WHEN SUMMER turns to autumn, another sort of season begins, as well. Performing arts season means ticket-hunting time, as Washingtonians compete for the hot seats for music, theater and dance events.

Nearly a million people in the Washington area attended some sort of theatrical performance last year, according to a recent marketing report, and attendance at music performances was certainly higher still. So getting into a particularly popular show -- be it Madonna or "Les Mise'rables" -- can involve a search as tough and tense as the Hunt for Redskins tickets in October.

But if you're willing to apply some creativity, alertness and persistence, you can find good seats, cheap seats -- even free seats.

Tickets, please: Most theaters and performing arts organizations offer discounts for students and senior citizens, military personnel (usually in grades E-1 through E-4), disabled patrons and economically disadvantaged patrons with a human resources card. A photo ID is usually required when buying or picking up discounted tickets, and box office personnel appreciate it when you present it without being asked.

"If we ask for ID, sometimes senior patrons feel offended, as if we don't believe them," says Jena Hoffman, the Arena Stage box office manager. "But if we don't ask, they wonder why, and they're offended by that, too." Theaters often offer special promotions, with "twofers" and coupons -- look for them in newspaper and magazine ads, or at the cash counter at restaurants, book and record stores and supermarkets. Listen to the radio for free ticket promotions and "tell 'em you heard it here" discount offers. Check with your place of employment: Many large companies have employee recreation clubs that purchase blocks of seats in advance at discount rates. Most theaters offer convenient computerized phone charge, but generally, you'll get the best price and seat selection if you go to the box office in person. Seat locations are posted on charts near the window, and you can ask questions right there. Arena's Hoffman says her box office staff makes a point of seeing each show so they can make recommendations on the best sightlines. You also save on service charges, which can add up, depending on how many seats you're buying. Ask the location of your seat before completing purchase. Many theater box offices have on-line seating software that visually displays what seats are available to the vendor. Seating charts and theater layouts for many venues can be found in the Yellow Pages and in the Baltimore/Washington Theatre Guide magazine, and most box offices either post a diagram or have one available. Contrary to popular belief, the front rows are not necessarily the best seats in the house. Though it sounds prestigious, it's a good way to get a stiff neck (or sprayed by overemphatic actors). Drew Murphy, general manager of theaters at the Kennedy Center, says a theater's "sweet spot" is different for plays and musicals.

"For plays, you usually want to be about one third of the way back, so you're about eye level with the stage," Murphy says. (For certain shows, like "Road to Mecca," the front rows lend intimacy; at small theaters, there's usually not a bad seat). For musicals, Murphy recommends the mezzanine level, which often offers superior sound and the best vantage point for choreography and scenic scope. For the upcoming "Phantom of the Opera" at the Kennedy Center Opera House, for example, the first balcony and part of the second balcony are the secret hot seats.

At Arena Stage, shows are performed in the round (or square, really), but key moments are often directed toward one tier of seats -- the north tier of seats is usually where the critics are placed. Most small theaters offer intimate seating, so vantage points depend on the design of the show -- ask the box office where the best seats will be. Notice that critics sit on aisles, sometimes on outside sections. It gives them a relatively unobstructed view, and makes for an easy exit (so well-meaning people can't catch them to ask "What did you think?"). Plays and musicals are in "previews" anywhere from three days to two weeks before opening night, which is generally defined as the Night the Critics Come. Seats are often plentiful and occasionally discounted during previews because many people (too many) wait to hear what the critics say before taking a chance. For new shows, the time is used as a shakedown, and necessary changes can be made during this period. For touring productions, the preview period is useful for the company to get used to the acoustics and dimensions of the new theater, to warm up before opening night. Getting into even a sold-out show isn't impossible: Subscribers often exchange tickets for certain shows for later dates, there are often returned tickets and unpaid reservations are released on the day of the show, so it pays to check in early and frequently with the box office for new availability. Remember, the box office isn't trying to hide anything from you.

"People call and want the best seats and want to know where they are. Our job isn't to give everyone the worst seats -- we're trying to give you the best seat possible. If people would just trust us more, it would make things more pleasant for all of us," says Arena's Hoffman. If you're willing to take a chance, standing-room admission is an inexpensive way to get into a show, but be sure to call ahead and check the theater's standing-room policy beforehand. After everyone's seated, you may be permitted to fill in vacant spaces with the help of an usher. If you're a real thrill-seeker and risk-taker you can sometimes get tickets to blockbuster shows that have been sold out for months. If you line up at the box office for cancellations and returns (people start lining up about two hours prior to some shows, depending on the show's popularity), you'll stand a decent chance. A friend saw "Phantom" and "Aspects of Love" and "Les Miz" on Broadway, this way -- and got great seats, too. You just have to be prepared to stand in line for several hours and to pay full price. (You also have to be prepared to go to dinner or a movie when they run out of tickets just as you reach the head of the line.) The easiest way to avoid all this rigamarole is to subscribe to a season of offerings at a theater or arts organization. The benefits include considerable savings (previews and weekday nights are usually the least expensive), convenience, automatic best seats, no lines, ticket exchange privileges and other perks like cast receptions and advance notice of upcoming events. Theaters always need ushers and volunteers, and a brief bit of donated labor -- usually tearing tickets and seating people or staffing a concession stand -- will get you into shows for free. Some people never pay for a ticket. Call the office of the theater you're interested in. If you don't happen to know anyone in the cast of a show, you might try to get chummy with a hotel concierge -- they usually have ins with the theaters. Or, if worse comes to worst, introduce yourself to a theater critic -- they're always looking for dates. At Your Service TicketCenter recently purchased the national Ticketron chain, and on Oct. 1 the whole 100-outlet local outfit will go under the Ticketron name. TicketCenter and Ticketron offer full-price tickets to almost all local arts venues, and since Ticketron's a national service, it has access to tickets for shows on Broadway, in Los Angeles, and in other locations around the country. You can also get tickets to special events such as major exhibitions at the National Gallery and attractions such as Baltimore's National Aquarium. Both will mail tickets to your home if ordered up to 10 days in advance; after that, they will be waiting at the venue's will-call window. The outlets' computer is programmed by the venues' individual box offices to select and dispense the best available seat in your price range. A service charge -- usually around 8 percent, depending on the type of event and whether you purchase by phone or at an outlet -- is appended to the cost of tickets. Ticketron outlets can be found in many Sears and Woodward & Lothrop stores; TicketCenter outlets include all Hecht's stores (and at least one waterbed store). Note that when buying tickets at an outlet such as Sears you'll have to pay cash or use the outlet's own credit card. Call TicketCenter at 432-0200 or Ticketron (mainly for shows at Merriweather Post, National Theatre and 9:30 club) at 800/543-3041. After the two merge on Oct. 1, the local Ticketron number will be 432-0200. TicketPlace is Washington's discount day-of-performance ticket outlet. Tickets to music, theater and dance events are made available on the day of show for half-price plus a service charge (which is equal to 10 percent of the full face value, making it the highest service charge in the area on the lowest-priced ticket). Last week, tickets to most theatrical events were available, including shows at Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre and Olney Theatre. Due to a labor dispute, discount tickets for Kennedy Center and National Theatre events haven't been available for some time.

Some changes are on the way for TicketPlace, a project of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. In the fall the District is going to tear up its F Street plaza site to open the street to traffic, so TicketPlace is negotiating with developers about a new site in the same general area. Till then, you'll find it at 12th and F streets NW, near Metro Center, open noon to 4 Tuesday through Friday and 11 to 5 Saturdays. Tickets to Sunday and Monday events are sold on Saturdays.

TicketPlace accepts cash only. Ticket availablility is not given over the phone, but is posted daily at the booth. Weekend ticket availablity is announced on Saturdays on WGMS (103.5 FM) at 10:05 a.m., following the news. TicketPlace is also a TicketCenter outlet, offering full-price tickets to all events TicketCenter carries, plus a $1 service charge in addition to TicketCenter charge. Call 842-5387. Ticket brokers -- Let's not mince words: Ticket brokers are basically scalpers, services that buy blocks of seats -- usually premium seats -- and resell them to corporations and individuals at much higher prices. For example, a 10th-row floor seat for Phil Collins's upcoming show at Capital Centre, normally $28.50 (including a $3.50 service charge) at TicketCenter, is $110 at Ticket Finders. Most brokers either buy multiple subscriptions to get the choicest seats, or send people to stand in line for tickets. For special events, theaters often put a limit on the number of tickets people can buy; brokers get around this by sending more ringers. If you've got the money to burn, they've got the seats for theater and music events (you can also check the classified ads under Tickets, Sale). Area ticket brokers include Murray's Tickets (800/227-8913), Premiere Theater Seats (533-1600), Ticket Finders (513-0300), Stagefront Tickets (953-1163), Ticket Connection (587-6850), Ticket Outlet (538-4044), and Top Centre Ticket (585-0046). Ticket scalpers -- These are the people yammering "Need a ticket?" when you obviously don't or the ones asking too much when you do. Areas patrolled by the National Park Service, such as the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, are off-limits for on-site scalping, but that doesn't mean people don't try -- and often get fined. Capital Centre doesn't permit scalping on its premises; District police have also arrested people trying to unload their tickets at RFK Stadium for less than face value. Since regulations can vary by venue and community, scalpers should be the last resort.