When the local artists' hangout Botswana opened last February at the Washington Project for the Arts on Seventh and E streets NW, it was envisioned as a gallery space, a lecture place and a watering hole. "It'll be like a clubhouse," said organizer Lynn McCary then.

Nobody said it would be a theater, though all summer it has been, as the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company performed its rotating rep of "National Defense" and "Savage in Limbo" there. The offbeat art on the walls and comfy ratty chairs were replaced by the offbeat set and uncomfy ratty chairs of the theater company. The massive space (previously a Kresge storeroom) lends itself better to art and whispered comments -- voices of the performers tend to get lost here. But, says Woolly Mammoth Managing Director Linda Reinisch, "We really enjoyed playing there this summer." "Savage" will play Wednesday through Sunday.

But the signs look good for the arts. Just taking a stroll after a Woolly Mammoth performance, one can sense the change for the arts downtown. Across the street from WPA, d.c. space was packed with people for a poetry reading. Down a few doors, the slick lines of newly refurbished gallery spaces liven the neighborhood. The Lansburgh Cultural Center is ready to undergo renovation too, and work continues on the sprucing up of the old WPA building on Seventh and D streets NW.

Arts at Eastern Market

Downtown isn't the only place in Washington where art seems to be flourishing. On Capitol Hill, there is the emergence of the Market 5 Gallery at Eastern Market. Housed at the northern end of the popular indoor produce and meat market (if truth be told, only one thin wall separates it from the fish section), Market 5 is a gritty, airy space with a stage and makeshift white walls. The historic brick of the old, decaying building peeps out in places from behind the plaster, and the noise of the real market filters in all day. No trendy showmanship here -- just art on the walls and nothing else.

All summer, Market 5 has played host to a wide range of the arts locally -- from community orchestras to theater groups, from pastel artists to jazz musicians. Avant-garde performance artist Elizabeth Austin finished up her show "Call Me" there over the weekend, though her exhibit of odd, reflective books will be up for another week. On Sept. 18, an exhibit of sculpture by Donna Reinsel, along with drawings and paintings by Suzanne Modlin and collages by Eugenia Woolman, begins.

Odds and Ends

There's a lot of odd stuff opening up around town this week. The highlights:

"The Tale of the Mermaid" opens Wednesday at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall. Artwork and artifacts trace humanity's fascination with this fish-woman of the briny deep. Word has it that even Bette Midler's scales -- a costume from one of her many nightclub characters (Dolores DeLago) will be on display.

You think the Constitution is boring? Necessary and important, yes -- thrilling reading, no? Well, how about 87 hours of it? Sunday at 4 p.m., an 87-hour vigil begins with a ceremony at the Constitution Avenue entrance to the National Archives. Dignitaries (such as former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger) and an honor guard will be there. The masses can watch the proceedings from across the street on Constitution Avenue. You can see the old document afterward (all four pages will be on display), from 6 p.m. through Thursday morning, all day and night. For the rest of the week, there are concerts, lectures, drama, movies and more.

If you're a glutton for democracy, go hear the National Park Service's musical tribute to the Constitution at 7 p.m. Saturday at Great Falls Park in Virginia. Linda Russell will sing songs of the American colonial and Revolutionary War periods.

Looking Ahead

The National Park Service is recruiting volunteer choirs and instrumental groups for the 1987 Pageant of Peace, which opens on the Ellipse at 5 p.m. on Dec. 10. Performances are held nightly through Dec. 23. Call the National Park Service at 485-9660.