Outside the Eisenhower Theater, high-school America surged around actor Michael Moriarty. Clean-scrubbed. Neatly jean-clad with sweaters and jackets. The girls in make-up -- one with arched eyebrows and neatly curled blonde hair, a Meryl Streep without the nose.

There were 650 of them -- most from the Washington area and all determined to have careers on the stage -- gathered yesterday for the Eighth Annual Seminar on Theatre, sponsored by the Friends of the Kennedy Center and the local Theatre School.

The day of workshops ("Directing the Musical," "Preparing to Act in a Musical," "Scene Painting") at the Center ended in a panel discussion with Moriarty, George Hearn -- who plays the title role in "Sweeney Todd" -- and ballet dancer Edward Villella. Davey Marlin-Jones, critic and director, moderated.

"When I was growing up in the '40s," Villella said, "I had absolutely no idea what ballet was. I had no thought of being a ballet dancer. In my neighborhood, it wasn't what you did."

But, he said, since he had a tendency to get in trouble, his mother decided to keep an eye on him by carting him along with her when she took her daughter to ballet practice. He began mimicking the movements of the dance students. Eventually, "I thought maybe I had gone too far -- and I was right. Because there I was the next day in tights at the bar.

Moriarty said that by the end of high school he knew that he wanted to be an actor. George Hearn recalled playing football in high school: "One spring training, I said, "This hurts too much -- I think I'll get in a course.' Theater doesn't hurt as much as football."

By the end of the day, McKinley High School students Kevin Hunt, Robin Chapman and Meta Mickens could enthusiastically recite the lessons. On stage: Timing is key. At the audition: The director is sizing you up from the moment you simply arrive. The way you say "Good morning" is important. Don't make excuses (as in, "I can't sing because I have a sore throat.")

"I've been playing piano since I was 6," said Chapman, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I've been taking acting lessons for four years, dance lessons.I've put all this time into itt so far -- if I can benefit from it, that would be great."