In this city of think tanks and pollsters, Carlos Bustamante thought he'd found the perfect place to nourish his aspirations. As an actor.

Fresh out of Oberlin College with a degree in English and theater, he arrived here in 1998 not knowing Tenleytown from the Tidal Basin. Other localities with lively theater scenes had been considered, but somehow the District seemed an ideal laboratory for the Albuquerque native, who had a close friend who'd moved here a year earlier.

"It felt like a good place to come and get a lot of experience," he says. "It wasn't nearly as competitive as New York. I didn't know anyone in Chicago, and L.A. had no appeal. My plan was to spend a few years here and see if it's what I wanted to do."

He didn't have to wait long. "I was cast the second day I was here," he says. And while that first production may have been forgettable, the actor is not.

Bustamante, now 28, performs regularly with Washington's smaller companies, from the Keegan to Cherry Red. His day job is backstage -- he's a carpenter with Woolly Mammoth. This season, his best work came in front of the curtain, as a diabolical sweet-talker in Rebecca Gilman's "Boy Gets Girl," at Theater Alliance. It was a seductive, polished and ultimately chilling portrayal of a man who terrorizes a woman after a failed blind date. The performance worked so well because it communicated something vivid about the mysterious essence of depraved indifference. Though no homicide took place, you could surely be convinced that behind the killer smile lurked a killer.

The portrayal also stamped Bustamante as a member of a vital group: young actors of merit, performers in their twenties and thirties who are in various phases of knitting themselves into the theater life of the city. For young actors, Washington offers both the rewards and hardships of working in a locality in which show business is merely a sidelight. On the plus side, the cream tends to rise in a hurry; an agent isn't a requirement, and once local casting and artistic directors are familiar with your capabilities, a season of three, four or even five meaty roles with a variety of companies isn't out of the question.

The downside, of course, is that ambition can take you only so far here, and for those with designs on a bigger career, the city is more often a station stop than a final destination.

Still, it's important to recognize the contributions that a cadre of fine young actors is making to theater in Washington. Toward that end, here are capsules of 10 performers with whom D.C. theatergoers are becoming acquainted -- and who distinguished themselves onstage here over the past season.

The list could easily have been augmented to include many other young worthies: Edward Boroevich, who made a delightful debut in Wendy Wasserstein's one-acts at Theater J; Jahi Kearse, deeply touching in Studio Theatre's powerhouse "Topdog/Underdog"; Dana Acheson, the disturbing core of Woolly Mammoth's "The Radiant Abyss"; and Ian Gould, who all but walked away with a production at MetroStage, playing a nutty steward in Tom Stoppard's "Rough Crossing."

For this list, being too well known on local stages was disqualifying, which is why familiar faces like Holly Twyford and Eric Sutton are not on it. These are mates on the crew that is poised right behind them. Here then, the class of 2003-04: 10 reasons for optimism when gazing into the future of theater Washington.

Daniel Frith

In "Cooking With Elvis," Lee Hall's outrageously randy comedy, Frith played a dimwitted bakery supervisor named Stuart who has sexual relations of some sort with every member of a mixed-up English family. It was Frith's serene sense of mischief that made Stuart so funny; this is an actor built for understated mayhem.

Frith's talent for playful sordidness explains how he pulled off, ahem, the Woolly Mammoth production's most disgusting scene, in which Stuart is called upon to administer some manual relief to a paraplegic Elvis impersonator. His laid-back comic instinct is apparent even in smaller roles, as he demonstrated in the summer of 2002 when he assayed a frisky bellhop in Signature's "What the Butler Saw."

At 25, Frith says he cannot yet see his career's trajectory. He was born and raised in Hamilton, Bermuda; his father, an Englishman, played saxophone in Tom Jones's backup band, and his mother, a Bostonian, was a ballerina before the couple settled on the resort island, where his dad became a hotel entertainment director. After training at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Frith was awarded an acting fellowship at the Kennedy Center, and started landing parts around town.

"When I got here, I had no idea Washington was a theater town," Frith says, adding that he abandoned plans to join many of his school chums in Manhattan. "I have friends who are immensely talented, who come down to do shows here. I thought, 'Why go to New York to get a play in Washington?' "

Like most other actors starting out, he's on the lookout for ways to pay the bills and is considering a supplementary career as a personal trainer. In the meantime, Frith is plugging into some other local revenue streams available to actors, such as appearing in government-produced public service announcements. (He recently played a manic motorist in an aggressive-driving spot.) This month he'll be back in Bermuda, teaching kids in a summer theater program he runs. And then he returns to D.C. to wait for the next gig.

"It's a lot less brutal than New York," he says of the casting challenges. "But it's still not for sissies."

Tracy Lynn Olivera

"It wasn't a decision, as much as I kept getting work," Olivera says, explaining the life she has stayed to carve out on Washington's stages. At 26, she toils steadily at places like Signature and the Folger and has been offered jobs routinely since graduating as a voice major from Catholic University.

Catholic, of course, has for decades been known for its programs in performance, and it remains a potent source of raw talent for the region's theaters. Olivera's first professional gig came while she was still a senior there; she was cast in Olney Theatre Center's revival of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Olivera possesses a creamy voice, plus a certain electric presence. These attributes were exploited several times this season, most notably in Signature's reworking of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Allegro." The actress sang the musical's acerbic anthem, "The Gentleman Is a Dope," with a lightness of touch and clarity of emotion that conveyed both the song's bite and its longing.

The actress, who grew up in Upstate New York -- like seven others profiled here, she is from someplace other than Washington -- has not had to resort for long to jobs outside the theater, though she did work for a spell at a law firm as a debt collector. "I was just worried that I would show up on my own list," she says.

No, she's managed to feed her theatrical habit here on Sondheim and Shakespeare, a rich menu that would not be easy to duplicate elsewhere. And she's willing to stick to a local diet "as long as I'm doing work that is fulfilling, and I keep getting meaty stuff to work on."

Scott Kerns

The advantage of being a hometown boy can be measured in decibels. Rarely, Kerns observes, does he play to a house in which a friend or acquaintance hasn't come to cheer him on. "Almost every night, there is someone coming to see me through my parents," he says, because "my mom and dad send e-mails to 300 of their nearest and dearest."

They have reason to make noise. The wiry Kerns, who turns 25 this month, exerts a formidable pull onstage; with his exuberant physicality, his elan is infectious. His break occurred in that incubator for embryonic talent, Studio Theatre's Secondstage. The play, "Polaroid Stories," may have been a dud, but Kerns was a shot of pure caffeine. His portrayal of Skinhead Boy, a sort of New Age Dead End Kid, established him as an actor of taut athleticism and abundant promise.

Kerns's folks live in the house where he grew up, on Davenport Street NW. After graduating from Amherst, where he earned a degree in German literature, he toured with a young troupe out of Connecticut that performed mostly to high school audiences. Sold on an actor's life, he returned home to take classes (and be with his girlfriend, who is an actress). His love of the acrobatic side of the theater also received a boost when Amherst granted him a postgraduate fellowship to pursue his interest in stage combat.

At present, he divides his time between rehearsing a production at Imagination Stage in Bethesda and taking stage-fighting lessons with a teacher in Baltimore. "I'm buying a bunch of weapons," he explains.

The energy he transmits on a stage is a function of the enthusiasm he clearly feels for his chosen field. "I want to be involved in theater all my life," he says, adding that he harbors a dream of one day creating a company of his own.

Noel True

By cell phone from Los Angeles, True is talking about the risky new chapter she's opening. In January, a day after closing in the Shakespeare Theatre's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the actress used a one-way plane ticket to fly to California. It's a step that many young actors from New York and Washington and Chicago constantly contemplate: pulling up stakes and putting down roots in television land.

She'd been in Washington for most of the previous year, having appeared in three Shakespeare Theatre shows in a row, "Ghosts," "The Rivals" and "Midsummer." The New York University graduate from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., had been cast in "Ghosts," and as the run was ending, Artistic Director Michael Kahn offered her a longer lease on a life in the capital. "He said, 'We're interested in you staying on for the next two shows,' " she recalls. "Hmm. Unemployment in L.A. or work in D.C.? Tough choice."

Her staying was fruitful for D.C., too. True played three beguiling ingenues in the theater on Seventh Street NW. Julia, the petulant young creature of Sheridan's "The Rivals," gave her the most worries; though the classics were not unknown territory for her -- "after I graduated from NYU I became little Miss Shakespeare" -- she felt ribald comedy was not in her repertoire. "The thing that turned out to be great was my character did not have to be funny."

She's certainly not ruling out a return to the Shakespeare, but the focus at the moment is on the camera. True has a new L.A. address, a car and a goal: paying down the $85,000 in student loans she took out to train at NYU.

"The joke is," says True, who's in her late twenties, "I get this amazing classical theater education and then I start working in classical theater, and there's no way I can pay for it."

Her sister Rachel is already out there, a member of the cast of the UPN sitcom "Half and Half." Noel's hoping Hollywood lightning will strike the True sisters twice. "It just seems like the thing to do is try."

Irina Koval

No one else among this group of actors has traveled farther than Koval to make it here. And no one else has the daunting assignment of trying to do it in a second language.

Koval came to this country from St. Petersburg in 1999, to join her mother, a scientist working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "I had a green card, and I thought it would be really not wise not to use it," she says.

Having studied theater, and acted in films in Russia, she was eager to exercise those muscles. But how to break in?

"Then one day I was in Dupont Circle, and I saw this little theater and was told there were Georgian and Russian directors," recalls Koval, who is in her late twenties.

The company was the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, then jointly run by Paata Tsikurishvili, from Georgia, and the Russian-born Andrei Malaev-Babel. (They've since gone separate ways.) "I had an audition, and they said, 'Would you like to be in the next season?' "

The actress, who works by day for NASA as an administrative liaison with the Russian space program, evinces an ethereal, balletic grace on the stage: She stood out this season both in a supporting role in "Hamlet . . . the Rest Is Silence," a reprise of Tsikurishvili's well-received wordless production, and as the love interest in Catalyst Theatre's mounting of a new stage version of "1984."

Her accent lent an exotic air to "1984"; it didn't seem out of place at all in a frazzled tale set in a totalitarian state. Still, Koval works with a coach to try to minimize the alien cadences in her English. She's been told her foreign-sounding vowels will limit her opportunities, and she's intent on being all that she can be. "If you have an actor's skill," she says, "it is going to be shown in any country."

Will Gartshore

It was a quirky musical about being stuck in a cave that first drew Gartshore to Washington. In 1999 he was living, and struggling, in New York, and his agent told him Signature was casting "Floyd Collins," a vocally complex musical by Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers. He auditioned and was hired for one of the leads.

Originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Gartshore had never even been to Washington, but the offer came at the right moment. "I was at a point in my life that New York maybe was a bit much," says the actor, who had gone to the city to study acting. "For the first few years it feeds you, and after that it takes more and more out of you."

He was enchanted by the fact that Foreign Affairs was a more popular rag here than Backstage. "I liked that it wasn't all showbiz, all the time." His axis slowly shifted: He got additional acting jobs in town, fell in love, began to network in political circles.

Gartshore, 29, moved here two years ago, and today he's a regular at Signature. The centered quality in his stage work seems to get stronger with each new production. He supplied leading-man heft to Joseph Taylor Jr., the lead role in "Allegro" at Signature, and his performance in the recent "Elegies," a revue by William Finn that takes the form of a tribute to dearly departed friends, was a model of suave stage-craftiness.

A major role on a bigger stage seems inevitable -- if he keeps to the path. After relocating, Gartshore matriculated at the University of Maryland, where he now takes full course loads for his double major (environmental science and history) even as he continues to audition, rehearse and perform.

"These tracks do overlap in interesting ways," he says of acting and history. "They're both about empathy, about people. Circumstances that are different from yours."

Susan Lynskey

An hour before she is to go on in Studio Theatre's "The Cripple of Inishmaan," playing a tough Irish cookie named Helen, Lynskey is sitting in a P Street restaurant, picking at her salad. "This was the leap for me," she is saying, "to be the only local actress in the play. I knew I had a real responsibility, to be saying, 'Yes, a Washington actress is just as deserving to be up here.' "

She's talking not about "Cripple" but about "Proof," the Pulitzer Prize winner that was staged at Arena last fall. Lynskey, a native of central New Jersey who's been working in Washington for almost a decade, was indeed the only D.C.-based actor in the four-member cast. As Claire, the uppity, cosmopolitan sister of the play's confused central character, Lynskey with acidic flair put on the airs of a self-conscious Manhattan sophisticate.

The role was a turning point for Lynskey, a moment in which she seemed to pivot toward showier roles. It was a terrific season for her: She followed up Claire with Babette, the flaky center-of-attention in Theater Alliance's staging of Melissa Gibson's "[sic]." And then came Helen, the cantankerous child-woman of Martin McDonagh's twisted Aran Islands comedy.

Lynskey, who has a master's in acting from the University of Iowa, is another of those in-demand D.C. actors who go uninterrupted from stage to stage to stage. She already has three projects lined up for the coming season, in three theaters, in works by both contemporary writers ("Living Out," by Lisa Loomer) and those long gone ("The Importance of Being Earnest," by Oscar Wilde).

In point of fact, she prefers the ones still breathing. The dearth of local dramatists is the one major problem with Washington theater that she laments. At Iowa, she loved the chewing on freshly minted scenes, the give-and-take of first readings of new plays with the authors in the room. "That," she says, "is the breeding ground I come from."

Larry D. Hylton

From Orlando to Stockholm, and Elton John to George Gershwin, Hylton is thinking these days about entertainment from a global perspective. He just returned home to Waldorf after auditioning at Disney World for a theme park version of "The Lion King," and he soon departs for Sweden and Austria and a summer tour as Sportin' Life in "Porgy and Bess."

A buttery baritone stamps his passport. He polished the instrument at the District's Duke Ellington School of the Arts and honed it further in Carnegie Mellon's voice department, where musical theater was viewed as an all-too-common pursuit. "They frowned on it," says Hylton, 31. "But after college, I wanted to do musical theater full time."

Another soul saved for Sondheim! Hylton was cast in Signature's "Gospel According to Fishman," went on to the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center and then sang in the "Carmen Jones" concert there. His felicitous immersion continued this season at Signature, where he added his voice to "Elegies," bringing illuminating warmth to songs about Sept. 11 and the theater impresario Joe Papp. Director Joe Calarco's highly personal approach to the material appealed greatly to Hylton. "He wanted each of us to find out what the show meant to us," he says.

It is very meaningful to Hylton, who has lived in the Washington area since he was 12, to be able to work here; he's often hired to sing at special functions on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. But he's also acutely aware that this is prime time for him in the wider business. "A struggle for me is loving D.C. as I do, but being torn because of course we need to survive," he says. "If the Disney thing comes through, they're asking me for a year's commitment."

He'll face a decision when he returns from Europe. The geographic pull every which way is powerful.

Melissa Leigh Douglass

You could look at it as a plus or a minus for an actress, but either way, Douglass was a lousy temp. "I hated temping," she says. "I need that cerebral stimulation in my day." Which is how this performer, who conveys neurosis so effortlessly on a stage, got into the management side of theater.

"I had an idea that someday I might want to start a fledgling company of my own," Douglass says, explaining her pursuit of jobs on the business side at places like Olney and Studio and now Round House, where she is the newly installed manager of institutional giving.

Among this group of actors, Douglass is the most conflicted about a life onstage. As a child growing up around Allentown, Pa., she trained as a dancer but shifted to theater at Towson University. Now in her late twenties, she has been performing with small companies in productions that showcase her natural-born manic edge. In Cherry Red Productions' "Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?" a tongue-in-cheek assault on celebrity culture inspired by a famous incident involving Dan Rather, Douglass embodied with woman-on-the-verge sharpness the nervy spirit of the piece.

She's not sure she has the stamina to push, push, push for parts. "An unfortunate part of the business of acting is the networking," she says. With some horror in her voice, she notes that this past week the League of Washington Theaters held its annual auditions, an event at which hundreds of actors are given 90 seconds each to show some flicker of talent to a panel of "auditors."

"You convince yourself that you can get along on talent alone. I think there was some point over the past six months when I realized I wasn't pursuing acting with a tenacity I needed to get ahead."

Douglass is still acting -- she's in a production of "Man With Bags" at the moment with yet another tiny company, Longacre Lea -- but she seems to have arrived at that juncture so many actors, the good and the not-so-good, reach. Is it worth it?

Maybe she really will form a troupe of her own. "Life," she says, "could take six thousand directions."

From left (top row), Tracy Lynn Olivera, Carlos Bustamante, Will Gartshore, Scott Kerns and Susan Lynskey; (front row) Melissa Leigh Douglass, Irina Koval, Daniel Frith and Larry D. Hylton. The competitiveness of the local theater scene is "a lot less brutal than New York," says Frith. "But it's still not for sissies." Noel True appeared in three Shakespeare Theatre shows in a row before heading to L.A.Larry D. Hylton, here in Signature's "Elegies," is cast in a European tour of "Porgy and Bess."A shot of pure caffeine: Scott Kerns as a skinhead in "Polaroid Stories" at Studio's Secondstage.