Dramatist Quiara Alegria Hudes faces more than a blank page when she begins a new work. She confronts a formless void.

"In a world where it's kind of easy to veer towards the center and get lukewarm, I have to constantly remind myself to . . . almost reinvent the wheel with every new play," says Hudes, whose "Yemaya's Belly" runs at Signature Theatre in Arlington through Dec. 18.

"I don't like to approach plays with a predetermined structure in mind of what a well-made play is. I like each play to kind of teach me how it needs to be staged, how it needs to be structured," says Hudes, a former student of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive") at Brown University.

For "Yemaya's Belly," a mythic coming-of-age fable about an orphaned boy, Jesus, who journeys to America from a poor Caribbean island, Hudes wove in strands of magic realism and the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. (Yemaya is the Yoruba queen of the oceans.) There are heightened "ritual" moments in the script designed to stop time as the characters experience magical epiphanies.

"It's one moment in one person's life and they will never be the same again," Hudes says. For example, the whiff of a feather plucked from a dancer's costume begins the boy's sexual awakening; a cold Coke sparks his yearning for America. "There are people who just kind of stay, and that is their life . . . and then there are people who are journeyers," the playwright says.

The 28-year-old West Philadelphian (now living in New York with her law student husband) drew inspiration for "Yemaya's Belly" from the early life of her stepfather, who described for her the delight he experienced, coming from a poor village in Puerto Rico, the first time he sipped a cold Coca-Cola.

Hudes likes to mix up her sources, though: The island in the play is more like Cuba than Puerto Rico, and Jesus's dangerous trip comes from stories told to her by a boy she knew in kindergarten about leaving Vietnam by boat in 1982.

"Somehow that story kind of came out in this as well as my trying to tell the story of my stepfather, of him starting out in the town . . . with no electricity and ending up a successful businessman in Philadelphia," Hudes says.

'String Fever'

"I got this grant and I thought, oh no, now I have to write the play," Jacqueline Reingold says of "String Fever," her meditation on love, life and quantum physics, running through Sunday at Theater J.

She says she actually woke up one night having dreamed her proposal for a grant to write a play having "something to do with science and technology." Her dream idea was a play whose structure "would reflect this theory of physics called string theory. And I had no idea what string theory was. . . . I must've heard about it on the radio or in the paper."

So she read and reread a popular book, Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe," explaining the still-evolving concept of basic matter as vibrating strings existing in 10 dimensions. The book was the big bang that brought "String Fever" from pillow to page.

"I had never read any physics, ever, and I started to become really personally excited about it. I couldn't believe that's how the world works," Reingold says. That gave her the play's main character, a fortyish, single music teacher, pining for an emotionally unstable former lover, worrying about her ailing dad and corresponding with two friends with their own alternately comic and tragic troubles. Her life is a mass of fraying strands when she meets a physicist and falls as much for his string theory as for him.

"I thought that's the way to work this into the play -- that the main character finds this world amazing and beautiful and mysterious," Reingold says.

"Many people in my life . . . have large struggles like physical illnesses or emotional difficulties. To put a lot of those people in crisis together, how does that, in the same way [as] string theory, which is about all these separate vibrating strings . . . how do all these somewhat separate striving souls live their lives and affect each other?" Reingold asks.

"I'm looking for the human part of it, because that's what interests me."

Read, She Said

Wendy C. Goldberg, who recently left Arena Stage to become artistic director of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., has had about 800 scripts fall on her head, figuratively speaking. She e-mailed Backstage last week to say she has enlisted a whole passel of Washington area theater people to read through the record number of scripts submitted for next summer's conference under the O'Neill's open-submissions policy.

Among them are directors Howard Shalwitz and Rebecca Taichman of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company; Michelle Hall, Arena Stage's literary manager; Eli Dawson, Arena's casting director; actors Rick Foucheux, David Fendig and Jerry Whiddon; and choreographer Karma Camp. Journalists conscripted by Goldberg include Nelson Pressley, who reviews theater for The Post, and Jayne M. Blanchard, theater critic for the Washington Times.

Follow Spots

* The Kennedy Center and the producers of "Shear Madness" will donate 100 tickets to wounded soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and their families for tomorrow's performance. The troops will also meet the cast of the long-running beauty salon murder-mystery farce.

* Harriet Harris will play sozzled stage star Vera Charles opposite Christine Baranski in the title role of "Mame" in the Kennedy Center's revival, opening May 27. Harris won a 2002 Tony Award for her work in "Thoroughly Modern Millie." Emily Skinner will play Auntie Mame's mousy assistant, Agnes Gooch. She was nominated for a joint Tony (with Alice Ripley) for "Side Show."

* Rorschach Theatre Co-Artistic Director Randy Baker proposed to costume designer Deb Sivigny during the curtain call for "The Beard of Avon" on Nov. 11. Baker went onstage and popped the question on bended knee, company member Scott McCormick tells Backstage. The show has been extended to Dec. 10. McCormick says this is Rorschach's first extended run.

Saskia de Vries and Jose Aranda in "Yemaya's Belly," a coming-of-age fable by Quiara Alegria Hudes at Signature Theatre. From left, Lynn Chavis, Melinda Wade and Steve Brady in Theater J's "String Fever," Jacqueline Reingold's meditation on physics, life and love.