"WHAT'S THE LEAST amount of money you'll accept?" asked the elderly woman.

She surprised me. I was sweeping the sidewalk outside of the New Playwrights' Theatre (we all chip in on the chores) and pondering mysteries like Why Are There Still Leaves on the Sidewalk in April? and Where Can We Get $86,000 to Keep the Theatre Open? and up she popped. She explained to me that she lived down the street, that she loved New Playwrights', that she thought it was a shame we were in financial trouble, that she felt the arts should be supported, that she had dozens of doctor bills but she wanted to do something--and she pressed three crumpled dollar bills into my hand.

I suppose the primary fantasy of everyone in arts funding is The Eccentric Millionaire. You know, the rich, semi-crazed-old-geezer who decides that instead of spending his millions on blonds and yachts he wants to support your struggling arts organization.

But our latest difficulties at New Playwrights' have taught me that there is a community of giving out there, lots of people who don't have much but who are willing to give what they can to help keep this theater alive.

In the past month, since we announced that we needed $86,000 to continue to support new playwrights and composers, people have wandered in off the streets offering help, and then spent obliging, uncomplaining hours stuffing envelopes for our fund-raising mailing. The actors and technicians working on the recent One-Acts Festival, have volunteered to donate their salaries. Susan Meehan, the leader of our local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, came by and pledged her personal support and told us the council was behind us. A local hotel owner is sending a mailing at his own expense encouraging Dupont Circle residents to support us. Our long-suffering intern is coming in on her days off to lick stamps and seal envelopes.

And then there are British Ambassador Sir Nicholas Henderson, and the French Ambassador Vernier Palliez. They've both lent their patronage to our fund-raiser this coming Saturday--"An Evening Aboard the Orient Express," a night of "gambling" at a "fun-money" casino for prizes donated by merchants from all over the country, to be held in the National Building Museum (Old Pension Building). The Venice-Simplon Orient Express Co. has endorsed the event as well and donated transportation for two on this most famous and glamorous of all trains as a prize. Resorts International will send a staff of 30 to run the professional fun-money casino. John Corcoran of WJLA-TV will be the master of ceremonies. And the Cafritz Foundation has guaranteed the last $15,000 of our campaign.

With friends like these, who needs eccentric millionaires? I don't know yet whether the theater will raise the money it needs to survive. But I do know that whatever happens, I will remember the warmth of the support and giving forever.