A graduate program designed to produce first-rank classical actors is being announced today by the Shakespeare Theatre and George Washington University. The Shakespeare Theatre Academy for Classical Acting will be the first of its kind in the country, according to director Michael Kahn, who has been working on the program for five years. "We're talking about the Olympics of acting," said Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre and also of the acting program at the Juilliard School in New York. "This kind of acting requires special techniques beyond just knowing how to act. There are physical issues, breath issues, familiarity with the text. . . . Our society is not very interested in language; it's been pretty devalued in terms of expressiveness. Actors need a place where those values are encouraged and explored." Auditions for the 24 places in the comprehensive 12-month degree program, which will cost $24,000, will be held between September and December for a June 2000 opening. Applicants are expected to have an undergraduate degree and acting experience, and may include working actors who want to expand their range. There is no age limit, and the Graduate Record Exam will not be required. The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation has given $750,000 to complete the Shakespeare Theatre's rehearsal studios -- located in a former movie theater on Eighth Street SE -- where the conservatory will be housed. Students will have all the privileges of other George Washington students, such as access to the library, and will receive a master of fine arts degree from the university on successfully completing the program. Most graduate programs in acting are for two to four years, but cover classical or Shakespearean acting as one subject among many. Kahn and GWU theater and dance department head Leslie Jacobson say there is not only a need for the training they intend to offer, but a market for these classically trained actors once they graduate. Kahn notes that there are more than 70 Shakespeare theaters and festivals in the country, in addition to resident theaters that do classics as a regular part of their repertoire. The recent boom of Hollywood Shakespeare has also highlighted the need for performers who can do more than grunt and flex their pecs on "Baywatch." But two considerations in making the program only a year long were concerns about the cost and that it could delay entry into the competitive acting fray. "With medical school or law school you have the expectation of some kind of income after you finish," said Jacobsen. "With acting . . ." Students will attend classes five days a week starting at 9 a.m., and will produce two studio performances as well as an abbreviated Shakespeare play that will tour public schools. On any given day they will hone their bodies with yoga, sword-fighting and dance; improve their delivery with the study of resonators, articulators and ear training; and expand their minds by delving into the history of Elizabethan, Restoration and Jacobean times, using primary sources of the eras. Comparing this kind of acting to that of a "Baywatch" babe is sort of like equating a partying line dancer with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacobsen explained. But don't try suggesting to Kahn that the actor who graduates from the newly dubbed ACA will be some Pommy-sounding elocutionist with a pin-up of Maurice Evans on his wall. "That drives me crazy!" he averred. "When I say classical acting you think of bad English actors! This is the greatest, most complicated material, and the expression of it is through the text. We will be producing great American actors." And coincidentally, he mentions two -- Philip Goodwin and Edward Gero -- who will be among the faculty of the ACA. Others include Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Floyd King, Ted van Griethuysen and Helen Carey from the Shakespeare Theatre; and Gail Paster from GWU's English department. In remarks prepared for today's press conference, GWU President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg welcomed the new venture. "With this initiative, Washington's position of leadership in the arts is strengthened. And as we all know, high drama and politics are not unrelated." CAPTION: The Shakespeare Theatre's Michael Kahn, center, who spearheaded the new academy, with actors Philip Goodwin, left, and Edward Gero, who will be on the faculty. ec