The hottest theater ticket in town yesterday was to a series of scenes that might have been and a companion stage piece designed to examine why they haven't.

It was Washington's first Symposium on Non-Traditional Casting, one of the most controversial topics in American theater today, and more than 400 actors, directors, playwrights and theatergoers packed into the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage to take part in the daylong event.

Nontraditional casting means the use of actors of any race, sex, ethnic background or degree of disability in roles for which such factors are not germane to the development of stage characters or the play. The symposium was organized by the League of Washington Theatres against the backdrop of recent statistics that show 90 percent of all plays produced by mainstream American theaters are performed by all-white casts, that only 10 percent of the roles on Broadway are being cast with blacks and that nonwhites were being hired by regional theaters for a mere 9 percent of available roles.

"This makes me very sad," said keynote speaker Frances Foster, a founding member of the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company. "We have lost so many talents because of our short-sightedness," she said, citing the case of Earle Hyman, a classically trained actor who now plays Bill Cosby's father on "The Cosby Show."

"He appeared in a successful Broadway show, 'Anna Lucasta,' but after that he couldn't buy a job," Foster said. "In this country, he was too white to be black, and too black to be white. So he went to Norway, where you will find a bust of him in a city square . . . Now he is their favorite Shakespearean actor. So what I want to say to those of you who are in a position to cast is this: There is so much talent in this country. Please don't waste any of it."

Symposium moderator Joni Lee Jones, a founder of HOME: Theater for a New Columbia, a new black theater company here, outlined four types of nontraditional casting: societal, the casting of ethnic, minority and female actors in roles they also fill in society, such as doctors and lawyers; cross-cultural, in which the "world" of a play is transferred to a different culture; conceptual, in which an ethnic actor is cast to give the play a wider focus; and colorblind, in which casting is done without regard to race or ethnicity.

To demonstrate the possibilities of such casting, more than 30 actors performed in eight scenes, all of them in roles traditionally played by white actors. Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, presented a lively, period-costumed scene from "As You Like It," which he cast without regard to race. Samuel P. Barton staged an extraordinarily affecting scene from Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother," performed by Alfredine Parham Brown and Lynda Gravatt, two black actresses who made any thought of color vanish.

There were three consecutive scenes from David Mamet's "American Buffalo." The first was cast as usual, with three white males; the second with a woman playing the junk shop operator; and the third with a Hispanic, a black and an Asian filling the roles. Glenda Dickerson cast Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" with a black George and Emily, and Arena's associate producing director, Douglas C. Wager, directed the most audacious offering -- a scene from Molie`re's "The Misanthrope" in which the leading man, Alceste, was played by a deaf actor whose entreaties to his leading lady were sign-interpreted through his valet.

The scenes were followed by audience-participation discussions led by an onstage panel during which concern and anger were voiced over whether Washington theaters and audiences are willing or able to disregard sex, race and physical makeup.

"I think it is the job of people in the theater to increase perception," said the Shakespeare Theatre's Kahn, who recalled the 1950s when it was called "integrated" casting. "Our role is to lead, not be led by the audience. By the way, I don't think it's hard -- I don't think it's even difficult. If you have an audience which has difficulty with this, maybe it's not the audience you want."

"I think a theater that only presents white people on a stage is making a political statement," said Rosemarie Tichler, head of casting for the New York Shakespeare Festival. "And I don't think audiences are the problem at all. I think audiences are open and interested. I think the problems are critics." Peggy Cooper Cafritz, chair emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, agreed, saying "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the critics are white males, and here in Washington that is a real problem. All our culture is filtered to us through white male eyes."

"On TV and in the movies, what you look like is what you're cast as," said Tichler. "The theater is different -- the actor can transform," she said, citing a similar symposium in New York in which James Earl Jones played Big Daddy, a white Southern planter, in a scene from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Many reasons were suggested for contemporary theater's failure to reflect the country's cultural diversity. Members of both panel and audience variously blamed playwrights, producers, casting directors, theater companies who don't hold open auditions, fear of audience rejection, and critics with limited vision.

Although the participants agreed that nontraditional casting was a good and necessary thing, they also agreed they were "preaching to the converted" here. The question of whether nontraditional casting can be a distraction to an audience or even alter the essential nature of a play was also raised, but few participants seemed eager to oppose the basic concept.

Ernest Joselovitz, founder of Washington's Playwrights' Unit, approached the issue from a writer's perspective. "Nontraditional casting seems like a natural progression when it's someone else's play. It's radical when it's your own. We're writing from our own experience -- it's very hard for me to see my play any other way."

"Hopefully, we will have playwrights that are courageous enough to write about what's happening in America," said Vantile Whitfield, founding director of NEA's Expansion Arts program.

Frustration with the course of the discussion became more audible as the afternoon wore on. At one point, an angry voice called from the balcony: "We are dealing in a society that believes that white folks have the only good ideas, and that's what theater here shows."

"It's conventions that we have to struggle against," said another anonymous protester. "If you look at a casting description in a script, it may say, for example, 'a factory worker.' Not a white factory worker. It's the convention that writes white in there."

"I've heard a lot of talk about the problem, but what about the solution?" asked panel member Patti Woo, a casting agent. "What we have to look at are the economic and business solutions. I'm the only Asian agent on either coast." Woo noted that she went to New York intending to become an actress or dancer and soon realized that there wouldn't be enough work for an Asian. "So I entered another part of the industry to create jobs for minorities, to make statements through power," she said, and urged that theaters recruit minorities into "power positions."

"Audiences are overwhelmingly white, and so the theaters believe there are no complaints, but there are ringing complaints," said Cafritz, who suggested that theaters hire minority directors and form an audience development collective "to raise audiences" in all communities. "None of this other stuff is going to work if that doesn't work," she added.

Although the afternoon ended on a somewhat fractious note, most agreed that the event succeeded in raising crucial issues and venting steam. "This day will be a true beginning -- and I do mean beginning -- to make the theater accessible to all talent and all audiences," said Patricia Sheehy, chair of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which funded the symposium.

"Our history indicates that for too long, women and blacks, Asians and physically disabled actors have been denied access to our stages," concluded Abel Lopez, president of the League of Washington Theatres. "For too long the minority population has felt unwelcome and stayed away from our theaters, and for too long we have relied on good intentions, lofty words and token efforts to address these problems without result. As artists, we are the soul and conscience of our community and we will no longer ignore the issue. We will continue to focus attention on efforts for greater opportunities for those who have been excluded for too long."