When Geraldine Fitzgerald was a young actress just starting out, she had occasion to audition for Noel Coward.

"The first thing he said was, 'If you should ever succeed, you'll have to change your name,' " Fitzgerald recalled. " 'Because you know, the people who put up the signs outside the theaters never have any Z's . . .' I said I was not going to change my name, and he said, 'Well, if you're successful, which I doubt, you'll have to bring your own Z with you in a packing case.' "

Noel Coward, of course, was wrong--about Fitzgerald's name as well as her future. She has been acting since 1932, starting in her native Ireland and moving on to Broadway and Hollywood. A few years ago she made her debut as a director, and earned a Tony nomination for her effort. The play was "Mass Appeal," which opened a month's run at Ford's Theatre last night.

Directing is just one of the ways in which Fitzgerald, now in her late sixties, has expanded her personal and professional life as she has gotten older. When she was in her late fifties, for example, she decided to learn to sing--despite being told that she had no voice and would embarrass everyone.

"I have very few singing tones; still have very few," she said in a honey-on-sandpaper voice. But she found a singing teacher, Andy Anselmo, who "teaches you control over your vocal tones, however few they may be, so you can organize them and the audience doesn't get nervous. The male equivalent to what I sound like would be Rex Harrison."

Now she has a one-woman musical show, "Streetsongs," which she tours all over the country, and Anselmo has new students such as Joanne Woodward and Brooke Shields.

In the early '70s she and a priest founded a summer street theater for kids in New York, an idea that expanded to several other cities, including Washington, before the removal of federal funds killed it. The Everyman theater still lives here, now tied to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an institution that is itself an indirect result of the New York effort.

As she looks back, Fitzgerald sees things she wishes she had done somewhat differently; her future career, she said, will be guided by her new philosophy of taking risks and "saying yes to everything." The dominant theme of "Mass Appeal," she said, although it is written as a confrontation between two seminarians, relates to any "enclave of power" where "there is a choice between accommodating yourself to what is or putting your whole career on the line."

Her experience in Hollywood, where she worked in films like "Dark Victory," and "The Mill on the Floss," relates to this idea. "Every great film studio was an enclave of power just as much as Versailles was," she said. "I always felt terribly rebellious. Of course my rebellion didn't do me any good. You can either conform or get out."

At the time, her reaction to not getting what she wanted was to stomp out. She was so angry at not getting the part of Cathy in "Wuthering Heights," for example, that she turned down the part of Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." (She did play the part of Isabel Linton in "Wuthering Heights," and was nominated for an Academy Award.)

"I am proud of my rebellious moments, but I wish I'd handled them with more wit," she said. "Really, if you want to go to Hollywood, or nowadays the equivalent would be the media, you have to understand certain things about the way it's run. If you're determined you're not going to accommodate yourself, then you really shouldn't go, because nobody's going to be able to help you.

"I always wanted to have a great deal to do with the whole thing, and so I would offer my 'valuable' ideas about the way things should be, and I didn't realize that even if my ideas had been the greatest in the world, nobody would have wanted them, because that wasn't my position . . . I took it all very personally; I didn't understand they couldn't help themselves. I was always telling my fates to give me exactly, specifically, what I wanted: I wouldn't take something like it."

In "Mass Appeal," the young priest "honestly believes that if you tell someone the truth about how their business could be better done, more honestly, more efficiently, more beneficially, that they'll thank you . . . At the end he has to come to terms with the truth that all you get out of it is the knowledge that you did what what was right."

What she has learned, she said, is that "if you want to have a career, you've got to work, you've got to say yes. You've got to take the chance that the work you're going to do will be mediocre or even bad. You can't say, 'I will only work in good things,' because who knows what's going to be good? I was talking to Jack Houseman with whom she worked in the Mercury Theater during the 1930s the other day and he said, 'If you refuse the mediocre and the bad, then to your horror you find that the people who accepted are also going to be given the good material . . . because they're there.' "

This attitude led her to accept roles such as Dudley Moore's grandmother in "Arthur," and Rodney Dangerfield's mother-in-law in "Easy Money." She has coauthored a musical version of "Juno and the Paycock," and played in it. She directed an all-black production of "Hamlet," set in Africa, and another of "Long Day's Journey into Night," with Gloria Foster playing Fitzgerald's favorite role, Mary Tyrone. And it was through her determined efforts that "Mass Appeal" made it beyond the workshop stage.

"It was rejected by everyone. Then I took it around, by hand, and I would sit in producers' offices and tell them I wasn't leaving until they at least read a scene from the play and imagined Milo O'Shea in it. They all rejected it, too. This is not one of those Determination Wins Out stories. Finally I called Lynne Meadows at the off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club , and she had just had a play fall through, and so we got it on."

Determination is a cover for lack of self-confidence, she said. "I'm inclined to think of myself as a charlatan anyway," she said. "Now that I'm going into something new, I feel it even more. As an actor, I always think, 'This is the time I'm going to be found out.' Some people grow up with a lack of self-confidence. To balance that they have a desire for whatever it is that they're going after that takes the place of self-confidence. That's me."