David Marks was a fixture at Arena Stage for 11 seasons--a versatile character actor who plumbed comic and dramatic depths with deceptive simplicity. A bear of a fellow, he told Backstage how he once shed 60 pounds to play the idealistic inner-city teacher in "Stand-Up Tragedy" because playwright Bill Cain thought him too heavy for the part.

But Molly Smith's arrival last year as artistic director meant that many Arena regulars like Marks would have to work elsewhere while she established her own aesthetic, bringing new faces to the theater's stages. "It feels strange not to be working there," he admitted in a phone interview.

Instead he's at Woolly Mammoth, playing a slob named Hank in a riotous tragicomedy of marital misery, "The Dead Monkey." "It feels great to be in a small house," said Marks. "It forces you to concentrate, and it just feels more theatrical to me for some reason."

The trail from Arena to Woolly was rocky for the Seattle-born son of a Lutheran minister. Marks, 40, had done theater since fourth grade. ("We made the puppets and we did 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' and I was hooked from then on.")

Last season, Michael Kahn tapped him for a featured role in "A Woman of No Importance," but after that Marks took 10 months off. "I spent the longest time I've ever not worked trying to figure out if the stage is where I belong," he said. Then Woolly's Howard Shalwitz invited him to audition for Hank, whom Marks describes as a "burnt-out-surfer-guy-loser-has-been who doesn't have a life going on. Hank's very fun to play."

"It felt good to audition for it," recalled Marks. "It's kinda neat . . . to have my faith restored in theater; to feel like what we're doing is worthwhile."

Gasbarre's Youthful Discovery

Roberta Gasbarre has created theater and stage movement around Washington since the mid-1970s for audiences youthful and mature at venues from Woolly Mammoth to the Shakespeare Theatre. Since July, she's been running the Discovery Theater, which presents multicultural plays for young audiences as part of the Smithsonian Associates program.

"I feel like everything I've done in all the different disciplines has led to this moment," Gasbarre said of her new "full-time-and-a-half" position.

Her predecessor, Stephen Diamond, who died in February, was "a wonderful visionary artist who worked to bring an interactive spirit to theater," Gasbarre said. She wants to expand on this, sending kids from her plays right to related exhibits in the Mall museums "because children don't make the distinction between art that is not [for] them and art that is." She aims to "encourage children to go from one medium to the other."

The first production of the season is "Bottom's Dream," a bilingual riff on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for grades 6-12. It opens Sept. 27 at Baird Auditorium. The Discovery schedule is on the Web at www.si.edu/tsa/disctheater.

Exiting the Stage Painfully

Edward Gero of the Shakespeare Theatre and Jerry Whiddon of Round House have been benched due to injuries.

Gero, who was to play Kent in Michael Kahn's recently opened "King Lear," fell and hurt his knee while leaving the stage during a final dress rehearsal. Now he's undergoing physical therapy and awaiting his doctor's verdict on whether he can return to "Lear."

(Kahn and his staff found a replacement Kent in Henry Woronicz, who had just played the role in New Jersey. Woronicz arrived by train Aug. 29, rehearsed that day and the next, and went on for the Tuesday night preview.)

Whiddon, Round House's artistic director, was all set to play Smokey in "The Chemistry of Change," a comedy by Marlane Meyer. But a pinched nerve in his neck--the result of a degenerative disc--was so painful that he felt it affected his work. So he deferred to his understudy, Stephen F. Schmidt. Schmidt was so good in rehearsals, Whiddon told Round House's Mark Robert Blackmon, "It gave the artistic director license to fire the actor." Whiddon will probably need surgery and won't join the "Change" run at all.

The Changing Seasons

* Horizons Theatre will launch its 23rd season with readings of seldom-performed works by American female playwrights: "Machinal" (Oct. 25) by Sophie Treadwell, "Morning Star" (Nov. 1) by Silvia Regan and "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" (Nov. 8) by Lorraine Hansberry. The readings are at 7:30 p.m. in the Little Cafe, 2049 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington. Horizons' first full production, "The Last Game Show" by Lynne Kaufman, will run March 1-April 1 at the Rosslyn Spectrum. Continuing Horizons' tradition of bringing historic women back for a chat, "In Good Company--The Kosher Edition" (June 13-July 13) will invite Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Golda Meir, Fanny Brice and Emma Goldman to the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. Call 703-243-8550.

* Washington Stage Guild, though temporarily homeless, will present its 1999-2000 season, thanks to the hospitality of Source Theatre. In addition to T.S. Eliot's "The Confidential Clerk" (Oct. 14-Nov. 14) and G.B. Shaw's "Too True to Be Good" (March 23-April 23), the Stage Guild will be part of Source's regular Off-Nights series with "St. Nicholas" (Dec. 11-Jan. 4) by Conor McPherson and Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie" (Feb. 12-March 7). Call 202-429-2084.

Follow Spots

* Esteemed Washington actor Nancy Robinette continues her New York sojourn with a small role in Brian Friel's new play, "Give Me Your Answer, Do!," at the Roundabout Theatre. She's also understudying two major roles, including one played by frequent Shakespeare Theatre star Helen Carey. Kyle Donnelly, well known to Arena Stage audiences for her guidance of such plays as "Lovers and Executioners" and "Dancing at Lughnasa," is the director.

* Choreographer Charles Augins (Signature's "The Fix"), who returned here after a long career in Europe and England to teach at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was injured in a car accident on Labor Day. He was with Ellington arts director Mike Malone (of "Black Nativity" fame) and vocal music instructor Terrance Jones. Jones remains in the hospital, while Augins and Malone now recuperate at home.

* Zero Boy, a conceptual comic seen on MTV and at New York's P.S. 122, will present his show "Zero Boy in Zeroland" at the District of Columbia Arts Center starting Thursday. Call 202-462-7833.

* Studio Theatre's Acting Conservatory and Secondstage company will present a "no-holds-barred" improvisational theater workshop Thursday through Sunday, featuring the Full Contact Improvisation Company, founded two years ago by Studio drama school graduates. Call 202-332-3300.

* Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia will hold a benefit for the AIDS Alliance of Howard County Sept. 22 with a performance of its fall show, Stephen Sondheim's "Follies." Call 301-596-6161.

* Catherine Irwin, former director of development for Arena Stage, has become managing director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

CAPTION: David Marks plays a middle-aged surfer and Sarah Marshall is his wife in Nick Darke's "The Dead Monkey," at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.