"I REMEMBER THE DESERT," says Zelda Fichandler, founder of Arena Stage, which turns 35 this year. "They used to call Washington a cultural hick town. No one would dare say that anymore."

Washington's theatrical stock has been steadily rising, with some major gains last season -- the birth of the American National Theater; the rebirth of National Theater; Arena's experiments with major directors; the establishing of the Helen Hayes Awards for professional theater; and, perhaps most important, continuing lively work from our year-round professional companies.

In fact, theater has come such a long way here that someday soon we may no longer feel compelled to continually compare ourselves to New York.

"We'll think of our riches the way rich people are about their money -- calmly taking it for granted, no more tub-thumping. Then we'll know we've really arrived," Fichandler says.

"What we're seeing is more people are staying around town longer -- actors, especially," says Source Theater director Bart Whiteman. "Used to be if an actor got two good reviews, zoom, they're gone up to New York. Now we're seeing people coming from other places to be here."

So where do we go next?

The curtains go up all over town this week and next, which means it's time for a look at professional theaters and their seasons. Please remember that this is a tentative guide for your planning purposes -- the dates, prices and even the plays are subject to change. Discounts are available at most theaters for students and senior citizens. WEEKEND ON STAGE Curtains Up! By Joe Brown

"I REMEMBER THE DESERT," says Zelda Fichandler, founder of Arena Stage, which turns 35 this year. "They used to call Washington a cultural hick town. No one would dare say that anymore."

Washington's theatrical stock has been steadily rising, with some major gains last season -- the birth of the American National Theater; the rebirth of National Theater; Arena's experiments with major directors; the establishing of the Helen Hayes Awards for professional theater; and, perhaps most important, continuing lively work from our year-round professional companies.

In fact, theater has come such a long way here that someday soon we may no longer feel compelled to continually compare ourselves to New York.

"We'll think of our riches the way rich people are about their money -- calmly taking it for granted, no more tub-thumping. Then we'll know we've really arrived," Fichandler says.

"What we're seeing is more people are staying around town longer -- actors, especially," says Source Theater director Bart Whiteman. "Used to be if an actor got two good reviews, zoom, they're gone up to New York. Now we're seeing people coming from other places to be here."

So where do we go next?

The curtains go up all over town this week and next, which means it's time for a look at professional theaters and their seasons. Please remember that this is a tentative guide for your planning purposes -- the dates, prices and even the plays are subject to change. Discounts are available at most theaters for students and senior citizens.