WHILE CARON TATE was trying to piece together an acting career -- she performed intermittently at Back Alley Theater, New Playwrights' and Studio -- she paid the rent by dancing topless and nude at clubs all over D.C.

Tate's on-and-off experience, which spanned nearly five years, provided the raw material for her first play, "Bumps," which is now playing at the old Back Alley Theater.

"While I was working in those clubs, I kept a journal," Tate says. "It was a difficult time because what I wanted to do was act, but I didn't have the skills. And I found that by dancing, I could make a lot of money and choose my own hours.

"I thought, wow, this would make a great movie, but I decided it would be more realistic to try writing a play. I don't really have any training as a writer, so I'm sure I did it the wrong way," Tate says, laughing. "There were a lot of interesting and strange things I saw, and some real characters. For many of the dancers it was their whole thing -- it was their social life, they ate their meals there, some even came in on their day off. The point of my play is that it's not a bad life -- it's really a lot of fun. I'm not getting moralistic about it -- this is what I used to do."

"I wanted to convey the life of a typical dancer -- unskilled, uneducated, who kind of drifts into the life." Tate came up with the character of Sylky, who she plays herself. The show features a cast of 18 actors (including Cathy Simpson, also a former dancer), many of whom are getting their first acting break.

"My original idea was that someone else would do the producing and I would just play my part," Tate says. But the actress found herself writing, producing, casting, directing, performing, publicizing and even cleaning the long-unused theater space.

Though "Bumps" is being performed in the long-defunct Back Alley Theater, Tate cautions that may not mean a full-scale revitalization of the grassroots community theater, which performed its first production in 1967 in a Mount Pleasant garage before moving to 1365 Kennedy Street NW. Back Alley performed 10 years of respected and socially conscious (if uneven) productions for adults and children. "There was a time when there was Arena Stage and there was Back Alley," Tate says. "It was a place where minority actors could do all sorts of parts -- sort of non-traditional casting before it had a name."

The 75-seat theater is in the basement of what is now a co-op building whose residents have been using it as a party room, and Tate says they are not sure they'd like a full-time theater there. "Some were a little leery about the subject matter, too," Tate says. "But I asked to speak to them, and I assured them this is not a nudie or a sex show, it's about a woman who got into a life that probably is not a good idea to think of as a career -- and got stuck in it. Since then, several of the tenants have come back to see it again -- with their wives."

The perfect Christmas gift for a theater-lover would be tickets, of course. Or, even better, a season subscription. But other theater-related gift ideas can be found at Backstage, the performing arts store at 21st and P, which stocks hundreds of scripts, theater books and posters. (Proprietor Jean Rosenthal even has a dozen Santa suits to rent.)

Some of the newest theater volumes include director Peter Brooks' translation of Jean-Claude Carriere's script for "The Mahabarata" (Perennial Library) -- the play lasts nine hours, but you should be able to get through the 238-page paperback in considerably less time; "Theatrical Anecdotes" (Oxford Press), is an amusing assemblage of backstage tales. Broadway watchers can prep for the arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest with "The Complete Phantom of the Opera" (Henry Holt); closer to home, Lily Tomlin is coming to the Kennedy Center in late March, and the script of Jane Wagner's play "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" makes a good souvenir. "The Tony Award Book" (Abbeville) is a handsome and informative art book/bet-settler, and any actor would enjoy a copy of Diana Riggs' "No Turn Unstoned," a consoling compendium of venomous reviews throughout history.

Backstage also stocks the "Box Office" board game, which puts you in the producer's chair: "Have fun trading artists, negotiating contracts and making money as you produce plays in theaters all over North America." Proceeds from sales of the game benefit the League of Washington Theatres.

While you're in a generous mood, don't forget your favorite small theater at Christmas time. They can always use all sorts of office supplies -- and volunteers.

Bulletin Board: While the Washington Stage Guild was rehearsing Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" (which opens January 5) they found themselves with an unforeseen distraction -- the troupe shared its downtown space with 500 policemen using Carroll Hall as a headquarters/barbeque pit during the Gorbachev-Reagan summit . . . American University's staging of "Cabaret" is one of five college theater productions selected from among 61 to be performed January 16 at the Eastern Region finals of the American College Theater Festival. One of those five finalists will be chosen to perform in April at ACTF at the Kennedy Center . . . To promote the upcoming "HMS Pinafore," the Kennedy Center is offering a $5 discount to box office patrons who sing a five-second snippet from any Gilbert & Sullivan show -- trouble is, most people want to finish the whole song. One woman called the box office and said "I've never sung in front of anyone before, and I'm embarrassed, but I'd like to try." And she launched into a rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." (Better luck next time -- that one, of course, was by Rodgers & Hammerstein) . . . Washington actress Dorothea Hammond is performing her one-woman play "Eleonora Duse" at the National Theater in Oslo, Norway, this weekend, in connection with an exhibit of memorabilia of the great actress Duse . . . Five British corporations with major interests in the United States have each pledged $50,000 to The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger to defray the costs of producing classical theater in the nation's capital. Hanson Industries, Glaxo Holdings, British Aerospace, Vicker's American Holdings, and Batus Inc. will each contribute $10,000 annually for five years . . . Overheard at a matinee of Round House Theater's double-bill of Harry Kondoleon one-acts, a house manager to blue-haired lady: "These are the kind of plays where nobody's right or wrong -- everybody's right and wrong."