The theater season in Montgomery County gets underway this fall with a wider mix of plays and musicals, largely a result of competition created by new theater companies and the expansion of established troupes.

A surge in theater-building continues, with two major venues expected to open during the coming year. And Gaithersburg Arts Barn, which opened in July 2002, is creating a special identity through an innovative partnership with small theater companies.

Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Montgomery County Arts Council, says all the change is turning the county into a regional destination for the performing arts.

"We've always had places for theatergoers to go to, but now you have Strathmore [Concert Hall] opening next February, and Olney [Theatre Center] will be opening its new theater, and you have Round House [Theatre] at its two new locations and the new Imagination Stage getting national attention," she said. "They're all attracting people to Montgomery County, and the competition is helping to raise the level of sophistication in theater here."

That means some arts organizations are seeking to carve out a niche.

The Gaithersburg Arts Barn, a renovated stable that houses a theater operated by the City of Gaithersburg in Kentlands, has set up a 12-production season for its 99-seat space, with most of the plays produced by community theater groups. Some of the shows are revivals of recent successful area productions.

The Sandy Spring Theatre Group, which opens Diane Samuels's "Kindertransport" tomorrow, plans to offer performances first at its church theater in Olney and then move to the Arts Barn for a few weeks. The play is a poignant drama that tells the story of nearly 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children who escaped from Nazi Germany on trains headed for Britain. Most never saw their parents again.

In addition to the Sandy Spring Theatre Group, the Arts Barn has created partnerships with Silver Spring Stage, Montgomery Playhouse, Kensington Arts Theatre, Redlight-Greenlight Youth Theatre and Damascus Theatre Company.

"It keeps the theater world here new and vibrant and alive, in that it brings in a lot of different ways of thinking about theater, a lot of different theater people and a lot of different audiences we might not see otherwise," said Denise Kayser, Gaithersburg's cultural arts director. "In these partnerships you share costs and proceeds, but you also share audiences. We have a built-in audience for what we do, and they do too, so it's great marketing for both of us."

The county's professional theaters have come up with new offerings as well.

Round House Theatre, with venues in Bethesda and Silver Spring, has scheduled a world premiere and four other plays new to the Washington area. Two shows are already before audiences, with Bethesda staging Lisa Loomer's "Living Out," a darkly comic look at motherhood that recently completed an off-Broadway run. The Silver Spring location is presenting "Tabletop," a comic look at advertising from playwright Rob Ackerman.

Next year, relatively new musicals from Round House will focus on the quest for personal discovery and growth ("Violet" and later "Little Fish"), growing up during the Vietnam War ("John & Jen") and forbidden love ("Once on This Island"). Local playwright P.J. Paparelli's "Colombinus," a world premiere about the Columbine High School shootings, will take the stage in the spring.

At the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, which opens its expanded facility later this year, patrons will get to see some old chestnuts as well as a few new productions. Noel Coward's supernatural comedy "Blithe Spirit" opened yesterday, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" will run during the winter holiday season. Productions next year include the classic drama "The Miracle Worker," the story of young Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, as well as the new, biting satire "Omnium Gatherum" in March and an adaptation of Bizet's opera called "La Tragedie de Carmen."

Younger audiences will get to see two world premieres of musicals at Bethesda's Imagination Stage, which offers theater for children. "Petite Rouge," a musical by local performer and writer Joan Cushing described as a "Cajun Little Red Riding Hood," will debut in February. That will be followed in May by "Perfectly Persephone: Little Greek Myth," an original fable based on the Greek story about a girl named Persephone that explains how the four seasons originated.

Already onstage at Imagination Stage is the comic "Bunnicula," a musical about the adventures of a vampire bunny.

Chevy Chase's Heritage Theatre Company begins its season tomorrow with a premiere of a new stage production of the epic medieval poem "Beowulf," which traces the adventures of a sixth-century Scandinavian warrior. Productions planned by Quotidian Theatre Company in Bethesda include Arthur Miller's timeless drama "All My Sons."

Among the smaller community theater companies, Rockville Musical Theatre and Silver Spring Stage have the most ambitious seasons planned.

The Rockville troupe begins with the lavish, large-scale and musically challenging "Ragtime," starting Oct. 29, followed by "Pippin," the tongue-in-cheek and song-filled story of Pippin, son of the eighth-century king Charlemagne who is on a quest to find his true calling in life.

Silver Spring Stage is producing six of the modern, smaller-scale dramas in which it specializes, along with one sex farce. Its season opened last week with "Ravenscroft," Don Nigro's 1991 sendup of the British murder-mystery genre. After "Proof" and "The Pavilion," recent award-winning dramas, the group will present a new play in February from local playwright Tina Howe. The drama, "Painting Churches," centers on an older couple dealing with aging and their relationship with their daughter.

The Potomac Theatre Company also has a world premiere on its schedule. In March, it will produce local playwright Marilyn Shockey's musical comedy "What's a Wolf to Do?" based on the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." It's described asa comedy for "the whole family."

Above, from left, Julie-Ann Elliott, Halo Wines and Kate Goehring in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which opened yesterday at Olney Theatre Center. At left, John Slone, a vampire rabbit and Felicia Curry in Imagination Stage's "Bunnicula." Sarah Lasko, left, Nicolette Stearns and Malinda Smith, front, are part of the cast of Sandy Spring Theatre Group's "Kindertransport."