From where Gere Musgrave was standing, it's 24 miles to the Kennedy Center, 26 miles to Washington's theater district and 237 to Broadway.

It is a long way to the big time for this hopeful 58-year-old part-time community theater actress from Falls Church. But not in dreams. "This gives me self-satisfaction," said Musgrave, an employee relations specialist, about her work in local plays. "This is my real life."

To get there, Musgrave subjected herself to anxiety and the chance of rejection. So did more than 20 other women and men, gathered on a chilly afternoon in a drafty warehouse space in the Sunset Industrial Park in Herndon. They had one aim -- to get a part, any part, in Reston Community Players' newest theater production, "Painting Churches."

Clutching a script of Tina Howe's family drama, Musgrave closed her eyes for a brief moment, breathed in deeply once and then launched into the lines of Fanny Church. Fanny is a New England matriarch, a gentle nag coming to terms with her last years, a loving husband slipping into senility, and a daughter she has never understood.

Under the watchful eyes of director Maureen Daly, producer Lindsay Petersen and stage manager Jan Belcher, Musgrave moved about the empty hall as if there were a set, trying to read without a script, establishing contact with the other actors. When she was done she calmly returned the script to the front table and walked over to her seat at the wall.

It was only then that she let out the heavy breaths of a runner who has just finished a dash. Musgrave looked up at the others, seeking an answer in their faces to the question everyone will ask: "Was I good?"

Musgrave and the others will try out many times in the three hours of auditions -- alone and in a variety of combinations. This play calls for only three parts, so the competition is tough. "Painting Churches," with each actor getting one-third of the lines, is a play everyone here is hungry for.

"I'm glad I'm not auditioning," said Daly, who kept things moving swiftly. "It would make my stomach ache." And, from the looks of the strained faces around the room, it did.

Auditions are the same everywhere -- tense, full of angst and unbearably slow. Until you're on, that is, and then the pace is head-spinning.

Hundreds of hopefuls try out each month in Northern Virginia for the more than 100 productions put on by the two dozen community theaters. The reward is minimal: no money, lots of hours, grueling work with no promise of success. The payoff is the chance to be in the theater, maybe only as a walk-on, but on stage.

One weekend last week seven community theaters held tryouts for shows that include Burke Centre Players' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Great Falls Players' "Last of the Red Hot Lovers," Vienna Theatre Company's "Fiddler on the Roof," and Prince William Little Theatre's "Arsenic and Old Lace," all attracting more people than the plays had parts.

The premise is simple. Anyone can come and the auditions generally are held over a two-day period two months before a production.

"I'm always impressed with the quality and number of people we get," said Daly, 27, who in her other life is the business manager of a local dinner theater. "Painting Churches" is the first play for which she has been the lead director, though she's done acting and production for Reston Players for three years.

Daly's authoritative demeanor -- someone tells her she reminds them of a tough schoolteacher -- controls the people gathered here. "I like to have some semblance of unease, because I want them to try their hardest," Daly said. "When it's too loose, you get trash."

The group paid rapt attention to her curt "Thank You" and "Next, please," as though they were deciphering a code. Did she grimace? Smile? Does she like me?

Auditions are run differently depending on the company, but actors usually come prepared to "cold read" from different parts of the script. Directors tend to call people up at random, which gives auditions a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat tension.

Daly looks for a lot from the actors. "I don't know what makes me want to use them -- a hair, a nose, a line reading," she explained. Her list of pluses for a successful applicant is demanding: good instinct, flexibility, style and movement. "I want people who show that they have ideas while they act, evidence that something goes on in their mind."

It went on into the twilight, and the effect was almost surreal as scenes were read over and over again by different people, bits and pieces of a play in many voices. But no one was bored by the repetition.

"You learn so much from the others," said Rena Brown, an administrative assistant and part-time belly dancer, who was reading for the part of the daughter. "Pitting yourself against others is envigorating -- you learn to win gracefully and, I guess, lose."

The auditions ended by nightfall. Daly seemed satisfied that she had seen all she needed. The director must choose quickly from the crop of people because the cast needs six weeks to rehearse before a show goes on stage. Daly and her staff would stay into the night making decisions, and would call everyone by morning with a yes or no. Before they leave, some of the actors handed in a resume of past shows -- some are quite elaborate -- and a picture. Some gave a quick smile to Daly, but most hurried away.

Musgrave lingered. She has been through this before. She has appeared in dozens of shows at all the local community theaters over the years, with leads ranging from "Gin Game" to "Whose Life Is It Anyway?"

"I've been into acting since I was in third grade," she said. She recalled a dinner theater she started in her garage in Arizona, filming industrial commercials locally, winning the Best Actress award in 1985 from the Northern Virginia Theatre Alliance. Musgrave said her theater activities helped her through her divorce years ago. "It's quite a big hobby," she said, noting that she'd like to try to break into the D.C. scene after she retires. "When I have time, I'd like to devote all to it."

But if she doesn't get picked this time? "I guess I'm devastated if I don't get it, I lose sleep waiting."

As it turned out, there was little need. Musgrave was called the next day and told she will be Fanny for seven performances in March. She could sleep soundly. Until the next audition, of course.