Two professional theaters for young audiences--Classika in Arlington and Imagination Stage in Montgomery County--are on the cusp of expansions. Both emphasize outreach programs for minority and poor children, and both have won government support and boosts from local businesses.

Classika was founded three years ago by Russian emigres determined to turn American kids on to Russia's long tradition of high-quality children's theater and fine arts classes. It moved last year from the cavernous Rosslyn Spectrum to a storefront in the Village at Shirlington, where its 82-seat space was packed with little ones a couple of Saturdays ago for "Aesop's Fables" (which runs through Sunday). With grants, donations and ticket sales, Classika's budget has multiplied from $30,000 to $250,000.

Artistic Director Inna Shapiro's newest goal is to open a "national cultural center for children," which would present plays for children 6 and older, puppetry and fairy tales for tots, and classical music, opera and ballet performances. Shapiro plans classes in chess, math, poetry, fine arts and intellectual sports. She wants children "to see a good performance and understand the message in a good performance, and to be able to try things . . . and figure out if they like it or not. They have to have that opportunity."

Creation of her children's center would require $3 million to $4 million. Shapiro and company have their gaze tentatively cast on a space in an office tower planned for near the Courthouse Metro.

At Imagination Stage (part of the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, or BAPA), "Wind in the Willows" runs through Aug. 29. The nine-year-old company has always performed in a low-ceilinged venue on the top floor of White Flint Mall. Artistic Director Janet Stanford said last week that BAPA has already raised about half the $7 million needed for its planned June 2000 move to a state-of-the-art, 450-seat theater on the first two levels of a new parking structure at Auburn and Del Ray avenues in downtown Bethesda.

The theater's latest good news concerns a play by Washington dramatist Caleen Sinette Jennings, "Free Like Br'er Rabbit," done by Imagination Stage a couple of years ago. In her adaptation of the African American fable, Jennings has woven the tale of a young slave who decides after hearing the stories to make his escape. The play has been chosen for presentation next June at a national conference on children's theater at the Kennedy Center. The invitation "symbolizes to me that we're getting the kind of recognition artistically that we need in order to justify moving into this new space," Stanford said.

Kennedy Center News

Producer Cameron Mackintosh will bring his musical "Martin Guerre" to the Kennedy Center for a pre-Broadway run Dec. 23, 1999-Jan. 16, 2000. It's scheduled to open in New York next April.

Based on a 16th-century French legend that inspired the 1982 French film "The Return of Martin Guerre" and the 1993 American film "Sommersby," the musical has a script by the "Les Miserables" team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, music by Schonberg and lyrics by Boublil and Stephen Clark. It opened in London's West End in 1997 and won an Olivier Award, but some critical boos. A revamped version is touring the United Kingdom.

Musical theater buffs may have wondered what happened to the Kennedy Center's "Words & Music" series--which revived classic Broadway shows in concert form--that began so pleasantly last summer.

What happened was not enough money. According to publicity director Tiki Davies, a decision was made last winter not to revive the series until a major funder--at least $1 million is needed--is found. "Words & Music," said Davies, was "everyone's favorite project," but it "costs more money than we can bring in through tickets, because you're rehearsing for a couple of weeks and only playing for less than a week." Meanwhile, Davies wants audience suggestions on what old musicals to revive. Backstage votes for "The Pajama Game" and "Carnival." Ideas can be sent through the Web site at kennedy-center.org.

The Royal Shakespeare Company won't be back at the Kennedy Center next year but will return in 2001, when it plans a British festival. Center President Lawrence Wilker hopes one day, according to Davies, to evolve the company's visits into a yearly residency.

Shepherdstown FunniesBeverly Marable, casting director for the Contemporary American Theater Festival, found it refreshing to hunt for comics instead of trained actors for the "late nite comedy club" at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where the festival continues through Aug. 1. On July 10, Backstage caught opener Mike Metz and headliner Robert Kelly, a New York-based guy, hilariously spooked by being in rural America. They triumphed despite a dodgy sound system.

"Now people are calling: 'Come to Caroline's.' 'Come to the Comedy Store.' 'See my client,' " said Marable last week by phone from Shepherdstown. "It's been fun." The comedy club was her idea. Both she and festival director Ed Herendeen traveled to venues like Caroline's in New York, the Improv in Washington and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles to see up-and-coming laughsters. And they watched piles of tapes.

"It's hard to determine if it appeals to me or if it appeals to a wide variety of people," Marable said. "Because, we all know, there are many people who think they're funny who are not." Her aim has apparently been good, since two comics she originally booked had to bow out in favor of appearances with David Letterman. One also just sold a movie script.

Marable, who until April was also casting director for Arena Stage, has gone freelance. Still Washington-based, she's "waiting for that big movie deal. . . . Keep your fingers crossed."

Follow Spots

* African Continuum Theatre Company, or ACTCo, has been invited to take "The Hip Hop Nightmares of Jujube Brown," its original play from two seasons ago, to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Aug. 3 and 4. The rap-inspired drama was written by ACTCo Director Jennifer L. Nelson and performers Toni Blackman and Psalmayene 24, who'll reprise their roles. The festival number is 336-723-2266.

* Signature Theatre plans a 10th anniversary weenie roast on Aug. 2 at 7 p.m. for "every actor, designer, director, playwright and technician" who's ever worked there. Officials have lost track of about 150 such people. RSVP by July 26 at 703-820-9771.

* More free Shakespeare: Actors who've participated in the Shakespeare Theatre's Summer Classical Acting immersion program will surface this week, after five weeks of master classes, to perform two free comedies. Tomorrow, it's "All's Well That Ends Well," set in occupied France. Thursday, it's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," set in Napoleonic France. No reservations required. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

* Woolly Mammoth will have a benefit performance July 28 featuring gay performance artist Tim Miller and his autobiographical solo show, "Shirts & Skin," which runs through Aug. 8. Tickets for the benefit and after-party are $100 and $75. Call 202-393-3939.

CAPTION: "Aesop's Fables" at Arlington's Classika Theatre, founded three years ago by Russian emigres.

CAPTION: "Wind" players R. Scott Thompson and Justin Shipman.