Zelda Fichandler, who normally has quick and cogent answers for every question tossed her way, was momentarily stymied. It was the 35th anniversary of Arena Stage, the company she founded, and she had been asked if it would be possible to found an Arena Stage today.

Can the theaters that have sprung up in its towering shadow expect to be around in the year 2110? What does it take these days to prevail?

"I don't know," she replied. "Maybe if they're willing to stick at it long enough. I don't mean to sound melodramatic, but if you start out little, you've got to put in decades of total, utter commitment. If people are willing to do that, they can build a theater. Maybe."

Arena, of course, is prospering. But what are hypothetical questions for Fichandler are life-and-death issues for more than a dozen theater groups in Washington. None necessarily wants to be another Arena, but they do aspire to its stability, its longevity and its place in the community. The landscape may be littered with companies that failed -- the D.C. Black Rep, The Washington Theatre Club, The Washington Theatre Lab -- but Arena stands as an example of a home-grown theater that took. Its very presence legitimizes a new generation of ambitions. It says, yes, the dream is possible.

But is it?

The conditions that made -- or at least allowed -- for Arena's growth have drastically changed in three decades. In 1950, the year of its birth, the National Theatre was closed, its owner embroiled in a nasty fight to keep integration from the doors. Occasionally, the drama department of Catholic University imported guest artists to work with its students, but otherwise Washington was a theatrical wasteland. For Fichandler, then a graduate student, the field was wide open. If there was an obstacle, it was the ignorance of a populace unaccustomed to this strange new creature called "regional theater."

Today, Arena is three-theaters strong. The National has a corner on the best of Broadway, and the Warner picks over the leavings. Ford's Theatre has long since been rescued from its status as a monument to an assassination. And the Kennedy Center, having opened up the city up to national and international attractions, is currently embarked on an endeavor to erect an American National Theater on the Potomac. Merely to get noticed among so many bright lights is often, for the smaller theaters, a fierce struggle.

"It was a much gentler time back then," says Kathy Dwyer, program officer for the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, which has taken particular interest in the fate of such "mid-sized" theaters as the Woolly Mammoth, the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger and the Studio. "The industry known as the arts was less sophisticated. There were fewer people, fewer choices. The methods were easier.

"Nowadays, there is much less chance to mature, to hone skills, try things out, fail, learn from your failures and eventually figure out what your niche is. Here in Washington, theaters surface fast and have to compete in an arena that demands too much of them. You've got to be that much smarter just to start out. They don't get to grow slowly -- either on the management side or, more importantly, on the artistic side."

Fichandler agrees. "We were given a long time to evolve -- mostly because there was a lot of unpaid labor and a different work ethic then. People would double in brass, sleep on the floor. The actors were making $55 a week. Tom Fichandler, Arena's managing director received no salary for years. I don't think you can start that modestly any longer. Everything costs more. And because of the high costs, you can fall off the precipice all that more easily." Arena was launched with $15,000; today that buys a lot less. The Studio Theatre, in fact, will spend that sum this year just for its subscription drive.

Modest as they are compared to Arena's $7 million budget, the operating budgets of Washington's smaller theaters all reflect the prohibitive cost of putting on plays: the Round House ($250,000); Horizons ($70,000) Woolly Mammoth ($130,000); Source ($300,000); the Studio ($350,000); New Playwrights' ($390,000). The stakes are highest for the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger, which is moving inexorably up to the $2 million mark, at the very time the Folger Shakespeare Library, which used to make up the deficits, has pulled back on support.

To think that box office revenues can sustain a theater these days, is to believe in the tooth fairy. Over the years, Arena has helped lay that fiction to rest, arguing successfully that theater deserves the same nonprofit status as opera companies, orchestras, museums and dance troupes, which are expected to lose money. Indeed, its remarkable expansion would have been largely impossible without the largesse of the Ford, Rockefeller and Mellon foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. But if subsidy is widely acknowledged as an ingredient for success, the competition for foundation and corporate money has become doubly intense.

Most of the smaller theaters, however, are too small to capture the attention of the NEA, and as Bart Whiteman, founder of Source, points out, "There aren't that many local foundations here, as opposed to other cities in the country. Historically, Washington has always had a hard time supporting its own. They're much more civically oriented elsewhere -- Chicago for Chicago, Boston for Boston, L.A. for L.A. You can't say 'Washington for Washington' and expect it to have the same ring. There are a lot of major corporations based here that do nothing for the local arts. Look at all the high-tech industries in Northern Virginia, for example. I don't think they feel a kinship with Washington yet. But we know they're here because of Washington."

In that respect, the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring is the lucky exception. Underwritten by the Montgomery County Department of Recreation, it may well be the only theater in the country subsidized by a county government. Born in 1970, it was the brainchild of a British director, June Allen, who convinced the city of Rockville that for less than it was paying individual instructors of dance and drama in its school system, she could form a company of four to teach and perform in the classrooms. The Street 70 program, as it was then called, came under county jurisdiction three years later and in 1978 acquired its own quarters, a handsome 203-seat theater in a reconverted elementary school on Bushy Drive.

Although it stages five major shows a year -- mostly for a white middle-class, middle-aged audience -- it continues to fulfill its original mandate, offering classroom instruction and courses in acting to the community. The core company -- five resident actors who are paid from $9,000 to 12,000 a year -- is fleshed out with local performers and technicians.

"The Round House is never going to be another Arena Stage," says Jerry Whiddon, an original member of Street 70 and now the Round House's artistic director. "What it does is provide theater closer to home on all levels. But that's no small provision. Especially, in these huge metropolitan areas where a sense of community is so nebulous, the Round House helps define the county."

Under Whiddon's leadership, the fare has dramatically improved this season. But despite the advantages of subsidy, Whiddon perceives a certain "schizophrenic quality" to the theater -- caught between its loyalties to the community that sustains it and its growing artistic ambitions. "We're certainly not going to do plays that will send our audience screaming into the night. But I think the Round House also has a responsibility to itself as an artistic entity. We could be more autonomous." Growing pains notwithstanding, its future looks promising precisely because it fulfills a clearly definable role for a clearly definable constituency. The county, Whiddon notes, even declared last Oct. 7 Round House Theatre Day.

Specialization, to some extent, is the inevitable result of playing in a crowded field, but it is also a tactic for survival. Most of the smaller theaters have tended to appropriate one segment of the dramatic spectrum as theirs -- Horizons, for example, pursuing theater with a feminist accent; Woolly Mammoth, exploring what might be called off-off-Broadway terrain; or the relatively recent New Arts Theatre, concentrating largely on British and Irish dramaturgy.

But foundation support does not necessarily follow identity. "Our feminist orientation certainly gives us a personality with the public and allows us to shape our season, but it has not helped greatly with fund raising," says Leslie Jacobson, the founder of Pro Femina, who, discovering that the name struck many as too stridently partisan, changed it several seasons ago to the more generalized Horizons. "When you start dealing with issues like that, you're either too political or not political enough. Ironically, when we began in the late 1970s, some people were already saying the women's movement was over."

For New Playwrights' Theatre, which was founded to produce original works, specialization has resulted in mixed artistic achievements and a series of near-crippling financial crises. Few would quibble philosophically with the theater's premise. But in practice, it has serious drawbacks.

"These days, you've got to get a lot of attention and you've got to get it early," says Arthur Bartow, who became artistic director 17 months ago, when the 14-year-old theater's finances were at their lowest ebb. "It's certainly not too late, but in order for us to succeed, we have to come up with an extraordinary playwright we can hang on to -- the way the Circle Repertory in New York has a Lanford Wilson. We're really waging a battle on two fronts. We are trying to attract audiences locally, at the same time develop the writers who will give us a reputation in the profession, nationally, as a place where exciting work is being done."

New Playwrights', however, has rarely had the wherewithal to compete for those writers who might put it on the map, but prefer wider exposure in New York or on the established regional theater circuit. "The frustration level has been fairly high," Bartow concedes.

New Playwrights' is not without assets. It occupies what may be the city's most desirable small theater -- in a trendy, upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood, where the theater's logical constituency resides. And Bartow continues to believe "our strength is what we do -- which is develop new plays," even though it's a costly procedure not always guaranteed to pay off. Ironically, though, the theater's biggest successes the last two seasons -- "The Beautiful Lady," Spalding Gray's autobiographical monologues and the current "Secret Honor" -- have been imports. "In the long run that will be death for our concept," Bartow says. "If it continues, we have no purpose being here. We become just another theater."

If new playwrights get the lip service, an old one -- William Shakespeare -- is more likely to get the money. From a fund-raising perspective, Shakespeare is safe, noncontroversial and prestigious. It can easily be argued -- and often is -- that a society that turns its back on him is derelict in its cultural duties. That, at any rate, is the assumption of Washington attorney R. Robert Linowes, who heads the drive to establish the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger as an independent financial entity.

For 15 seasons, the theater functioned as the performing arts arm of the Folger library, which made up the deficits. Last year, citing the mounting strain on its own budget, the library called a stop to the arrangement. Currently the theater receives some interim support from the library, but by the end of next season, it will have to go it largely alone. Linowes says that means raising $600,000 to $700,000 annually.

Local foundations have been quick to help ease the Shakespeare Theatre through the transition period, but such six-figure sums are beyond them. "This theater has to have a national constituency to survive," says Linowes, "and it has to be good enough to deserve it." Despite sporadic talk about moving the operation to another location -- and a lingering climate of bad blood between some library and theater officials -- he believes a continuing tie-in with the library is mandatory.

"It's far too beautiful and important a facility to abandon, even if it is costly," he says. The Elizabethan quarters, located in a respected institution, tend to certify the enterprise, he feels, just as Ford's Theatre -- a building rich in historical significance -- allows Executive Producer Frankie Hewitt to appeal to the patriotism of benefactors nationwide.

Linowes has targeted three general areas of potential support: British companies doing business in the United States; large American corporations; and American universities and colleges, for which the Shakespeare Theatre would function as a classical resource. The task is not so much promoting a Washington theater as it is convincing donors that the company is more than a Washington theater.

Most of the small groups in town cannot compete in that game or on that scale. Joy Zinoman, the founder of the Studio Theatre, doesn't want to. The name she chose for her 8-year-old theater embodies her preference for probing drama performed in an intimate setting. When she contemplates the established regional theaters, she sees mostly the perils of growth: stultification, bureaucracy, conservatism and an inevitable deference to subscriber tastes. "My theater does not want to be an institution. It wants to remain small, no more than 300 seats. The question is, is it possible to make a theater work with 300 seats?" (The Studio's current facility seats about 110.)

What has helped make the Studio work so far is the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory, which offers students a three-year curriculum. The conservatory pulls in approximately 110 aspiring actors a semester, schedules three semesters a year and nets about $75,000 annually -- money that, especially in the early years, kept the performing end of the operation alive. While eschewing the kind of growth that Arena underwent in the 1960s, Zinoman has nonetheless taken the lead among her peers by negotiating a small theater contract with Actors' Equity, the professional union. Under its terms, she is required to employ a minimum of 15 Equity members in the course of her five-play season (five stage managers, 10 actors). In coming seasons, the numbers will increase, until a 50-50 ratio (half union-half nonunion) has been reached.

The city's small theaters have long survived on local nonprofessional talent, working for token salaries or sometimes no salary at all, but the thinking now holds that any significant improvement in quality depends on the extensive employment of professional talent. Zinoman, who put the Equity contract into effect last fall, says that it automatically upped her budget by nearly $30,000. But she believes the days of Mickey and Judy getting together to put on a show are over. Higher performance standards, she argues, are the guarantee of the future.

If she doesn't want the Studio to get too big, she does want to move out of its increasingly cramped quarters in what was once a hot-dog factory at 1401 Church St. NW and has given herself three years to locate space in a more congenial neighborhood.

She is not alone. Space -- the focus of a soon-to-be-released year-long study funded by the Meyer Foundation -- is the most critical issue facing the small theaters today. As real estate values rise and rents soar, they find themselves jockeying for the few existing facilities in a city woefully short on warehouses or abandoned stores that could be converted to theatrical purpose. Failing that, they court reluctant developers in hopes of wangling space in new or renovated office complexes. The Woolly Mammoth, which has been lodged in the Church of the Epiphany for six years, took the first part of the season off simply to concentrate on the search.

"We're everybody's favorite small theater," says Woolly Mammoth's managing director Linda Reinisch, "but we're held back artistically by the space we're in. It's hard for people to understand that. But a lot of us find ourselves in that middle ground. We've stuck it out, we've been through the soul-searching, the long-range planning, we've done our marketing studies and built our boards, and now it's time to move on. Either we move on or we die."

While its current home comes cheap (the $6,000 yearly rent includes maintenance and utilities), the group has had to bend its schedule around pre-existing church activities. With little more than 100 seats at its disposal and no possibility for expansion, its box-office take is so curtailed that even the hits aren't lucrative. "There's also something not quite grown-up about being in a church," Reinisch adds. "Having your own space gives you a definite legitimacy -- with foundations as much as with the public." Whatever Woolly Mammoth finds -- and as yet it is still juggling "possibilities" -- Reinisch conservatively figures that any future rent will run "four to five times" the current tab.

Meanwhile, groups like the Paradise Island Express, Gala Hispanic Theatre and Horizons look ahead and wonder when and where they'll be able to settle into a home they can call theirs. Source, braving a seedy 14th Street neighborhood, offers outsiders a berth when the schedule permits, but ever since it lost one of its three performance spaces last season, time is at a premium. And while no one's hoping New Playwrights' will go under, it is common knowledge that both Arena Stage and the American National Theater have put out feelers to buy the building if it does.

In many ways, the smaller companies are much more savvy than those that preceded them, and they have benefited from the management and public relations tools honed by regional theaters like Arena in their pursuit of subscribers. But Horizons' Jacobson, for one, questions the possibility of the kind of subscription loyalty that has long served as an insurance policy for Arena.

"This is a whole new period," she says. "I'm not sure we live in a society that believes in attending a given theater on a given night of the week for a given number of shows. People can barely meet one another for dinner. They'll go to the theater, but will they subscribe? Arena was the pioneer, and it sometimes seems like we're reinventing things it already invented. But we're also pioneers, and we have to figure out how to appeal to the new theatergoer."

That theatergoer, faced with the expanded spectrum of offerings, has turned increasingly into a shopper -- catching a play at the Studio perhaps, another at the Round House, but rarely committing himself to a full slate of shows in advance. That puts greater pressure on the smaller theaters to come up with hits and come up with them fast. If the Washington audience has vastly expanded in 35 years, it is also far more demanding.

For all the obstacles -- and they are unlikely to diminish in the years ahead -- the smaller theaters remain surprisingly plucky. "Yes, the theater is imperiled," says Reinisch. "Even Arena with all its resources is always in peril. But when you consider the fact that so many people are still doing theater, you've got to conclude that it can be done and should be done. You just got to stay calm and not freak out and keep your vision in mind."

Even Tom Fichandler, who believes the field "is probably overcrowded," concedes that "artistic integrity is the real key, not the financial matters. If you've got the vision, you can implement it. You gotta believe that."

"Sure, it's rough-and-tumble out there," adds Zinoman. "And you've got to be some kind of a fool and pull people along with you. And do you have the guts? But in the end artistic leadership is all that matters. You have it or you don't. When has it ever been any different?"