Planning for its fourth season, the staff at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center decided to give its audiences a number of choices for how to experience an artist's work.

Beginning in September, 35 artists will appear in 57 stage performances. But before and after the ticketed shows, there will be an additional 50 workshops, open rehearsals, master classes, panel discussions and pre- and post-show chats. The experimental choreographer Doug Varone will even do an Internet blog, a journal of his process as he develops a new work.

"We know most people want their primary experience to be the performance," says Susie Farr, executive director of the expansive facility at the University of Maryland in College Park. However, studying the positive reaction of audience members to occasional up-close exchanges persuaded her to plan more ways for the artists and the audience to interact.

"I think the future of the arts depends on our ability, as presenters, to engage people deeper in the arts," says Farr, who before joining the Smith Center in 1999 had for 13 years headed the Association of Performing Arts Presenters -- the bookers. "We have to center the art experience around learning and exploration, and the challenge is to find multiple entry points for people."

Variations on the master class approach -- in which noted performers teach, often before an audience -- is not a new concept for concert halls, festivals and arts organizations. Every kind of venue tries to bring the work closer to the audience. Locally it has included dissecting "As You Like It" at the Shakespeare Theatre to Edward Albee visiting students working on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Howard University to Barbara Cook's critiquing four singers before an audience at the Kennedy Center. With substantial support for arts education in recent years, artists have often included trips to the classroom as part of their tours. This coming season at the Smith Center there will be almost as many unscripted encounters as formal programs.

It was also time to assess what had happened in the first three seasons, says Farr. The complex opened in the fall of 2001 with six theaters and 2,530 seats. It serves as the performance stages both for the growing number of art students at Maryland in dance, theater and music, and for touring professional companies and artists.

The center has been successful, positioning itself in an ever-expanding market for adventurous fare and newer faces. It has a budget of $5.5 million, down from an opening tally of $6.2 million, because of state cutbacks. The auxiliary programs and the longer residencies of the performers have not put a strain on the center's budget, the administrators say, because fewer artists are coming.

About 15 percent of its presentations are the guest artists (the rest are by students), with three-fourths of the shows free. About 200,000 people a year have attended the paid and the free performances.

"The first three years we had a steep learning curve. We had to move in, learn how to run the venues simultaneously and then establish ties with our artistic partners. This is the first time we had the opportunity to articulate clearly what we do," says Farr. This season, the goal of giving an in-depth understanding of the artistic process is being called "Escape Convention."

Earlier experiments disproved some of her notions, Farr says. She hesitated to embrace post-show conversations, for example. Artists are tired, audiences are in a hurry to go home, and sadly, she reported, patrons were asking the same five questions. But she was often surprised. When the Children of Uganda, a troupe of dancers, singers and drummers, came, she says, almost the whole audience stayed for a chat. "Some made very personal connections. A member of the audience asked a dancer, is your father so-and-so." This personal connection substantially lightened the mood, she says. "Then I have watched the artists become more enlivened by the conversation and I now have more confidence in our audience. They are investing good time and money in us."

Last year the center tried several formats. A Community Chorus, under the direction of vocalist Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock, spent 12 weeks working with about 150 people. They performed one night at the center, drawing 900 people, and have produced a CD.

Some of the sessions were split over months. Joe Goode, the San Francisco-based choreographer, auditioned some students in the fall and selected 10 for the program. Then Goode came back for rehearsals and the students joined his performance group in two dances.

Another approach was to have a seminar on Terence Blanchard, discussing the evolution of his trumpet playing and his rise as a film scorer, as well as the state of jazz today. The program included a screening of one of his movies, "Eve's Bayou." His performance drew 600 people. Then from the stage Blanchard announced he was available the next morning for a give-and-take with the film's director, Kasi Lemmons. About 200 people showed up.

Drawing on the center's connection to the rest of the university's resources, the experimental choreographer Varone will work with the library's International Piano Archives, scholars of Bach in the music department and dance students. During his stay, the company will conduct a master class, a lecture on the evolution of his choreography, and a talk after the Oct. 31 performance.

On Oct. 6, "Embedded," the controversial play by actor Tim Robbins and the Actors' Gang, will have its local premiere. A few weeks earlier, a panel of war correspondents, including some who have traveled with the troops in the Middle East, will discuss the play's subject of war and reporting.

The new season will open Sept. 8 with Merce Cunningham's company doing "Split Sides & Ground Level Overlay," set to the music of Radiohead and Sigur Ros. Cunningham will probably address the audience after the performance. Blair Thomas will bring his unusual puppetry March 4 and 5, with a concert by soprano Lucy Shelton. He will conduct a week-long residency. The Huntington Brass Quintet will be at the center for a week, working with the university chamber group and area schools, with a public performance Oct. 22.

The Ying Quartet, the classical music family, will do residences and team with bluegrass artist Mike Seeger to do a program called "No Boundaries" on Nov. 4. Pianist Marilyn Nonken will perform Feb. 19 and do a three-day residency.

Other performances announced by the center are a work by choreographer Pat Graney, who uses outsider folk artist Henry Darger as a departure point for a piece called "The Vivian Girls." It will be staged Feb. 11 and 12, and include a residency.

The Actors' Gang will bring the wartime play "Embedded" to College Park on Oct. 6. The center will also host a panel discussion on the play's subject."The future of the arts depends on our ability . . . to engage people deeper in the arts," says Smith Center Executive Director Susie Farr.