Every year at this time, it is natural to think about the upcoming plays that will give the new season its tone and texture -- at least three by Neil Simon, as it turns out, and half a dozen by William Shakespeare. But evidence indicates that the real significance of the coming months will have to do with our theatrical institutions themselves. As never before, they are concerned with their continuity in an erratic world.

Plays count, as always, but they are the end result. Our theaters will be looking more and more at the means. What makes for a fruitful working climate? What constitutes the proper care and feeding of the actor? How do you subsidize exploration? How long can you function creatively without a space you can call your own?

From Arena Stage, which has just received a five-year grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to expand its ensemble company and guarantee its actors year-round employment; to the Kennedy Center, which will be taking the first steps, under Peter Sellars, toward the formation of a national theater company; to the small theaters, like the Woolly Mammoth and Horizons, which continue to canvass the city for permanent homes -- questions of survival and growth are the order of the day.

The public rarely sees behind the play on the stage. But that play is only as alert, as adventuresome, as confident as the infrastructure that produced it. Here is what is scheduled for the coming months. But bear in mind, what you'll see is only part of the story. Offstage, the activity this season will be intense. September

Anthony Quinn steps back into the shoes of one of his most famous screen characters "Zorba," in the musical about life and death in a Greek village (currently at the Opera House). Stalin gives a music lesson to Shostakovich and Prokofiev in "The Master Class" (currently in the Eisenhower). James Whitmore, who has a number of one-man shows in his hip pocket, has brought out the most famous, "Will Rogers' USA," for another go-around (Ford's, Sept. 11). "Torch Song Trilogy," Harvey Fierstein's three-play saga about the trials and travails of a drag queen, won him Tony awards and fame (Warner, Sept. 18). "A Disappearance" is the latest collaboration between choreographer Wendy Woodson and director Achim Nowak (Washington Project for the Arts, Sept. 18). John Houseman's Acting Company, spawning ground for many of the theater's young stars, revives the 17th-century English comedy of manners, "A New Way to Pay Old Debts" (University of Maryland, Sept. 20). Harold Pinter's "The Lover" and "The Dumbwaiter" make for a double bill of menace and enigma (Source Resource, Sept. 20). In "Danton's Death," German playwright Georg Buchner took a steely, surprisingly modern look at the French Revolution (Center Stage, Baltimore, Sept. 21). The Folger celebrates its 15th anniversary with Shakespeare's monumental "King Lear" (Sept. 25). Blanche DuBois rides into the French Quarter on "A Streetcar Named Desire," one of Tennessee Williams' many masterpieces (Source Warehouse, Sept. 27). October

Back for a second engagement, "Greater Tuna" relates a day in the life of a tiny Texas town, with two quick-change actors playing all the crusty, colorful inhabitants (Ford's, Oct. 2). Garland Wright will direct Shakespeare's fantastical swan song, "The Tempest" (Arena, Oct. 5). A new adapatation of "Custer," originally performed several seasons ago by the Folger, relates the famous last stand in terms of a carnival show (Round House, Oct. 5). Jean-Claude van Itallie's "America Hurrah" was a big, revolutionary hit off-Broadway in the 1960s. And now? (Woolly Mammoth, Oct. 12). Artistic director Arthur Bartow inaugurates a new regime at the New Playwrights' Theatre with "Burial Customs," a bizarre comedy about body snatching and the generation gap (Oct. 12). You know it as a comic strip, but "Doonesbury" is also a Broadway musical (Warner, Oct. 16). P. T. Barnum, Henry and Alice James and "elephant woman" Jane Merrit are among the Victorians who gather for a mad tea party in "Signs of Life" (Horizons, Oct. 18). Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, husband and wife, play husband and wife in "The Nest of the Wood Grouse," Victor Rozov's satire of contemporary life as it's lived in the Soviet Union (Eisenhower, Oct. 24). November

Growing up restless in the 1960s is the subject of "Album" (Studio, Nov. 1). Two brothers confront the past and the weight of their father's possessions in Arthur Miller's "The Price" (Source Main Stage, Nov. 1). "Sugar Babies" flopped in Washington several year ago, but this time it's coming here with the original stars, Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, Our Lady of the Taps (Warner, Nov. 7). "Henry IV, Part 1" shows us the monarch when he was rowdy Prince Hal, consorting with such riffraff as Falstaff and Hotspur (Center Stage, Nov. 9). The traditional British pantomime -- part fairy tale, part music hall -- will be tailored to local life and institutions in "Crossed Words" (Folger, Nov. 13). The halls may not yet be decked, but "A Christmas Carol" traditionally gets the holidays rolling (Ford's, Nov. 23). Wildly hailed in New York last year, "Gospel at Colonus" blends Negro spirituals and Greek tragedy with rousing results (Arena, Nov. 23). The love between Jewish storyteller Shaloam Aleihem and his daughter warms "From the Continued on K7 Continued From K6 Heart of the Flame" (New Playwrights', Nov. 23). Neil Simon went to Chekhov's short stories to find his inspiration for "The Good Doctor" (Round House, Nov. 28). December

Richard Dreyfuss will appear as "Citizen Tom Paine" in Howard Fast's drama about the patriot, set in England and France after the American Revolution (Eisenhower, Dec. 3). Yul Brynner's name will be back up on the marquee for -- what else? -- "The King and I" (Warner, Dec. 5). Love, madness and merriment weave through Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (Source Resource, Dec. 8). The characters in Peter Nichols' "Passion Play" are engaged in adultery; some of them are played by two actors, representing the inner and the outer person (Arena's Kreeger, Dec. 7) Neil Simon remembers his poor but happy childhood in the 1930s in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," his most appealing comedy yet (National, Dec. 11). There've been movies and operas about The Lady of the Camellias; "Camille," the tearjerker by Alexander Dumas-fils, started it all (Source Warehouse, Dec. 13). Louis Jourdan played the young romantic interest in the film "Gigi," but in the stage musical he'll be thanking heaven for little girls in the role Maurice Chevalier made famous (Morris Mechanic, Baltimore, Dec. 17). Caryl Churchill asks what it takes to be one of the "Top Girls" in a stimulating drama that mixes women from history and working women today (Center Stage, Dec. 20) January

In "On the Verge," three Victorian women travel freely through time and space until they reach "the pinnacle of the future," which is the year 1955 (Center Stage, Jan. 4). The New Vic tackles "The Three Musketeers" in knockabout style (Ford's, Jan. 8). The saints and charlatans of Harlem populate Langston Hughes' rousing "Tambourines to Glory" (Studio, Jan. 10). "Letters Home" dramatizes the correspondence between poet Sylvia Plath and her mother (Horizons, Jan. 10). Shaw's "Man and Superman" will include the "Don Juan in Hell" segment, which is usually performed separately (Arena, Jan. 11). "Blood Moon" is a thriller about rape and revenge by Nicholas Kazan, son of famed director Elia Kazan (Woolly Mammoth, Jan. 11). Jean Genet explores the murderous fantasies of "The Maids," who work for a wealthy old lady (Round House, Jan. 11). A Quaker woman, who wants to be a missionary, and a young black girl in Rhodesia, get to know one another through their letters in "Beloved Friend" (Eisenhower, Jan. 14). The Folger tries its hand at its first opera, "The Marriage of Figaro" (Jan. 15). William Gibson's latest play, "Handy Dandy," has two characters: a respectable judge and an unconventional 72-year-old nun (New Playwrights', Jan. 18). Neil Simon has rewritten "The Odd Couple" for two women, to be played by Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers (National, Jan. 22). England's prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company will perform "Much Ado About Nothing" and the swashbuckling "Cyrano de Bergerac" in repertory (Opera House, Jan. 23). More Highlights Of the New Year

The Negro Ensemble Company revives "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men" (Ford's, Feb. 5). In Tina Howe's endearing "Painting Churches," a daughter returns home to paint a portrait of her eccentric parents (Center Stage, Feb. 22). Moliere's "Tartuffe" was astonishingly staged earlier this year at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre by Romanian director Lucian Pintilie, who will remount his daring production here (Arena, March 8). "Hamlet," as challenging to actors as audiences, is, above all, one of the world's great mystery plays (Folger, March 19). Wendy Wasserstein's sassy off-Broadway comedy, "Isn't It Romantic?," looks at Jane and Harriet, nearing 30 and wondering what life is all about (Kreeger, April 26). It is 1948 and a military doctor is on trial for war crimes in "A Class 'C' Trial in Yokohama" (Arena, May 10). William Penn's "The March of the Falsettos" tells entirely in music the story of a man who leaves his wife for a male lover, but still longs for his family (Studio, May 16). And then, if your theater budget isn't depleted, Georges and Albin and their glittery friends should be bringing beads, boas and feathers to town in the musical "La Cage aux Folles" (National, tentatively mid-June).