Following in the footsteps of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, Washington is about to present its own theater awards, complete with star-studded, black-tie festivities and rife, one hopes, with competition. After a few rocky months when the prospect of bankruptcy seemed imminent, the Helen Hayes Awards are now scheduled for May 13, a Monday -- the usual dark night for theaters.

"The business has grown enormously in Washington over the last 10 years," says spokesman Richard Bryant. "We felt there is a broad theater community and a rapidly expanding audience, and no way to recognize achievement."

He notes that Variety reported last year that Washington is the third largest theater town in the country in terms of available seats (12,000 a night). The awards are also a way to focus attention on the small theaters, as well as the well-known ones, and to "encourage professional standards."

Under the aegis of the Washington Theater Awards Society, originally the brainchild of producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, Harry Bagdasian is producing a show at the National Theater, preceded by a dinner and followed by a reception. Helen Hayes, heading a crew of one-time Washington performers assembled for the occasion, will host the evening, aided by Robert Prosky as master of ceremonies.

As with the Tonys in New York and the Joseph Jefferson awards in Chicago, scenes from local productions -- "Beautiful Lady," "The Gospel at Colonus" and "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" -- will alternate with presentations of 20 awards for best director, actor, actress and so on.

Twenty theaters are eligible for nominations, including all area playhouses that "pay their performers on a regular basis" and have a run of more than 16 performances. (Dinner theaters were not included this year, but will be next year.) More than 100 productions presented between last May 1 and Feb. 28, 1985, are eligible. According to Bryant, the society picked 50 people to see the shows, six for each production, and if at least three turned in favorable views the seven judges were dispatched to see them as well. The 50 nominators came from a pool of people suggested by each theater -- two from each, plus ten designated by the society. The nominators are not supposed to see shows at the theater they represent, and they are not supposed to consult each other. All nominators get free tickets for the shows they must see.

This year's judges are Nick Olcott of the Actors Center, director Frederic Lee, Washington Post drama critic emeritus Richard L. Coe, reviewer Faiga Levine, reviewer and teacher Roger Meersman, Meyer Foundation program officer Kathy L. Dwyer and editor and playwright Charles Mark.

Executive director Elizabeth Brown is in charge of tabulating the votes from the 50 nominators and seven judges. The top five in each category will be nominated for an award, and if there are only three winners in a category, that category will be eliminated unless Brown believes it shouldn't be. The judges vote on the winners, but a judge who has not seen all of the shows in a particular category cannot vote in that category.

The nominations will be announced on April 9 at a party hosted by Lady Marjory Wright at the British Embassy. Meanwhile, tickets are on sale: $125 for orchestra and front mezzanine, $75 for the rest (call 337-4572). So far 11 corporations have bought tables for the dinner, giving the society a much needed $30,000 to carry on.

Among the presenters are Karen Allen, Eileen Brennan, Bruce Weitz, Robert Foxworth, George Grizzard, John Guare and James MacArthur.

"We also thought it would be fun," Bryant adds.