In the two theatrical wild rides they've recently delivered to area stages, directors Nick Olcott and Serge Seiden had to put their actors through something akin to boot camp.

At Studio Theatre, Seiden conducted a mostly British-born cast through fugues of time and language in a pair of avant-garde one-acts by Caryl Churchill, collectively titled "Blue Heart." And for Olcott, precision timing became as important as emotional truth in Alan Ayckbourn's time-travel fandango "Communicating Doors," at Round House.

"What I kept having to remind the actors is that farce is a cruel mistress," said Olcott last week. "She is harsh, she is demanding, and she is specific in her needs." Ayckbourn's tale unfolds in a London hotel suite through which the same people keep walking, but at different times in their lives--not through flashback but via a closet that acts as a time machine.

"Doors" was no trip to "The Cherry Orchard." Explained Olcott, "To heed the dictates of the script, you simply have to deny actors the joy of discovery that actors make in a normal rehearsal process, because there simply aren't a lot of choices to be made." A 2 1/2-minute balcony scene, in which two characters nearly tumble off trying to rescue a third, required 20 hours of rehearsal to choreograph.

In "Heart's Desire," the first of the two Churchill plays at Studio, a family waits for the daughter's return from abroad. Every time the conversation hits a snag, the characters start again, until the action veers another way. Eventually they do it in double- and triple-time, then in half-syllables.

"It's not exactly farce; it's not exactly absurdism; it's kind of--cubist?" mused Seiden. "When you're used to working in straightforward narrative, this does not lend itself to that. You've gotta release yourself from the idea. What we decided is for these characters, they, in their world, had the power to reset the clock."

In the second play, "Blue Kettle," a con man pretends to be the long-lost son of several middle-aged women. Eventually characters begin substituting the words "blue" and "kettle" for words the audience would expect to hear--for instance, "What an extraordinary blue kettle," instead of "What an extraordinary coincidence." The "blues" and "kettles" are all quite exact in Churchill's script. Actors even have a rehearsal version with the "real" words in it, so they know what "blue" and "kettle" should connote each time they're used.

In rehearsals, said Seiden, "it was just such a struggle, because they'd want to use the real word instead of the 'blue' and 'kettle.' " Later on, he recalled, they'd do the opposite. "They'd just start sticking in 'blues' and 'kettles' any place. Then you have to go back and see what she wrote . . . because it's not random at all."

Some would view the "Blue Heart" plays as academic theatrical exercises, but to Seiden, "the fact that it's fun and the fact that it has content makes it worthwhile, even though it's kind of a formalist experiment." And audiences are surprising him. "People whose taste in theater I thought was a lot more stodgy came up to me and said what a good time they had," he said; "just that it sort of challenged their notions of what theater can do."

Hammond, Blessed by 'Memory'

"To be famous doesn't interest me one bit," said Dorothea Hammond of her life in the theater. ". . . Trying to reach somebody with some moment, to hope you've touched somebody: That's wonderful."

Although her home is in Washington, Hammond has worked outside the area in recent years. Now she's back, in two of the three one-acts by Arthur Miller that make up "Danger: Memory!" at Theater J, sparking pleasurable recognition among longtime Washington theatergoers. In director Shira Piven's crystalline, emotionally resonant production, Hammond occasionally evokes Ruth Gordon, but without the comic mugging.

In "The Last Yankee," Hammond plays the wife of a brusque business tycoon, bullied into near catatonia. "I found an innocence in her," said Hammond, saying she was inspired by Giulietta Masina's waif in the 1954 Federico Fellini film, "La Strada."

In "I Can't Remember Anything," Hammond plays a widow who finds memories of her glamorous life fading. She visits an old friend and they reminisce but can't quite comfort each other.

"The thing that is so despairing is her feeling useless and trying to cling to this last friend she has," said Hammond on the phone last week. She described all three Miller plays as having to do with "a loneliness that comes from . . . a lack of a kind of spirituality."

The importance of spirituality is a refrain in Hammond's life. "Though perhaps I should have been working more, my private life goes deeper, so that even though I work less, I have more to give to a character," she said. Nowadays, with her husband retired, she's scaled back even more. "If I get something I really love once in a season, I feel blessed."

Excepting pauses for child-rearing and summer sojourns at her second home on an island off Tuscany with second husband Oliviero Capello (her first, Paul Hammond, died very young), Hammond's never stopped acting. She began as a dancer in New York, got a role in "Portrait in Black" on Broadway, came to Washington in the 1950s and began working at Olney and Arena (she was Linda Loman opposite Robert Prosky's Willy in the 1974-75 "Death of a Salesman"). She had a few film jobs (even played a novice in "The Nun's Story" with Audrey Hepburn), then married Capello and began a transatlantic life.

The lady likes to maintain secrets--about how she creates characters in rehearsal, and about her age: "It's limiting to say one's age. I'm a character actress and that's it."

After "Danger: Memory!" there's a chance of one more acting job before it's time to go back to Italy in the spring.

Follow Spots

* Phylicia Rashad will join the cast of "Blue" at Arena Stage this spring. Charles Randolph-Wright's new comedy, which will run April 14-June 4, portrays a well-to-do African American family, the funeral home magnates in a South Carolina town. Rashad, who'll play the ambitious, style-obsessed mother, will begin rehearsals right after taping wraps on TV's "Cosby." Rashad last appeared at Arena in 1996, in "Blues for an Alabama Sky." Randolph-Wright will be at Arena this winter, guest-directing "Guys and Dolls."

* The Keegan Theatre in Arlington has added to its previously announced season. As part of the Irish Arts 2000 festival, it will present Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" (Jan. 7-Feb. 6) at the Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW (formerly Studio 1019); "The King of Mackie Street" (Jan. 11-Feb. 1), a new tragicomedy by Keegan Associate Artistic Director Eric Lucas, about an Irish retiree who turns to crime, also at Warehouse; and Irish guest performer Little John Nee, performing his work "The Derry Boat" (Jan. 13-29), about Irish families who emigrate to Glasgow, at the Rosslyn Spectrum. After Irish Arts 2000, the Keegan will offer a revival of Reginald Rose's "Twelve Angry Men" (April 27-May 28) in the company's church basement venue, 1500 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington, and Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" (June 30-July 30) at the Rosslyn Spectrum. Call 703-757-1180.

* Filmmaker Mark Olshaker will show excerpts and talk about his 1989 documentary, "Discovering Hamlet," this evening at 6 at the National Press Club. The film chronicled the rehearsals for actor Kenneth Branagh's first stab at the great Dane, directed for the stage by Sir Derek Jacobi. Call 202-483-8848.

CAPTION: Kathryn Kelley and Jane Beard in "Communicating Doors," left; Catherine Flye and Michael Tolaydo in "Blue Heart."