Today, beginning at 10 a.m. in Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, prominent local and national directors, actors, playwrights and producers will examine alternative approaches to casting as part of a daylong Non-Traditional Catsing Symposium. Sponsored by the League of Washington Theatres, the event is intended to raise some thorny and provocative questions about the responsibilities of theater in a changing society. Below, Zelda Fichandler, founder and producing director of Arena Stage, reflects on the need for such a symposium and on some of the issues it is likely to examine.

Theater belongs to the world of the imagination. It is no one place, it is every place and any place -- an empty space to be filled in any way we wish. We have always had it. It is as old as our curiosities, our fears, our hungers, our need to understand and control our lives. It is a game we organize quite deliberately and play out with a proper sense of seriousness and ceremony to discover what our dreams are telling us, why we have done what we have done, where our feelings could take us, and how we can overcome our enemies from within and without.

It is a universal game: Everybody believes in it in one form or another, and grown-ups believe in it the same way children do ("You be daddy, I'll be mommy, we have dinner, then you get mad and I ..."), that is, we believe in it even though we know it's all make-believe. We believe in it because we want to, because we need to. At the very center of the theater event is the will to imagine -- both for the actor and the audience. "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them," Shakespeare's Prologue to "Henry V" tells us. "Suppose within the girdles of these walls ..." SUPPOSE!

Suppose that there were a fine acting company made up of white actors and black actors and Hispanic actors and Asian American actors; women and men; young actors, older, and old; deaf actors and the hearing; actors with other special characteristics.

And suppose that one assigned roles freely, without prediction from history or from one's old habits of thought. What if one took nontraditional casting as far as one could? Suppose the premise of this theater company, its founding principle, was that the human spirit could be embodied in unpredictable and newly imagined ways, astonishing the spectator and revealing meanings never before anticipated, sloughing off old ways of looking at things and opening them up to their very heart.

Suppose, in some universal space, the actors could strip private identities to the core, lose the accidental shells of personality, date of birth, gender and national origin, and become purely human -- thought answering thought, feeling responding to feeling, action following directly upon intention.

Anthropologists tell us that we sense our belonging first to our species, second to our gender and last to our race. And that we would give up these attributes, if we were forced to, in reverse order. We are all more simply human than otherwise, and isn't it that which speaks out, in the end, in the theater? In every culture, there is a resemblance between the face of anguish and the face of ecstasy. In the theater we recognize -- relearn, reremember, reknow -- our common past and joined fate.

I can imagine such a company, and it excites me. I can imagine it, though I wouldn't yet know how to make it real. Surely it is not an abstract possibility. A thrilling aspect of Peter Brook's "The Mahabharata" is that actors come from 18 countries and speak English in their various individual accents. Here is a beginning model for the kind of company one could envision as an ultimate form of nontraditional theatrical expression. The scenes to be shown at the Non-Traditional Casting Symposium at Arena Stage today will, I'm sure, give us examples of this possibility.

Every play is an archeological dig that tells or suggests how people lived their lives, what their mode of thought was, what gods they believed in, how they made their money, what books they read, what they ate, sat on and wore. Plays are temporal and age-rooted, and for that reason go in and out of focus for the culture that looks back upon them. They are now "dated," now "relevant," showing themselves this way and that, like phases of the moon.

Casting a role is giving a specific living and breathing persona to an imagined figure who exists in a specific social, political and philosophic imagined world. The tapestry of events and relationships is created out of the actor/characters of this world. Once you have cast the play, you have more or less predicted the outcome of the event, for you have bestowed life upon the characters.

Besides choosing the play itself, the single most important creative act of the producer and director is to "fill the roles." For once those two have removed themselves, the actor and the audience will be left to share the implications of each other's presence within the tale enacted between them. The actor and the audience, then, share a highly political act of communication and empathy: They speak to each other, through and under the lines of the play, of their daily lives and of what they want to come of them, for themselves and for their children. Nontraditional casting in the end becomes a matter not of employment, but of politics and of art.

John Kani is appearing now as Othello at Johannesburg's Market Theater, South Africa's first professional production of "Othello" with a black actor in the title role -- an example of nontraditional casting with a twist! He plays to an almost all-white audience of 520 a night, and it comes as no surprise that in a country that prohibited interracial marriage until two years ago, Othello and Desdemona's first passionate stage embrace briefly but palpably startles theatergoers.

Not very long ago the spectacle of Kani kissing blond and fair-skinned actress Joanna Weinberg full on the mouth would have triggered a national debate and probably violent demonstrations by white supremacist groups. Indeed, Kani recalled, when he appeared in Strindberg's "Miss Julie" at the Market just two years ago, half the audience walked out as he put his hand on the thigh of the white actress playing the leading role. The next night, Kani needed the protection of security officers to leave the theater safely and, subsequently, the government curtailed the run of the play.

While one can doubt that two years have changed fundamental attitudes so radically, and Shakespeare's perceptions from 1604 can be used as a smoke screen for acceptance, still, production photos of "Othello's" racial intimacy now appear on the review pages of South African newspapers without a murmur of indignation.

Howard Sackler's master play "The Great White Hope" caused a similar -- though much milder -- kind of ripple when it opened at Arena 20 years ago. Basing the play on the career of Jack Johnson, who in 1908 became the world's first black heavyweight champion, and on the subsequent search for a "white hope" to topple him and redeem the Caucasian race, Sackler tossed upon the stage a microcosm of American attitudes on race. With James Earl Jones as Jefferson, a figure both heroic and personal, and Jane Alexander as his white love Ellie, a woman of heartbreak and strength, the play rocked audiences in Washington and later, in a shorter and more melodramatic version, in New York. Jefferson is picked up on a Mann Act violation in the midst of one of the most romantic, most tender love scenes I have ever watched on stage. I remember that the audience audibly reacted when the lights came up on Jack and Ellie in bed; and several of the actors felt the need to have their phone numbers unlisted to eliminate harassing calls.

The social climate changes. Every reaction is special to its time and place. There is an identifiable "feel" and even sound for what passes between the actor and audience as the world that lives in the play meets the world that the audience brings in from the outside. The issue of nontraditional casting derives its electricity and, yes, its complexity from the contemporaneity of the act of theater. It is certainly right that the ideas behind it are being put up for examination and discussion, for in many instances our theater casting policies have not kept up with American life, much less led the way.

Twenty years ago, I wrote in a grant application that "the creative casting of black and white actors in a repertory selected with that end in mind should make it possible for us to explode the theater event to a dimension we have rarely experienced and to connect our work on stage with the reality outside. New images should pop out at us, new understandings jump to mind. ... We are given new eyes with which to see old plays and old plays find fresh facets to touch the present day."

One wonders what Arena's experiment in the late '60s with a totally integrated acting company would yield today. For a variety of reasons, this experiment was not successful, despite goodwill on all sides and a number of productions that were, as I remember them, both theatrically vivid and revealingly human.

I recall with pride and warmth Frank Silvera's Lear and Mary Alice's vulnerable Cordelia with Ned Beatty as the Fool; and Olivia Cole's tempestuous Stepdaughter in "Six Characters in Search of an Author" (the "second family" was cast with black actors) opposite Richard Venture as the Father, alternating as the Leading Man in a rotating repertory schedule with Robert Prosky. The accompanying third production, Brecht and Weill's "Threepenny Opera," missed somehow, but the idea of an integrated society for this work has always seemed just right to me. The idea for the company began to pale with "Marat/Sade" and "Indians" -- actors and audience drifted away; the center would not hold.

Was the idea ahead of its time? What variants would make it work today? Were black actors more preoccupied then than they are now with new black plays and burgeoning black theater companies? Should the esthetic have been based on "blind" casting (casting without regard to color) rather than on the casting of black and white actors in a conscious manner meant to be creative? Is a traditional Western repertory of any more interest to a black audience today than it was 20 years ago, even if the company is totally integrated? Do mature black actors want a place for themselves in a classical, "white" repertory, with only an occasional "black" play, or would they prefer, as do the majority of white actors, opportunities in film and TV, revisiting the live theater now and then for a role that is particularly compelling? Are we training young black actors for our theaters and the plays they produce? Do young, black, would-be actors see a future for themselves in the American theater that warrants spending the time and money to train for it?

What about the repertory for an integrated company? Is our earlier concept now out of date? At the time of that company, James Earl Jones said in an interview, "... If I walk on stage in a part where race is not supposed to be an issue, and the play is not broad enough in scope to support me, it doesn't work. I did Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men' ... and it worked perfectly. He is a classic loner. Only plays that are large in scope can be appropriately integrated now ..." Is this still true? Today, would we "believe" James Earl Jones as Willy Loman or Big Daddy? Have times changed?

In the same interview, Jones suggested that white actors should at some time play black roles so that they can find out what it feels like to be black. I like that idea. In the Graduate Acting Program at New York University last year, Faida Lampley, a highly talented black woman, was cast as Amanda Wingfield, the mother in "The Glass Menagerie." We presented the play as a companion piece to "The Crucible" especially for the four students who needed major roles and a large growth experience.

It was at first very difficult for Faida to empathize with this white, Southern woman, to personalize her needs and her past. But then, there was a breakthrough, a rehearsal where the identification occurred; the performances were luminous. Faida grew both as an actress and a human being, and I can't help but believe that the two aspects are intertwined. Would the same kind of personal transformation occur for a white actress if she were to play Lena Younger, the mother in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun"? Or would this casting be creative only for the individual actress and blur the racial issues central to the theme?

There are many questions still to ask. And many ways to look at the answers. And many conditions still to suppose.

On the agenda for today's seminar is another interesting question: "Should actors be cast on the basis of talent ... only?" and I think the answer to that one is "Yes." Quickly adding: not necessarily on the basis of evolved and mature talent, of talent that is already ripe and visible, but on the basis of talent that can be perceived to be there if the person seeing has penetrating and sensitive eyes. That thought holds true as well for the training of very young talent. The responsibility of a training program is first to be able to recognize talent in the bud and, then, to organize a curriculum, faculty and environment that will bring it forth. It is a crowded and difficult profession: Only the gifted should enter there.

At the same time, producers and directors -- especially of companies -- are responsible for the evolution, the development and growth, of artists and must provide experiences -- roles as well as continued training -- that will ask for and can cause growth. This is ultimately for the benefit of the audience and the art itself, but it is the individual going to the edges of his or her own ability that causes forward leaps of creativity in the group as a whole.

No latent gift should go untapped. Leaders in the arts are responsible for unleashing the power of the talent that lies crouched within the person and may still be locked up there. And, especially, for providing training opportunities for young, minority actors who otherwise might never find their place in American theater.

The symposium is to raise the subject of women in men's roles when women occupy such "roles" in society. A female Willy Loman? the brochure asks.

One has seen the exquisite performances of men as women in the Japanese Noh dramas, roles that are inherited from their fathers and studied for years in every minute gesture and nuance. And one knows of the successful all-male production of "As You Like It" in London a few years back (even as Shakespeare wrote it to be played). Several women have played Hamlet (Dame Judith Anderson and Sarah Bernhardt, among them). As chair of the Graduate Acting Department at New York University, I recently cast a number of young women as Cassius, Brutus, Marc Antony and other conspirators in "Julius Caesar." Not for reasons of nontraditional casting, but because we needed juicy roles for women, and this play was enticing for them to explore. I was astonished at both the expressivity and the validity of the experience. And at what was opened up about the nature of women that traditional casting in plays of other periods would have repressed.

But the symposium poses a different question. Can Willy Loman become Wilhelmina or Wanda Loman? Without destroying the fabric of the play? How large are our imaginations?

"Death of a Salesman" is a play about children and parents and the parents of those parents. It's a family play and contains profound information about primal relationships (mother and son, father and son, mother and father, sibling rivalry) as do all family plays -- "Oedipus" or "King Lear" or "Raisin in the Sun." It is also very specific. It centers around a family in a particular culture and the roles that different members of that family play. In its furthest extension, "Salesman" speaks about the American value system -- about selling and about selling one's self, about America as a nation of consumers who are losing touch with the land, and about lying -- to other people in order to make money and to one's self in order to go on pleasing mother and father and the rest of the world.

"Salesman's" point of view and primary images are male, for its roots are in American business created by American men. Willy grew up at the time of the robber baron, when America was turning from an agrarian country to a country whose business was business.

The clash of Willy's failed dream of being a salesman and Biff's dream of being himself ("I'm a buck an hour, Willy! I tried seven states and couldn't raise it. I am not a leader of men, Willy, and neither are you!") is the substance of this work, played out in its specifics between a father and a son and in its furthest resonance by a family who internalized the American myth.

I've directed "Salesman" and am very close to the play. If I could accept Wanda as Willy, perhaps I would have achieved the furthest reaches of my humanity and concurred that gender is a secondary characteristic of being human. I would also have been able to tear myself from my esthetic viewpoint that plays contain complex information about the life that gave birth to them, and consist of dense, psychological moments upon which all this information is brought to bear. I would be lying if I said I had yet arrived at either of these two points. Yet they are both worth deep and considered thought.