A sharp-eyed museum docent once noticed that a painting had been mis-dated, realizing that the figures in the work were actually attending a costume ball dressed in the fashions of the previous century. Based on this clothing, the work itself had been attributed to the earlier era. Once the docent pointed out a few anachronisms, the error was fixed.

From costume balls to high-tech parties, events that feature a specific theme have been popular throughout history. Mardi Gras and Halloween both have their roots in far more ancient rites and celebrations.

As an incentive planner, you already know the value of themed events, and you've likely produced quite a few of them. How, then, do you keep your creative edge? More important, how can you be fresh and innovative, yet stick to your budget?

What You've Been Doing: * Basing your theme on the meeting location (a southwestern theme in Arizona; a swamp theme in Florida; a Hollywood theme in Southern California).

* Basing your party themes on the overall meeting theme (a "moving forward" theme might feature a futuristic party, while a teamwork theme could feature a

"famous TV partners" party, or a sports party, or a series of teambuilding activities).

These are tried and true, and often work great. But what if you gave attendees something they didn't expect? Here are some sources for new ideas.

What You Could Be Doing: * Take in this season's hot new movie. Only this time, bring along a notepad. Let's use the blockbuster "Titanic" as our example. You'll want to briefly outline the movie (poor boy meets rich girl onboard ship; she experiences his world by dancing in steerage class; he experiences hers by dining in first class; he draws her; the ship sinks).

Meanwhile, jot down important props and set pieces ("Heart of the Ocean" pendant; life rafts; deck chairs; nautical fittings, pipes, railings; crew uniforms). Remember, you need only create the look of the movie--attendees will fill in the story line from their own memories. Think of props and decor as simply memory-joggers. If it's on video, run your theme movie on a giant screen without audio during the event.

Now let's plan a "Titanic" party. Your decor will feature the props from your notes. I would suggest playing up the class differences by serving a formal dinner in "First Class," with wait staff in nautical uniforms and a formal "ship's band." After dinner, have the dance party in "steerage" in an adjoining room (dramatically opening the airwalls is a nice touch), with different decor and a different band. This twist is a variation of the rags-to-riches party format, while the entire party, of course, is merely a variation of a nautical theme party.

Movie posters at the entrance enhance the theme. And, of course, look-alikes for the stars of the film are always fun and a great photo op for your guests.

* Watch television. Not only are the hot prime-time shows great for theme ideas, even daytime soaps and talk shows have great potential. (Imagine a Jerry Springer theme. . .) Don't forget game shows and reality shows! These are excellent interactive events.

* Read newspapers and news magazines for ideas based on current events. Can you tie in a major sporting event, like the Olympics or the Masters golf tournament? How would a "classified ads" party work? Or a "sports page" party? A "tabloid newspaper" party might have visiting aliens, Elvis sightings, paparazzi, and perhaps some absurd stories recreated by hired performers.

* Browse the Internet for theme ideas. A list of chat rooms is a good start, revealing the amazing variety of interests people have, many of them good theme-party ideas. (Go to www.dejanews.com to search the many newsgroups and chat rooms out there.) Or just surf, letting ideas hit you from all directions.

* Keep up with popular fiction. Anne Rice, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Robin Cook, Danielle Steele, and others provide distinct voices and vibrant, richly detailed themes in their novels. For some groups, a "romance novel" party may be just the ticket, with opulent decor, swashbuckling entertainment, and perhaps an interactive writing activity where each attendee contributes part of a story to be "published" later.

* Stay on top of lifestyle trends. Everyone is into health and fitness now, so plan a fitness festival.

Already done that? Okay, how about an "anti-fitness" event, with couches, lounge chairs, lots of sweets, and some decidedly low-impact games? We're all merging onto the information superhighway, so try an Internet event, with hands-on demos, guest speakers, and fun new software.

* Look for commonality in your group. Are they all homeowners? A do-it-yourself event could feature demonstrations, samples, and perhaps a charitable activity at an off-site location. Are they all roughly the same age? Pick a decade everyone can relate to, and build your theme around it.

* Survey your attendees for ideas. They're more creative than you think!

* Add actors. If you really want to add character to your party, add characters to your party--that is, actors and improvisers. Think of each performer you hire as a piece of walking, talking, interacting decor. Hint: You needn't hire professional (SAG or Equity) actors; the pay scale can be prohibitive if you're on a tight budget. Using amateurs, you'll likely still get the talent you're looking for. One caveat: Make sure your actors are aware of the rules and parameters of your event (breaks; start/stop time; your eating, smoking, and drinking policies; and so on).

Resources * Special Events: Best Practices in Modern Event Management, by Dr. Joe Jeff Goldblatt, CSEP (Van Nostrand Reinhold, N.Y.)

* TheatreSports International (actors and comedians), an organization with schools in many major U.S. and overseas cities

* Local theater companies and local college theater departments--They will have performed at a number of events, and they can usually give you a few pointers.

* Talent agencies (which charge a commission)

* Destination Management Companies (DMCs) offer hundreds of themes and ideas to choose from, as well as the experience and expertise to pull them off.

* Hoteliers, who have seen the great events and suffered through the duds.

* Networking--Talk with your colleagues, your vendors, even your competition.