Susan Solf takes young lives, most often on the verge of despair, and with her love of theater she opens for them a new world.

In her Everyday Theater Company, young men and women ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of school, are unemployed, on probation, in foster homes or are receiving some form of social services from the city, learn to sing, dance, act and have faith in themselves.

"I think theater is a good way to get people to feel good about who they are," said Solf. "That's how I got into this. When I was teaching theater in schools, the kids who got in trouble always liked my classes, and teachers gladly gave those kids to me."

To Solf, theater is as much a way to deal with personal problems and raise social consciousness as it is a vehicle for entertainment and pleasure. So at Everyday Theater there is the work that goes on behind the stage, the acting classes that turn into counseling sessions on self worth. Then there's the work on the stage, where issues such as rent strikes, urban renewal and child abuse are subjects for the plays that are performed in the community -- at jails, churches, hospitals and schools.

Young people are generally referred to the company by counselors or social workers. They audition and if accepted, attend classes and perform for what amounts to 40 hours each week for one year, receiving $3.50 an hour. In addition to developing their theatrical talents, they learn skills such as production management and technical lighting.

After one year, 15 of the students are hired to work as leaders or apprentices for the next group and receive the benefits given to city government employes. Auditions are held again and a new class of 20 young people joins the apprentices.

"The idea is to transfer those who are hired as apprentices into other full-time employment," said Morris Whitaker, special assistant to the commissioner on social services and the person who monitors the company, which is now funded by the District government.

"The experience of working with Everyday Theater has been wonderful," said Whitaker. "You're talking about young kids that have been involved in activities that were not in their own best interest. They traditionally come with low esteem . . . and to get them to talk to other young people about those negative elements that affected their lives is really something."

There is John Young, 19, who dropped out of school and was unemployed for some time when one of the Everyday Theater apprentices spotted him.

"I was in a slump," said Young, who joined the group in February. "Talent shows were the only time I put any effort into anything. I was just laying around the house. This guy, Billy, saw what was happening. He had seen me at talent shows -- I used to rap with a band -- and he told me I had talent and could put it to use.

"I've never done anything I enjoyed as much as this," Young said. "I've become more open, able to deal with people and myself a lot better. I've been able to help people by helping myself. Getting my GED {high school equivalency} is a goal now, but first my goal is to stay right here with the theater."

Whitaker credits Solf with making the program a success. "Susie sees talent in everyone. She knew there was talent and brains in this special group of young people and she understood that you just have to take their energy and channel it into a positive direction," he said.

"I have watched some of these youngsters come to recognize that they have some self worth, something to give," he said. "I have seen them make quantum leaps in their own personalities, become leaders and teach other youths that there are alternatives.

"In the classes they take their own oral histories and the history of significant others, and they weave them into productions," he said.

Solf backed into theater, she said, pointing to her involvement in college with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as the beginning of an awakening of her own social consciousness, which would drive her to find a form of expressing her concerns. Later, while working in Tuskegee, Ala., she saw the Free Southern Theater perform, and for the first time considered theater as relevant to social change.

"I never went near the theater department in college," said Solf, who grew up in Alexandria. "I didn't see college as being relative to theater. I used to drive friends to auditions."

After college, she worked as a social worker in Tampa, Fla., and spent nights working with the Tampa Community Theater. But both the job and the theater bored her.

She eventually wound up in the District. During the beginning of the women's movement, she was a member of a women's theater that toured the country performing a play collectively written by the group. The company also ran workshops for people getting out of St. Elizabeths, and Solf worked with children in alternative schools. There were other theater groups, two children of her own, and a few more jobs. In 1979 Solf founded Everyday Theater, which started first as an investigative theater for adults.

"I was trying to get people to see real life and use that as a means of developing their acting," said Solf. "I read this poem by Bertolt Brecht in which he tells actors to watch the real life, the everyday life on the street. I told people that, and the characters they brought back were so much better than what they had done before."

When a member of the group was brutally raped, the ensuing conversations among cast members turned into a play on rape and violent crime called "Dog Eat Dog." They took the play to prisons and drug rehabilitation places, and their audiences encouraged them to continue along the same story lines.

Meanwhile, Solf worked as a free-lance theater instructor, teaching at day care centers and prisons, earning the nickname "Miss Drama," pinned on her by students who loved her classes. People encouraged her to talk to Commissioner of Social Services Audrey Rowe about setting up a program for young people funded by the city government.

Solf kept calling Rowe and leaving messages with her secretary until one day after city offices were officially closed, she said, Rowe answered her phone and the drama teacher wound up with an appointment to make a presentation.

She made her presentation to Whitaker. He described the number of young people his department served; Solf explained her approach to theater; together, they shaped the current Everyday Theater.

In 1985, the first year of funding, the theater's budget was $14,000 and the staff consisted of Solf and a part-time aide. "We had no transportation except for my raggedy car, and we had 12 youths," she recalled.

This year the company's budget is $200,000 for 35 young people and a full-time staff of six, including a playwright, technical manager and producer. "Now, I guess I'm executive director," said Solf. "I get to conceptualize the plays and put in feedback. I have a lot more paperwork, too."

Each year the company turns out a full length play. This year's major production, "My Brother, My Life" is being presented at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Marie Reed Learning Center, 18th Street and Champlain Road NW. The play takes place in a courtroom, where a young man is accused of murder. His defense is "the influences in his life," said Solf, and it's up to the audience to determine if that is a legitimate defense.

"Each group of youths comes in with different interests," Solf said. "This group was interested in the concept of justice."

They were also interested in educating other young people about AIDS. At a United Black Fund luncheon this month the company performed " 'Til Death Do Us Part," a dark collage of pain and misery, which warns of the danger of intravenous drugs and advises the use of condoms.

Members danced and rapped to beats that would attract the attention of most young people. The language was blunt. As AIDS victims rose from their graves, one shouted, "I should have used a condom," while death, a woman in black perched high on a ladder replied, with an eerie laugh, "But you were too smart for that."

It was all gloom until the finale, when the entire crew rocked the room with a rousing rap. "It's an AIDS prevention piece, designed for street theater for teen-agers and written by committee," Solf said later.

A couple from San Francisco ran up to the group later and said they were going to make arrangements to get Everyday Theater to appear on the West Coast.

Already, the group has performed at a Florida college and more tours would go right along with Solf's visions of the young people having a national touring company.

As for herself, Solf said, "I would like to work in a really difficult situation. I'm interested in working in a place like a school where all the children have been suspended. Situations like those appeal to me."