I'm good when I audition."

Studying at the Actor's Stage Studio and acting with the Back Alley and Source theaters, "I always saw things that could be done better as far as producing goes, and I think I do it better," he says. "That's what I've seen in every theater -- lousy producing."

The defining characteristic of Spheres, he hopes, is hard work. There were eight- and 10-hour rehearsals for the group's current bill of "Hopscotch" and "Birdbath." During an earlier production, Hemmingsen slept two nights at d.c. space, the 7th Street restaurant/bar downstairs from Spheres' temporary quarters.

One-act plays have been another Spheres specialty. "It's because it's an untapped field," Hemmingsen explains.