TEN DAYS ago, after a decade of painful but productive growth, The New Playwrights' Theatre presented Washington with an ultimatum.

Since New Playwrights' is one of the more congenial theatrical operations in the area, it was not announced with hysteria or anger. Rather with sober realism and a certain sadness. Taking a hard look at the debts that had accumulated relentlessly over the past decade, as debts are wont to do, NPT's founder, Harry Bagdasian, concluded that unless $86,000 can be raised between now and June 30, the theater will have to close its doors permanently.

"There comes a point when you are spending more of your time and energy chasing after money than you are on your real work," says Bagdasian. "We have always concentrated on developing talent, not just plays, and that carries little promise of financial return. Finally, you have to ask yourself if it's worth it to limp into another season, underfed and undernourished."

Bagdasian is not alone in sending up an SOS. The single most important issue facing the arts in America today is economic. The problems are so widespread and seemingly endemic that another theater tottering on the edge no longer engenders much of a sense of crisis. No sooner had New Playwrights' broadcast its discouraging news than a raging conflagration reduced Wolf Trap Farm Park to charred timbers. That sickening catastrophe may well have helped seal New Playwrights' doom, too; sympathy and wallets can be tapped only so often. Theatrically speaking, NPT had been spectacularly upstaged.

Each decade seems to have its particular woes, but it is ironic at the very least that NPT, which was founded to deal with one crisis, has ended up facing another. Institutional survival may be the great rallying cry of the 1980s, but not so long ago the shortage of native playwrights provoked all the distress signals. In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, the regional theater movement endowed much of the nation with gleaming new playhouses. The next battle was to break the commercial stranglehold of Broadway, which had hitherto called all the artistic shots. To that end, regional theaters set out to nurture new voices in an atmosphere free from the competitive hit-or-miss tensions of Broadway. NPT came late to the game, but it was no less fervent in its conviction that there was nothing wrong with American theater that a fresh generation of playwrights couldn't remedy.

With an initial budget of $800 and more zeal than a rational man would permit himself, Bagdasian set up shop in the basement of a townhouse on 20th Street NW--a slightly oppressive locale that the all-volunteer staff dubbed accurately, if affectionately, The Pits. The early plays were on the sophomoric side (I still recall one absurdist-inspired fantasy about a talking toilet), and the productions tended to the makeshift. A single door led into the basement, which hindered the actors' entrances and exits. Bagdasian got around it on one occasion by having an irate actor stomp indignantly into a closet, where he remained until the play was over and the handful of spectators had departed.

Ten years of determination--and often that was all New Playwrights' was operating on--have changed that. The theater now owns its quarters, the red-brick gymnasium on Church Street NW, that once belonged to the Holton Arms School. Limited by zoning laws and a desire for intimacy, the theater seats 125 in casual comfort. The paid staff is up to eight, the budget hovers at $260,000, but more to the point, NPT has now got a firm grip on its artistic ambitions. It has yet to discover next year's Pulitzer Prize-winner, which, Bagdasian admits, would solve the current problems in a trice. But it has contributed significantly to the emerging talents of such writers as Ernst Joselovtiz, Mark Stein, Steven Stosny, Tim Grundmann and Granville Burgess. Not yet household names, perhaps, but wait a while.

Playwrights do not spring, full-blown, from the head of Zeus or Joseph Papp. The talent may be inherent, but the art is acquired. What the spectator sees on the stage at NPT is only the tip of a three-tiered process that takes playwrights through an open reading first, then on to a staged reading before winding up in full production. That is not a flashy process, nor is it always fruitful. When plays get up on their feet, they can wobble in ways no one imagined from glancing at the printed page. But without such a testing ground, the odds for failure are overwhelming.

The new play, if not yet an endangered species, is having an increasingly tough time getting a hearing in Washington. The Folger Theater Group, which used to stage provocative contemporary fare on Capitol Hill and subsequently in the Terrace Theater, has retrenched behind the classics. Three years ago, Arena ran up against funding problems and shut down its productive "In the Process Series," which was dedicated to the evolving script. Even the Kennedy Center, which is now producing all its own fare in the Eisenhower Theater, is chary of the dangers represented by a play that has not been pre-tested elsewhere. Both by default and its own spunky determination to hold the line, that leaves NPT filling the void. Papp, perhaps the country's foremost champion of young playwrights, hails NPT as "a bright light in the nation's capital." Never a man to hedge his words, he warned in a recent telegram, "To extinguish it would be an act of infamy and a great loss to one of the most important areas of the country."

There are indications that others agree. In the six days following his announcement, Bagdasian received gifts and pledges totaling $9,715. Symbolically, one came from playwright John Nassivera, whose sprightly "Phallacies" opened this year's season. "Playwrights need you. Washington needs you. America needs you," Nassivera telegrammed. "All you need is money. My check is in the mail."

To pretend that the institution is not without shortcomings would be foolish, however. NPT continues to rely on a non-Equity company of actors of varying degrees of competence, although "down the road," if the road doesn't dead end, Bagdasian envisions a fully professional company. This year, literary manager Lloyd Rose received, weighed and commented on more than 750 original scripts from across the nation. For the most part, they were the scripts of playwrights at the outset of their careers. NPT can take the most promising of them only so far, at which point it is likely to lose out to regional theaters, which offer greater prestige and national exposure. Still, somebody has to be first to extend a helping hand. In the last few seasons, the quality of the works NPT has unearthed and the means it has lavished on them have both escalated noticeably.

For that, NPT remains a place for those who can derive satisfaction from plays that are still fighting to find their shape. While there are frequent discoveries to be made on Church Street, they are usually partial discoveries--a bright flash of talent, a voice suddenly taking on unsuspected authority, a scene breaking through. The $86,000 Bagdasian is seeking to raise will not necessarily guarantee a masterpiece, but it will permit continuing research.

A healthy theater community, like a healthy economy, depends on diversification. Twenty theaters pulling in the same direction are worth less than 10 going their own ways. Up to now, Washington's claim to theatrical sophistication has rested on its ability to support such divergent institutions as Arena Stage, Ford's Theater, the Kennedy Center, G.A.L.A., and the Studio, not to mention a patch of dinner theaters, which have their rightful constituents, too.

New plays per se are not more deserving of attention than classics. Nor does a struggling writer necessarily deserve more chances than an established playwright. Risks loom large wherever there is theater--by its very nature, the most accident-prone of arts. But if New Playwrights' goes under, we will have lost a significant local outlet and with it a small claim on the future.