Theater companies want hits and increasingly seem to be getting them--online.

This is true not only for Washington's professional theater groups but also for amateur ones.

"We feel it's going to be a very promising venue, not only to see what shows we have up but also to reserve [seats] over the Internet," said Mike Stirling, president of Prince William Little Theatre.

The group, which has been online for a few months, pays $75 a month to an Internet service provider for its site, members.aol.com/Stevanne/pwlthome.html.

Mary-Anne Sullivan, president of the Castaways Repertory Theatre in Woodbridge, said her group's Web page--www.castawaystheatre.org--has helped attract new members and volunteers in the three years Castaways has had a site. The home page features a $1 "coupon" for those who print the page, and about two dozen coupons were cashed in for a recent production.

Using Internet technology "is something we have to hang on to, something to go with," Sullivan said. "It can only help community theaters."

For example, the Little Theatre of Alexandria was delighted when 150 Canadian high-schoolers planning a visit to Washington last April reserved seats at the theater after finding the group through an Internet search engine for entertainment listings.

With that sort of potential for online commerce, the Little Theatre now is creating a spiffier site that includes ticket and membership information, the group's history and a photo archive.

Other Washington area community theaters that may not even possess a permanent home now have home pages to promote their plays, sell tickets and lobby for volunteers. For groups limited to spending a few thousand dollars a production, the implications of Web sites are notable. The Web offers more exposure and can save hundreds of dollars in expenses for mailings to members, theater leaders said.

"Whenever we've had special events, like workshops, we've been able to fully enroll them through word of mouth and the Web site", said Kevin McCormack, president of Community Alliance Supporting Theatre (C.A.S.T.) in McLean, which produces musicals and has been online since the early 1990s--www.vais.net/dfyriart/CAST. "We've not had to take out paid ads. . . . That was really a surprise to us."

Ann Norton, president of the League of Washington Theaters, said she wouldn't have bothered five years ago recommending that community theaters develop Web sites. "As the technology is getting more and more into our homes and into our offices, it's going to be incumbent on us to go there," Norton said.

This month, the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington is sponsoring a discussion about electronic commerce that includes the topic of online promotion. It is the first of several proposed meetings aimed at making groups aware of the Internet's potential, alliance Executive Director Jennifer Cover Payne said.

Even if the statistics are not mind-blowing, said Sharon Kennedy, who creates Web sites for local arts groups, the theater companies should not worry about volume now. "After a while, they'll build up recognition, those that can maintain a stable listing over time," said Kennedy, who has a site showcasing Washington area performing arts organizations, www.dcmdva-arts.org/.

For some groups trying to reach the plugged-in people in their twenties and thirties--the case with the professional acting company the Theatre Conspiracy in Washington, www.thetheatreconspiracy.org--the Web is a necessary tool, said Ann Mezger, managing artistic director.

As a graduate of American University, Mezger returned to her alma mater in September to discuss the performing arts and told the audience just to visit her group's Web site.

"It's a good intro to the company rather than trying to hand out fliers or going into deep detail about what we are," Mezger said. The Web "is the best way to start a dialogue with them."

These theater officials, though, warn of dangers in relying too much on the Internet. Web sites may not always function flawlessly, whether it's a momentary bug or a service provider shutting down entirely. Some theater groups may not update their information constantly and thereby discourage regular visits.

What may seem a plus--a free Web page--also may be a problem. Sometimes a generous and computer-savvy board member donates a site to his or her theater group, or a professional service provider will host a site in exchange for placing ad banners on the page. Those circumstances can mean a theater company's Web address has nothing to do with its name, thereby being hard to remember. (Many of the community theaters, however, have links to one another on their sites, so finding one group's site can mean access to many.)

In addition, few if any community groups use a "secure" site with software that reduces the chances of credit-card information being stolen. For now, potential theatergoers usually e-mail a theater company about their desire to attend, or just use the phone.

Despite the shortcomings, community theaters hope to benefit from the popularity of the Internet.

"They've come to realize it is excellent P.R. for their organizations, and it's more far-reaching than a brochure," said Payne, of the cultural alliance. "Most in the arts community shied away and felt it wasn't going to be something they had to use. All those naysayers are now surfing the Web and using e-mail and communicating in ways we've never communicated before."