If you'd called Dana Vance a week ago to ask her about themerits of staying in Washington to forge an acting career, you might have missed her. She was packing her bags to move to New York.

In a series of wacky musicals at the New Playwrights' Theatre, the statuesque young actress has made a bigger splash here than most of the city's struggling performers -- and has been paid for her work. She even landed a part in the recent ABC pilot "Hot WACS," and when it fizzled, decided to come back to Washington. Now, however, she echoes the familiar plaint: "I can't afford to stay here . . . I've got a New York agent who doesn't bother to submit me for the smaller jobs up there. You have to be at the audition in a moment's notice, and I couldn't make it in time. So I was only sent up for the big things, opposite name actresses. It's become increasingly impossible for me to get ahead under those conditions." Her conclusion: move to New York, where the competition is fierce, but the opportunities for work are greater.

Although Washington has witnessed an explosion of artistic activity in the past decade, the outlets for local actors are still limited. Arena Stage and, to a lesser degree, the Folger Theatre Group are considered the city's best berths for those lucky enough to climb on. But employment in a resident company, supplemented by locally made films and commercials, offers a more-or-less living wage to no more than a few dozen of the estimated 400 union actors in the Washington metropolitan area. Ford's Theatre sometimes uses home-grown talent ("Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and the upcoming "Christmas Carol"), as does Olney Theater during the summer. The burgeoning experimental theater groups (New Playwrights', Source, the Studio, etc.) cast locally, but usually settle only token salaries on selected performers. The pay is no better at most of the dinner theaters, but there's at least the financial consolation of waiting on tables for tips.

Richard Bauer has one of the most envied acting jobs in the city -- he is now in his 17th year at Arena Stage. Even he recognizes the primacy of New York, where he has been in four plays, but for both philosophical and artistic reasons he stays here. "Up there so much is geared to money -- trying to please whatever a New York audience is supposed to be -- it detracts from the work that could be done. For New York actors decisions are all career-based: 'What can it do for me?' Here, if we bomb in September we won't be out of work in January. We have much more latitude to fail."

Bauer has the luxury of a choice; most local performers do not. Just getting an audition at one of the major theaters is a hurdle. In the first place, Equity membership is usually a prerequisite, and -- Catch-22 -- one is not eligible for union membership until one has already been hired for a union job. Also, the resident companies at Arena and the Folger are composed of people who have been there for years; plays are chosen with their abilities in mind, and they usually get first crack at the major roles. If a company member is not available or suitable for a particular part, it most frequently goes to an actor with a New York address.

"I can understand why local actors would see Arena as an impenetrable fortress," says Arena's associate director Douglas Wager. "But there are myriad examples of local people who have worked here." Wager and casting director Joe Nicola make a point of seeing plays at the smaller theaters here, hold auditions (by appointment) once a month and participate in a citywide open call once a year from which apprentices and bit players are often recruited.

Terry Faye, the New York-based casting agent for Kennedy Center productions, also occasionally auditions in Washington, and now that the Eisenhower Theater will be operating under a L.O.R.T. (League of Resident Theaters) contract, expects to do so more often. She recently saw 50 actors for some of the secondary roles in "The Physicists" and hired one, June Hansen, whose status as a competent character actress has kept her fairly regularly employed. Two others were cast as extras. Faye, however, prefers to see Washington actors in her New York office. "New York is the revolving door for actors who go off to all sorts of places, even the regional theaters," she says. "Washington actors believe that all casting is done in New York. I would tend to agree."

Wager does not entirely concur; he says that any actor who has played major roles in small local theaters should be able to get an audition at Arena. "They don't try hard enough," he says. "It's how you see yourself . . . I think a lot of actors here have a sort of chip on their shoulder. They think having a New York address makes it easier, and that isn't completely true. For one thing, it's less expensive for us to hire locally because we don't have to pay a per diem." However, he said, Arena is more likely to cast younger parts locally; the pool of "mature, experienced, professional actors" here is limited to about a dozen people.

Sally-Jane Heit is a "mature, experienced, professional" who carved out a career in Washington over a period of almost 20 years, mostly doing musicals at dinner theaters. But gradually, she says, "I felt I had poked all the corners . . . I felt that with all my training, I was just the dessert. I wanted to be a whole meal." Over a period of three years, during which she lived in 15 friends' New York apartments with a collection of shopping bags, she weaned herself away from Washington. When she won a role in the Michael Bennett musical "Ballroom," she made the final break.

"The growth artistically since I came here is immense," she says. "I am a different actress. It's not the phony business of saying that the only good stuff happens in New York, because good experiences are rare no matter where you are . . . but the struggle sharpens creativity. You can get lulled into a secure place in Washington. It's like the government versus a private entrepreneur."

Indeed, underneath the surface loyalties to Washington espoused by most local performers burns the archetypal dream -- making it in the Big Apple. Take Buddy Piccolino for example, who has been supporting himself as an actor and waiter at the Harlequin Dinner Theater for nine years. "It's a goal. I still aim to get there sometime. When opportunity knocks, I'll take it."