Catherine Wilson, a 1984 Master of Fine Arts graduate of the Yale School of Drama with a background in theater development work, has been appointed managing director of New Playwrights' Theatre effective today. She replaces president Daniel Kiernan, who resigned in July.

Wilson, 33, trained in the commercial theater as an apprentice company manager under veteran Broadway producer Emanuel Azenberg, who produced "Master Harold and the Boys" and "Brighton Beach Memoirs," among many other plays. She later worked in nonprofit theater, raising funds for two years as a development associate for New York's Joyce Theatre.

In addition to the hiring of Wilson and new business manager Mary Riesing, who will assist with the financial dealings, New Playwrights' artistic director Peter Frisch announced that several inactive board members and advisers have been removed, including David Adler, Charles Emmet Lucey and Timothy Seldin. New board members are NPT founder Harry Bagdasian; public relations consultant Rickie Baker; Barbara Blaine, an entertainment lawyer; Vicki Lowe, an artist and arts patron; and Barbara Mansfield, an attorney.

Frisch said some traditions of the 15-year-old theater will be reevaluated. The annual Richard L. Coe Award, which benefits the theater, may be discontinued this year. "Richard had a very special relationship with Harry {Bagdasian}, almost a mentor thing," Frisch said. "I don't know if the chemistry is there to repeat the award. I think there are other things we can do.

"The whole thing is being restructured top to bottom, so it's clean and without cobwebs," said Frisch.

Wilson put it another way: "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here," she said. "We're trying to put it back on the road."

Kiernan, who resigned shortly after the search for a new managing director began, had been at the helm of the financially troubled theater for two years. Frisch said Kiernan "almost single-handedly kept the place together."

In early 1986, after the theater's financial woes and near-collapse spurred the resignation of artistic director Arthur Bartow, Kiernan, then NPT board vice chairman, left his job as director of Washington's United Labor Agency and assumed the title of president and chief operating officer of the theater.

Under his leadership, New Playwrights' coproduced the "Woza Afrika!" festival with Lincoln Center and brought in one-man shows by Shay Duffin and Ray Stricklyn. But because of the theater's perpetual financial constraints, NPT produced only a few plays, and some believed it was straying somewhat from its charter -- to produce new plays.

"I think all bodes well for New Playwrights'," Kiernan said Friday. "I've had a lot of satisfaction, producing things like the 'Woza Afrika!' festival, and I'm very pleased with the balance sheet -- as of June 30, 1987, this is the first fiscal year in several that the theater has taken in more income than expenses. I'll be waiting for Peter to do me right," said Kiernan, who chaired the search committee that hired Frisch earlier this year.

Wilson said her first contact with New Playwrights' was with the building: "It's a charming space on a charming street -- everybody's idea of an ideal theater." She said she "hit it off terrifically" with Frisch and made her decision to accept the position after meeting with the theater's board of directors, "who are very interested in sustaining this theater, which has had a very rocky financial history."

Frisch and Wilson said the theater's economic reconstruction will be a high priority. "We're at least halfway to our goal of obtaining a loan guarantee, which will help us restructure the debt so we can satisfy all vendors and all outstanding notes," Frisch said.

"We also hope to amortize the legitimate debt {which exceeds $100,000} over a period of three years, which seems to be a realistic goal. It's the way a nonprofit should carry a debt, and should also give us enough start-up money to do things properly. That means presenting a four-play season, returning to a development effort, which is part of the theater's mandate. And that hasn't happened here. It's really been crisis management."

"This is the kind of thing that will reflect almost immediately on stage," Frisch added. "You really need a clean machine behind the scenes."

"The burden shouldn't rest on the artistic product," Wilson said. "There's the assumption, very prevalent in the commercial theater, that if everything goes well on stage, that the business will fall into place. What goes on backstage has to be calm and ordered and efficient."

To achieve that end, Wilson plans to hire a development official, a literary manager and an in-house public relations staffer. She said she will also direct her attention to direct-mail fund raising, approaching corporations and foundations on an organized level and strengthening the theater's identification with the Dupont Circle neighborhood, perhaps by offering discounted subscriptions to neighbors.

Frisch is considering six plays for his first four-play season, which is to begin Oct. 6. They are the world premiere of Larry L. King's "The Day Hank Williams Died"; "Out!," a play about the Chicago White Sox scandal by Lawrence Kelly; "Idioglossia," by Mark Handley; "Speaking in Tongues," a dramatic biography of filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini by John Logan; "The Wings of Moony Fishbein" by Ron Mark; and "Better Days" by Richard Dresser. "Out!" and "Speaking in Tongues" received staged readings at NPT this year; Frisch will direct two plays, and has approached two Washington directors about the other two