More than a dozen nervous people sat in the small lobby of the Kreeger Theater, in some cases perceptibly twitching. Some talked to themselves. A tall blond man paced up and down; a young woman asked where the ladies' room was. There was dead silence.

Mark Horowitz, a production intern with Arena Stage, broke the silence suddenly. "It's amazing," he said cheerfully. "Each half hour it starts slowly and by the end of the half hour the room is thick with nervousness. Then that group goes in and it starts all over again with the next."

Some of the waiting actors laughed gratefully. Anything to break the tension, a distraction for even a millisecond, was welcomed. Ahead lay the audition, a dreaded ritual, a professional necessity, a two-minute torture that carries with it the prospect of either good fortune or despair.

The auditions are going on all this week, with approximately 123 people being ushered before a board of seven theater representatives every day. Each actor has two minutes to perform a prepared piece of material; some may be asked to perform a second time. A few of the theaters represented are big-time union theaters: Arena Stage, The Folger Theatre Group, Baltimore's Center Stage, Richmond's Virginia Museum Theater. Others are smaller-time, non-union, and local: The New Playwrights' Theatre, The Round House Theatre, The Studio Theatre.

It is a common fear among actors that cattle calls, as these open auditions are called, are fakes, that the people watching the auditions are just there to fulfill the letter of an Equity contract, which requires one audition a year. But several theater representatives at Monday's session swore that they were serious. Kevin Kinley from the Folger said he was looking for understudies and people to call for a second audition at the theater. Othere were looking for "types," pictures to put in a file or on a mailing list, or candidates for small parts.

On the basis of one advertisement and one small notice in the newspaper, Arena's telephones were jammed for three days with people trying to make an appointment for an audition. Six hundred and fifteen were scheduled before the available time ran out. Some traveled from New York, Atlanta and other more distant cities to get in their two minutes..

"This is a very genteel audition," said Kinley, the Folger's stage manager who represented his theater at the audition. "This is not like a real cattle call. Here people are scheduled, they have a stage, they have two minutes, the guy with the stopwatch calls out 'time' softly. I've been to a cattle call where I got out one line of my speech and the guy called, "NEXT!"

Kinley said he can tell in the first 10 seconds whether an actor has "it," enough to be asked to audition again at the theater itself. "I look at the way they walk on stage, or something they'll do that interests me. Whether they look at us or the back wall when they introduce themselves. And, of course, the voice -- we do Shakespeare so we need people who can talk."

Some of the actors' resume's are clearly exaggerated."I've seen several overweight Juliets today," said Kinley. "Sometimes people will do a part in a class and then they call it a workshop. I don't blame them. It's part of the game."

"If I were an actress, I'd lie like crazy," said Sue Crystal, a director at the Studio Theatre. "I don't think it's bad to lie if you can get away with it -- if you say you've done things that you physically might have been cast for."

Not, for example, like one woman on Monday who chose to be Cleopatra, "a part she was 20 years and 30 pounds away from," Kinley said, and who recited her speech from "Antony and Cleopatra" in a thick Brooklyn accent. "I kept thinking, 'When will this be over,' " moaned Crystal, who sat in the first row.

* Francis Parkman, 21, is 6-foot-1. Weight: 185. Hair: blond. Eyes: green. Vocal range: baritone. Special skills: football, basketball, ice skating, roller skating, frisbee. Rides motorcycle and standard car or truck. Accents: Irish, Scottish, Cockney, French Canadian, New England. Has a B.A. in theater from the University of Maine. Came to the audition with several friends and co-workers at the Totem Pole Playhouse in Fayetteville, Pa., including:

* Chip Bolcik, 22, 5-foot-10, 155 pounds. Hair: sandy blond. Eyes: green. Actor, singer, dancer, mimer. Special skills: experienced in both fighting and choreography with rapier, dagger, broadswords, hand to hand, and with quarterstaffs. Also skilled in gymnastics, horseback riding, juggling, puppetry, piano, clarinet and scuba diving. Went to the University of Maryland.

* Lynn Albright, 5-foot-8, 138 pounds. Hair: blond. Eyes: blue. Voice: belt/mezzo. Has worked in summer stock and did an industrial film called "Sexual Harassment" in Philadelphia, where she has also worked as a secretary on the stock exchange. Has a B.A. in theater from the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.

Albright, whose audition piece was Jane O'Reilly's essay "I Want a Wife," was asked how her two minutes went.

"An egg," she said disconsolately. "I was an egg. I did not do well. I don't do well in a two-minute-prepared; I'm much better at cold readings."

Parkman and Bolcik were called back to do their second pieces, which didn't necessarily mean anything, they had been told, but which the actors felt did mean something, at the very least more time to impress the auditioners.

"This wasn't so bad," Parkman said. "If the guy at the desk smiles at you when you come in, you don't get so paranoid that they're just spilling coffee on your picture."

"I would like to be Arena actor Robert Prosky," said Bolcik, whose family lives in Gaithersburg. "That's my ideal. To live here, work here and raise a family. Or local actor John Neville-Andrews. The Folger is one of the best places to work; I'd love to get a job there."

Eoghan (pronounced Johan) Ryan, a theater manager in Houston , came to the audition because he had never been to one. "I was in town visiting some friends when I heard about it . . . I was amazed at how petrified I became for no apparent reason." The others laughed knowingly. "I said to myself, this is crazy. It was like there was this fear cloud sitting over me."

"And then you do it and the fear cloud lifts," added Bolcik.

Laura Mirski, a young actress from New York, had as her audition piece a selection from a play called "Molly's Daughters." It was a very intense piece about being in a concentration camp. Shortly after she began, someone outside the theater started hammering loudly.

She finished the piece, said "thank you," and then added, "You should tell whoever that is to stop."

"She shouldn't have said that," Crystal said during a break. "Very hostile."

"Right," Kinley agreed. "When people audition at the Folger we often have jackhammers blaring away outside. It's just something you deal with."

"Although I must say, she showed the most real emotion (in her audition) that I've seen all day," Crystal added.

Both Crystal and Kinley have auditioned and know what it's like. "I think it's an essential experience for anyone in the theater," Kinley said. "It's unique. It gives you sympathy and understanding, if nothing else. What it really is is a dare. We're sitting here saying, 'All right, we'll look at you, now show us, we dare you to be good.'

"It's not an impossible dream."