Gerald A. Freed, a Washington builder and philanthropist, has given $1 million to help underwrite theatrical programs at the Kennedy Center. It is "the largest single gift from an individual that we've received since the center opened," said Chairman Roger Stevens.

In revealing the gift over the weekend, Stevens also said the center's controversial American National Theater, now in its second season, was proving a more expensive undertaking than anticipated. The Freed grant could go to support ANT, he said, or it could help defray expenses of a new musical to be produced by the Kennedy Center. He added that Freed's only stipulation was a notation on the check itself, indicating that the money was "for the theater."

In the past, Freed has made substantial contributions to Ford's Theatre, the Washington Opera and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At a recent Sotheby's auction, the State Department Fine Arts Fund purchased for $999,000 a Gilbert Stuart portrait of John Jay, the secretary of foreign affairs during the second Continental Congress, with money partially donated by Freed.

ANT, which was founded in May 1984 under the direction of Peter Sellars, has spawned national publicity for the Kennedy Center and provoked waves of critical discussion. But "so far," Stevens said, "there's been no return on the box office."

ANT's major sources of funding to date have been $2 million in grants from the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA) and $2 million in matching funds, provided by the center. (ANT is the latter-day incarnation of the now-inoperative ANTA, which was federally chartered as a national theater in 1935.)

To date, ANT has staged four major productions in the Eisenhower Theater. Its fifth production, a revival of Robert Sherwood's "Idiot's Delight," begins previews tonight. Estimating that each show has cost "about $500,000" to produce, Stevens said that only one, last summer's "The Iceman Cometh," made back "about half of its investment." That show, a popular and critical success here, moved to Broadway last fall, but folded after a 2 1/2-month run.

ANT's inaugural show, a production of "Henry IV, Part I" that closed after two weeks, was particularly expensive, Stevens noted; it cost the center "about $700,000." He said the revivals of "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "A Seagull" fared better, sometimes earning their weekly operating costs, but recouping none of the original outlay.

In addition, ANT has sponsored appearances in the Terrace and Free theaters by a wide range of regional and experimental theater companies, such as New York's Wooster Group, Chicago's Wisdom Bridge and Steppenwolf, and the Suzuki Company of Toga (Japan). Attractions in the Free Theater are presented without cost to the public.

From the start, Kennedy Center and ANT officials have said that ANT would need substantial subsidies to survive. "I thought $2 million a year would cover the costs," Stevens said. "But it doesn't seem to be enough. All of ANT's shows have had big casts -- at least 25 -- which runs up rehearsal costs to beat the band."

Sellars regularly sidesteps questions about ANT's finances, arguing that, above all, the company needs time to find its identity and its audience. But he recently said that "$6 to $8 million, roughly speaking" would be a realistic annual budget.

"That's not conspicuously more expensive than the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre [in Minneapolis] or the Mark Taper Forum [in Los Angeles] or any of those institutions," he said. "What we're trying to do right now is produce nonprofit theater in a commercial theater structure. We're poised between two worlds. There's a great deal of tension in that."

For his first season, Sellars cut ticket prices in an effort to broaden the audience for ANT. The immediate result was lower box-office revenues, but audiences have yet to turn out en masse. Last December, the price of an orchestra seat in the Eisenhower was raised $5, making ANT's top ticket $27 on Fridays and Saturdays, and $25 on weekdays.

Stevens indicated he had several musical projects under active consideration for the center; the Freed grant might be used to help finance some of them. In conjunction with two British producers, the center will present the American premiere of "Les Miserables" in the Opera House for eight weeks beginning Dec. 17, prior to a New York engagement. The epic musical, based on Victor Hugo's sprawling novel, is currently a hit in London. It requires a cast of more than 30 and represents a major financial undertaking.

Among the other musical possibilities, Stevens cited a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" (possibly for April); "Rag Dolly," which the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts recently performed in Moscow, marking a resumption of U.S.-Soviet cultural exchanges; and "Teddy and Alice," a musical about the young womanhood of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, set in the White House.

In a related development, Stevens said the center would also begin presenting plays in the Eisenhower Theater, independently of ANT. Although Sellars' contract gives him the use of the Eisenhower 36 weeks a year, it was thought the 1,130-seat theater would actually function as the year-round home of ANT. Stevens now believes that may have been an overly optimistic expectation and that ANT was "biting off more than it could chew."

"Peter feels that the small groups, like Steppenwolf, are very important and that he doesn't have time for a full Eisenhower season," Stevens said. In the future, ANT will occupy the Eisenhower for the stipulated 36 weeks a year, but the rest of the time, the theater will house productions that he himself may produce. "I've got to earn this nonsalary they're paying me," he joked. (Stevens receives a token salary of $1 a year.) "The Eisenhower is fine and has its uses," Sellars said. "But most of the important theater in America today does not take place in a theater its size. Our programming has to reflect that. I would like to do more than 36 weeks in the Eisenhower, but it's more important to get our Terrace and Free Theater seasons going."

When Stevens chose Sellars to run the American National Theater, it was widely viewed as a daring, risky appointment. Reportedly, some Kennedy Center trustees have begun to cast a skeptical eye on ANT. But Stevens, while disappointed in the company's box-office showing so far, continues to voice his support of the 28-year-old Sellars. "There's a lot of very fine work ahead that Peter will do. If not now, he will ultimately be one of the great directors of the country," he said.

With the Freed grant, the center has raised approximately $13.2 million of a projected $42 million National Performing Arts Fund -- $15 million of which is earmarked as working capital, the other $27 million to constitute a permanent endowment.