The "back-to-school" ads are in abundance, the county fair circuit is winding down, and folks are contemplating that annual fall drive into Utah's canyons to enjoy the colorful foliage. It must be time for our annual theater season list.With nearly two dozen different theater companies to choose from statewide, you'll find a broad range of productions, including several noteworthy Utah premieres - from the controversial "Bent," about Nazi persecution of male homosexuals, to the highly acclaimed musical "Big River" (for which Brigham Young University is negotiating the rights for possible production next spring).

As usual, almost the entire Salt Lake Acting Company calendar is filled with first-time-in-Utah productions, including "Steel Magnolias," "Beirut" and "Nunsense."

("Steel Magnolias" is also scheduled at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City.)

Another premiere, of sorts, will be the unveiling of the new indoor Jones Memorial Theatre on the campus at SUSC. It will be used for SUSC's 1988-89 series of plays, as well as for the additional "works by contemporary Shakespeares" commencing with the 1989 Utah Shakespearean Festival.

This is also a big season for Eugene O'Neill tributes, since 1988 marks the 100th anniversary of the playwright's birth. There'll be at least three centennial productions of his lighter comedy, "Ah, Wilderness!," New Shakespeare Players has his "A Moon for the Misbegotten" on its lineup for January, and BYU will produce an evening of three one-act O'Neill "sea plays."

Among several rarely produced works being staged this season are Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood" at SUSC, Tennessee Williams' "A Lovely Sunday at Creve Coeur" at Utah State University, and "Sabrina Fair" later in the year at the Hale Center Theater.

Since theater in many Utah communities is centered on the college campus - especially outside the Wasatch Front - the drama season generally runs from fall through spring. But theater in the Greater Salt Lake area is pretty much a year-round situation, with several companies operating with nary a break.

In addition to our list of dates and productions (in this section today), it seems like an appropriate time to assess the local theater scene, take a look at some changes during the past summer and see how things are shaping up for 1988-89.

For starters, season ticket sales are brisk at Pioneer Theatre Company, housed in the Pioneer Memorial Theatre building on the University of Utah campus. PTC Artistic Director Charles Morey says renewal season ticket sales are running close to 90 percent, and there are nearly 500 new season subscribers as well. PTC is Utah's only Equity theater. This year's diverse, seven-show season ranges from Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (the season opener, Sept. 14) to "I'm Not Rappaport" and "A Little Night Music," with a mix of comedy and drama in between.

Elsewhere, there are some new faces in town, such as the Francis Urry Players and Warhorse Productions, both of which leased space during the summer at Lagoon Opera House. What they'll do on a regular basis during the '88-89 season is anybody's guess. Warhorse, headed by Duane Stephens, reportedly is looking around for appropriate performance space. The company's name is derived from the type of production they plan to focus on - those sturdy old tried-and-true musicals and comedies that still have a following.

Another new troupe with a few familiar names is in the process of setting up shop in the former Vista movie theater at 4860 S. State in Murray. By mid-September it's expected that the marquee will have been changed to read Old Nauvoo Playhouse for a revival of Lex de Azevedo and Doug Stewart's "Saturday's Warrior." Stewart is one of the principals involved in the project. Later this fall, the show will be run in repertory with another Stewart work, "Star Child."

A carbon copy of the Old Nauvoo Playhouse repertoire can be found in Provo, where Thom Duncan has reopened the Town Square Theater with "Saturday's Warrior" and, within the next few weeks, will also be alternating with "Star Child." The theater is located upstairs toward the back of Provo Town Square. Call 377-2327 for information.

In downtown Salt Lake City, the City Rep company is still busily involved in its unique upstairs/downstairs project. More formally known as Salt Lake Repertory Theatre, City Rep is getting the "upstairs" portion of the old Utah Theatre in shape.

The downstairs "mainstage" section has been in operation for several months now, including literally jack-hammering an orchestra pit out of the concrete floor in front of the stage. Meanwhile, City Rep owners Tom and Joanne Parker have been renovating the theater's former "penthouse" auditorium with a European-style thrust stage especially for children's theater. For now, the ornate upstairs section is being referred to as City Rep's "Family Theatre."

Their initial season, just announced, will include such classics as "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Secret Garden" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Up in Salt Lake City's foothills, the New Shakespeare Players company is moving into temporary space in Walker Hall on the Westminster College campus, while the school renovates Converse Hall and considers the possibility of constructing a new performing arts facility.

NSP's artistic director, Fran Pruyn, notes that "although relocating, even temporarily, is difficult, our audiences will have the opportunity to experience different forms of staging than those which are currently possible in the small proscenium theater at Converse Hall. We are excited about the possibilities of staging in three-fourths round, thrust and other non-traditional configurations. Although making the space appropriate for theater will be a challenge, the artistic flexibility is very attractive."

Another change on the docket for NSP is the offering of subscription tickets this season. For information, call 583-6520.

Also up on the hill, on the University of Utah campus, the Babcock Theatre staff not only has a "major season" series, but coordinates some of Utah's most unusual and exciting theatergoing experiences, with several untried works by playwriting students and the chance to see talented up-and-coming student directors and performers.Babcock shares the Pioneer Memorial Theatre building complex with the aforementioned Pioneer Theatre Company.

On the calendar for the autumn quarter are "Coffee," a new play by MFA playwriting student Julie Saul (Oct. 13-15 in the Union Building Saltair Room); an evening of three one-act plays selected from David Kranes' playwriting class (Oct. 20-23, University of Utah Lab Theatre); and new plays by student playwrights Omar Hansen ("The Affairs of David Redding," Nov. 3-6 in the Lab) and Odai Johnson ("Gideon's Bible," Dec. 1-4, also in the Lab).

Additional productions in the Lab and Saltair Room will be announced in December and March.

Another annual production that draws considerable interest is the Classic Greek Theatre Festival production. This year's drama, directed by Sandra Shotwell, is "The Trojan Women." It will be presented at 8:30 a.m. (Greek dramas were traditionally performed in the morning), on Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 1-2 at Pioneer Trails State Park's outdoor amphitheater. It will also tour four campuses throughout the state between Sept. 27 and Oct. 5, with specific dates and times to be announced.

Salt Lake Acting Company is making a few changes in its policies this season, too.

There'll be four Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., including tea in the lobby. The popular post-play discussions will be scheduled following the first Sunday matinee and the second evening performance of each run.

New curtain times during SLAC's 1988-89 season will be 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays.

Both "Saturday's Voyeur: Roadshow '88" and "Beirut," a controversial new drama, are optional choices for SLAC's season ticket buyers.

In the Center Stage Theatre out on Highland Drive, both Theater 138 and Walk-Ons, Inc., have three alternating productions lined up. The Theater 138 troupe will kick off the season with a show that takes a sort of National Enquirer approach to comedy. Directed by Michael Picardi, it's entitled "Six Women with Brain Death (Or Expiring Minds Want to Know)," running Sept. 8-Oct. 2, followed by Walk-Ons' "The Mystery of Irma Vepp" (Oct. 13-Nov. 5) and then Theater 138's fourth annual presentation of "The 1940s Radio Hour," scheduled roughly between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tom Carlin, one of the partners in Theater 138, said the company is waiting to see about acquiring the rights to a couple of other shows before firming up the rest of their 1988-89 season. Walk-Ons, too, is taking a look at some other scripts before doing any definite scheduling.

Across town at the Hale Center Theater, where 120 seats were added this past year to accommodate the ever-growing audiences, the season runs on the calendar year. In addition to the usual assortment of Hale-written comedies, the 1989 lineup will include "The Hasty Heart" (Feb. 23-April 17) and "Sabrina Fair" (Aug. 10-Oct. 2).

For the Christmas season, Promised Valley Playhouse - normally used for LDS Church stake productions - will present "Annie" from Dec. 1 through 23. Auditions will be held Sept. 10, 15 and 21. All roles are open, a switch from the two previous Christmas shows, in which Gordon Jump was brought in as a guest star. "Annie" will be directed by Kim Burningham..