Playwright Karen Zacarias says she's ready to let an audience hear actors reading a draft of her play "El Virgen," and then "take my lumps and go back and work on it some more."

She is one of about 50 area playwrights (and a few music theater composers) whose new work will get a hearing at the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage New Play Festival over Labor Day weekend.

Zacarias had begun writing the play not long before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and found that she couldn't stay with it afterwards. In her magic realist fable, a character falls out of a burning building, survives and is deemed a saint.

"I just let it be for a while, because it felt kind of loaded to me," Zacarias says. Theater of the First Amendment spotted the old script and urged her to revisit it for Page-to-Stage. "I feel vulnerable, putting this play up, but that's a good feeling," she says.

Part of the Kennedy Center's Prelude Festival (Sept. 1-24), which launches the season, this fourth Page-to-Stage (it began in 2002) will present free readings in venues throughout the Kennedy Center from Sept. 3 through Sept. 5, Labor Day.

"We've been happy, ecstatic, surprised at the fact that it's become such a popular event in just four years," says Gregg Henry, co-producer of Page-to-Stage and artistic director of the Kennedy Center's American College Theater Festival. Last year's readings attracted more than 3,400 people interested in seeing plays just out of the cocoon, he says.

Many of the area's top actors (and a few from out of town) will participate, some working for "a latte," according to Henry, others a bit more, depending on the theater they work with.

The highest-profile writer in the lineup is surely Ken Ludwig ("Lend Me a Tenor," "Shakespeare in Hollywood") with his new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island. "I very much had in mind the kind of approach the [Royal Shakespeare Company] took when they did their big 'Nicholas Nickleby' . . . where one actor plays three or four characters, where the stage changes constantly in front of you and one scene tumbles into the next," Ludwig says.

He will direct a cast for the reading (Sept. 5 at 7:15 p.m. in the Terrace Theater) that includes Geraint Wyn Davies (the Shakespeare Theatre's recent Cyrano), Holly Twyford, Rick Foucheux, Jennifer Mendenhall and Michael Ray Escamilla, plus a surprise turn about which Backstage won't be a spoiler.

Writer-composer Shawn Northrip, whose Shakespearean rock show "Titus! The Musical" tore up the place at Source a couple of seasons back, will deliver a new entree, "Lunch," which takes place in the jungle known as a middle school cafeteria.

Northrip says the sound is less punk and more pop than "Titus." "My goal was to write something a little bit more commercial sounding. It's still focused on bass and guitar, because those are my instruments," he says. Shirley Serotsky will direct a cast including Tracy Lynn Olivera and Tara Giordano.

Deb Randall, of the tiny, feminist-focused Venus Theatre Company, is using the Page-to-Stage opportunity to let off comic steam with "Lysistration." "I wanted to combine pop culture and politics in the spirit of Aristophanes, but with a lean toward feminism," she says. In the nascent musical, some adult pals gather at their girlhood hideout to hatch a plot against male violence.

A trash-talking tropical bird is the source of strife in Charter Theatre's comedy "Monkeyboy."

Written by Artistic Director Keith Bridges and Charter members Chris Stezin and Richard Washer, the play is to be part of Charter's upcoming season. "What we're doing at the Kennedy Center is basically our first draft and then we'll develop it from there for the next couple months and then go into rehearsal," Bridges says.

The Page-to-Stage festival is first-come, first-served, with doors opening 30 minutes before curtain.

Nearly 30 area theater companies and playwright consortiums will participate. The full schedule is at www.kennedy-center.org. Click on Prelude Festival, then on Page-to-Stage New Play Festival.

Charter and Rorschach

New plays are Charter Theatre's raison d'etre. It will open the season with "Building a Boat" (Oct. 13-Nov. 6) by Helen Hayes Award winner Peter Coy (for "A House in the Country"), about a man who builds a boat to escape his troubles. Chris Stezin will direct.

After its Sept. 5 reading at the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage festival, "Monkeyboy" (Jan. 5-29) will get a full production. "Wonders Never Cease" (May 11-June 4) by Mario Baldessari, Jim Helein and Barry Wood, asks what if all those supernatural toys advertised in the back pages of comic books really worked. Keith Bridges will direct.

Charter performs at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown Lutheran Church, 1556 Wisconsin Ave. NW (at Volta Street). Visit www.chartertheatre.org.

Rorschach Theatre, ever adventurous on a shoestring, will do "The Beard of Avon" (Oct. 22-Nov. 19) by Amy Freed, a comedy about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Jessica Burgess will direct. "Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards" (Jan. 21-Feb. 18), a tale of transformative love adapted by Peter Oswald from a work by Japanese playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), will be staged by Co-Artistic Director Randy Baker. Tony Kushner's early work, "A Bright Room Called Day" (April 1-29), about a group of German artists and activists witnessing the rise of Nazism, will be directed by Rahaleh Nassri. A 2001 German thriller, "The Arabian Night" (July 1-29) by Roland Schimmelpfennig (translated by Melanie Dreyer), will be staged by Co-Artistic Director Jenny McConnell Frederick. Rorschach performs at Casa del Pueblo, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Visit www.rorschachtheatre.com.

Follow Spot

* Arena Stage has signed Tony nominee Brad Oscar to play the devil in its revival of "Damn Yankees" (Dec. 9-Feb. 5). An original cast member of "The Producers," the Rockville native was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of nutty Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind while also understudying Nathan Lane's Max Bialystock. He filled in for Lane often, played Max on tour, and then took over the role on Broadway and in London.

Casie Platt and Andrew Honeycutt, left, and Jason Stiles (with Shawn Northrip on guitar), above, at an April development workshop for "Lunch." Writer-composer Northrip's musical will get a reading during the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage festival. (Platt and Honeycutt will be part of the reading; Stiles will not.) Also on the bill is a new adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" by Ken Ludwig, right.

Brad Oscar will play the devil in Arena Stage's revival of "Damn Yankees."