To the true theater buff, life backstage, with its heady smell of greasepaint and drafty dressing rooms, holds as much fascination as the show itself. But few ever have the chance to get closer to the heart of a production than the front row of the stalls.
Now, two London-based entrepreneurs, Howard Lichterman and Richard Barran, are opening the stage doors of English theaters to visitors from the United States. Through a series of made-to-measure theater tours, the two men, both former arts administrators, are offering groups a unique insider's view of the English stage.
With just a little help from their friends in the theater world, they have put together packages that combine the best of current productions with the opportunity to discuss them with the cast, the directors, and leading drama critics. ''The tours,'' Richard Barran says of the venture, ''are cultural binges, with some educational content and a touch of the offbeat.''
No two tours are the same. Much depends on the visitors' own inclinations and what is showing at the time. But each one includes some Shakespeare, several National Theatre productions, a few modern plays, a West End comedy, and some ''fringe'' theater - the English equivalent of the experimental Off Broadway show.
London Arts Discovery Tours (LADT), like so many good ideas, had a serendipitous beginning. A couple of years ago Mr. Barran, who was then working for the London Bach Festival, kept coming across American visitors to London who were bewildered by the choice of plays and eager for advice on the best ones to see. He sympathized with them: ''There is so much choice here, but the possibility of making a mistake is also great.''
He teamed up with Mr. Lichterman, an exiled New Yorker and marketing wizard who had been working for the English National Opera. With his knowledge of the American theater scene, he decided where the potential customers would come from: American repertory-theater mailing lists. The tours are advertised by the theaters through their own newsletters and organized jointly by them and LADT in London - but there is nothing to stop nonsubscribers from taking part.
This year 11 tours have been organized, and 20 are planned for next year. LADT, now two years old, is still a two-man band, with either Barran or Lichterman accompanying each group. Meticulous preparation goes into every tour:
''We vet everything before including it in our itinerary,'' Barran says. ''We filter out the weak productions, because we know from experience that you can go to see the Royal Shakespeare Company and still be disappointed.''
British theater administrators and directors were enthusiastic from the outset at the prospect of discussing productions with visiting theatergoers, although some of the actors were reluctant: ''Actors over here are not publicity conscious in the way American actors are,'' Lichterman explained. ''They are quite content to rehearse, work, and go home - and some of them took a lot of persuading.''
But once over that initial hurdle, several of Britain's most-respected actors agreed to cooperate, and they now say they enjoy the feedback from American visitors. They include Roger Reese, whose portrayal of Nicholas Nickleby in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) nine-hour Broadway production won him the best actor Tony award.
Another regular participant in LADT discussions is Derek Jacobi, the Royal Shakespeare Company's leading actor. Normally a very private man, he has proved to be surprisingly forthcoming. During an informal preshow chat with one visiting group backstage at the RSC's London home, the Barbican, he confided that after filming the BBC television series ''I Claudius,'' which meant a long absence from the stage, he almost lost the courage to return. The only way he managed to conquer his fear, he said, was by jumping in at the deep end and taking on four leading roles at once.
The highlight of a visit this summer by America's oldest repertory theater, the Arena Stage in Washington, was a morning-after discussion with the cast and director of Caryl Churchill's play ''Fen'' - another British production that has enjoyed great success in New York. It emerged that before staging the play the entire cast had camped out in East Anglia and talked to the characters on whose life it is based.
The touristy side of London Arts Discovery Tours has been pared down to a minimum. ''We treat our visitors as tourists at the beginning, then as individuals,'' says Richard Barran. Size of the groups rarely exceeds 25.
The first session with each party of new arrivals is an up-to-date briefing on the London arts scene, followed by a half-day coach tour. But even that is well off the beaten tourist track. It takes in London's famous theater landmarks , including the site of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and the George Inn, where the Bard and his fellow dramatists used to get together. After that, there is plenty of free time and flexibility built into the program.
Every tour includes some unusual aspect of the British cultural scene outside the theater circuit. One group, from the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., was recently treated to a Victorian soiree, complete with readings from Dickens and Victorian ballads in a perfectly preserved London house that once belonged to a leading 19th-century political cartoonist. Groups visiting Stratford-on-Avon are taken out on an Edwardian pleasure boat and entertained with English and other Renaissance folk songs as they drift leisurely downriver.
The tours last 7-14 days, and prices vary accordingly from $1,000 to about $2 ,200. On top of the tour price, visitors are asked to make a contribution to the repertory theater involved in organizing the visit. The cost includes all theater tickets; transport to most shows, including those in Stratford or Chichester; several lunches and evening meals; the occasional parties; and accommodation at the Waldorf Hotel, on the edge of the theater district.
I joined a recent tour by a group from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It was a fairly typical one-week trip - except in one respect: Several members of the American group were presented to Princess Margaret at a royal gala reception following a Royal Ballet performance at Sadler's Wells. The rest of the itinerary included eight plays, sessions with actors and directors at both the National Theatre and the RSC, a visit to Stratford, and a private recital at a Georgian country house by one of England's foremost experts on early keyboard instruments.
By way of a finale, there was a discussion between members of the group and Michael Billington, the Guardian newspaper's chief drama critic. It proved so engrossing that the session, scheduled to last one hour, stretched, unnoticed, to more than two.
Topics ranged from the serious, such as the importance of government subsidies for the arts and trends in acting and production, to the more lighthearted. A remark by one member of the group on the hushed silence of the audience during a production of ''Twelfth Night'' just seen at Stratford provoked an impassioned outburst from Michael Billington on the menace of fidgeters in theaters. He put forward the theory that there is an organized gang of subversive coughers, sniffers, and sweet-paper rustlers who follow him around from show to show, determined to spoil his enjoyment. Neal Schenet, a member of the Joseph Jefferson Theatre Awards Committee in Chicago, took a more benign view of this disruptive minority. Most people, he said, tried to suppress their sniffs and coughs until the interval. ''Except,'' he said, throwing up his hands in mock despair, ''when they're sitting directly behind me.''
One of the youngest members of the group, Lisa Zane, a recent Vassar graduate with ambitions to be an actress, put Mr. Billington himself on the spot. Doubtless with an eye to her future career, she asked him whether London drama critics wielded as much power as their New York counterparts, who can close a show almost before it has begun. ''We do have an influence,'' Mr. Billington conceded, ''but not remotely like that of American critics.'' This influence is very unhealthy, he said, both for the critics' egos and for the community itself. ''Here in England,'' he told Lisa, ''we are a little bit different.'' Practical information
For more information about London Arts Discovery Tours, contact Richard Barran and Howard Lichterman at LADT, 72 Westbourne Terrace, London, W2 6QA, England. Telephone (01) 723-9653; telex 28905.