BRIAN TATE had an idea about artists giving each other a helping hand.

As a performance poet and musician, Tate recalls meeting "a lot of musicians and writers and dancers on the street and subway, in the supermarket and movie theaters. And it's always the same: they've gone to school for dance, they walk like dancers . . . and they're making donuts. They don't have any kind of outlet" for their creativity.

So six months ago, Tate put his idea into practice and formed the Umbra Group, which he defines as "a self-supporting, self-sufficient performing arts collective that includes musicians, writers, dancers and visual artists."

At this point, a feisty independent spirit and youthful earnestness are what most strongly link Umbra's various bands--Brick House Burning, Red Sink, the Velvet Monkeys, Crippled Pilgrims, Sport Turned Spectacle, and 9353--and two poetry groups, the Sabotage Poets and Shadow Street Puppets. Umbra's staff members are searching for alternative venues and rehearsal spaces, trying to provide technical and business advice, and, perhaps most important, encouragement from within the medium, rather than outside.

Ultimately, Tate hopes to get nonprofit status and apply for grants to expand Umbra's information, referral and support services. Performing artists, he says, "are not so much 'in' or 'out' of Umbra--it's not like a racquet club; they're 'associated' with it, a subtle but distinct difference. We're not looking to set up a new elite, but to emphasize our service aspects for any and everyone."

Tate, who also sings with Brick House Burning, says the vaguely progressive nature of Umbra's artists is neither "intentional nor accidental. But in the scene that I'm a part of, there's a commitment and a desire to be supportive of other like-minded artists in the community. That's all that matters. We don't care what kind of music they play."

Tate sees Umbra modeling itself on Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, New York's CBGB's/Max's community in the '70s and even the D.C. Youth Orchestra, "a forum opened up to musicians in the community." And since Umbra has few rallying spots outside of the 9:30 club and d.c. space, it is actively seeking out small alternative spaces like Oscar's Eye, a space above the Rogue near Eighth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and the Space II Arcade at North Capitol and K streets SE.

"People get locked into thinking if I can't play here or there, there's no place to play," Tate complains. "That's when they leave town or just sit around and break up. I think it's important to have alternative spaces--for both the artists and the audience."

Tonight marks the debut of Lights Out, a new poetry group including Bee Beckman, Karen Bevsfalk and Jared Hendrickson; they'll be reading at d.c. space. Sabotage and Lights Out are independent of Umbra, Tate explains, while Shadow Street Puppets is the organization's poetry outlet.

All three groups make a point of inviting new writers to read and participate, because "a lot of creative people are frustrated from having no outlet for what they do." They share a nucleus of seven or eight poets, "but in the last month, we've doubled those numbers. It's an inhaling/exhaling kind of process: when more and more people come in, we'll just start another group."

Flitting back and forth between bands of musicians and poets can be revealing, Tate says. "The poems I read out with Shadow Street are often songs I do with Brick House Burning--they go through a transformation when that happens."

Coordinating Umbra, he adds, makes him feel "like a businessman--whenever I go to meetings these days, I carry a briefcase." Umbra now has a codirector, Vicky Adams, and a volunteer staff. There is talk of records and a dance company somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, there's tonight's poetry debut at d.c. space. Tomorrow finds Brick House Burning, 9353, Sport Turned Spectacle and Death Camp 2000 at the Space II, a video arcade that regularly presents hardcore shows. On Sunday at the 9:30 club, Death Camp 2000 will team up with Grand Mal. And on Sept. 24, d.c. space will host a benefit for the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (where Tate does volunteer work) with BMO, Grand Mal and Madhouse. That's another Umbra philosophy--having its members do community-oriented benefits on a regular basis.

"We're constantly and continually looking for artists of whatever discipline," Tate says. Interested parties may call him at 882-1365 or write to The Umbra Group at P.O. Box 9387, Washington, D.C. 20005.