Another publication for which I write has decided after several years to switch from spelling theater the standard American way — “theater” — to the British “theatre.” This follows closely on the decision by the theater company New Brooklyn Theater to rename itself New Brooklyn Theatre.
Update: New Brooklyn (now) Theatre just Tweeted their reasoning: “‘Theatre’ is used in the UK, Canada, Africa, Ireland, Australia, NZ, and about half the US.”
It’s time to replay the conversations we had on this topic five years ago on Twitter (or Twittre):
Why do so many theater people (even American theater people) spell it “theatre”? They don’t spell play “plya.”
From Chris Caggiano (@ccaggiano, theater blogger, professor): Because pretense knows no bounds
From Kelly Cameron (@broadwaybabyto Broadway Baby blogger from London, Ontario): That’s the British and (by default) Canadian spelling, so I use it! You Americans…always changing our spelling.
From “DoggieDog” (@DoggieDog, an anonymous Twitterer who mostly writes about pets and theater): Because, in 20th Century, “theatre” meant the live venue; “theater” meant the movie house. No pretense. Not complicated.
From Joshua Conkel (@joshuaconkel, playwright): I think that’s inaccurate, actually.
From Jonathan Mandell (@NewYorkTheater, that’s me): So why when I type “movie theatre” into the search box, I get oodles of results?
From DoggieDog: Cuz, apparently, my (and others’) simple understanding was maybe not so simple; or that distinction has since dissolved?
From Kelly Cameron: Wikipedia actually has an entry on it, perhaps this will explain?
From Jena Tesse Fox (@jenatesse, Broadwayworld.com journalist): I heard that “theatre” meant the institution, while “theater” meant the building.
From Jonathan Mandell: If “theater” is the building, then why are most of the Broadway houses spelled “re”. My Playbill says “Walter Kerr Theatre” (To be consistent, shouldn’t they make it “Waltre Krre Theatre”?)
From Jena Tesse Fox: ‘Cause, clearly, the architects and owners of those theaters didn’t read the same book I did!
From Kelly Cameron: Amazing how such a small thing like “er” vs. “re” can cause so much discussion! I was raised with “re”, so I’ll stick with that!
Six months later (or latre):
What continues to irritate is that everybody has these silly distinctions about when to use “theatre” and when to use “theater” that are NOT supported by ANY dictionary.
The president of the American Theatre Critics Association, for example, told me that “theater” is for journalists, and “theatre” is for theater people. “We wanted to show that we were of the theater.”
Bryan Reesman(@BryanReesman, entertainment journalist): Isn’t “theatre” used for a venue, and “theater” used for everything else?
Gary M(@porschesrule09, theater fan): Often in America, both usages are used, Theater talking about the show and Theatre about the building.
Jonathan Mandell(@NewYorkTheater, me): Theater is the American spelling. Theatre is the British and Canadian spelling. Period. Anything else, you’re making up.
Gary: If you look it up, you’ll see the reason for the “American” version of the word is that Daniel Webster, in an early version of his dictionary, wanted to de-Anglicize everything – thus theatre became theater. *
Jonathan Mandell: Thank the stars for Webster then.
Ann Wallace(@aenordland, student, theater fan): I argued a grade on a paper after being docked for using theater. Instructor relented when I showed published sources.
Steve Loucks(@steveonbroadway, theater blogger): I use theatre to describe the stage and its works, and theater for the movie theater.
Spencer Williams(@abroadwaycritic, theater blogger): Same
Broadway Girl(@BroadwayGirlNYC, anonymous Tweeter and blogger): Me 3
Jonathan Mandell: Why stop there?
theatour (touring musicals)
theatory (history of the stage)
Thitterist – a person who Tweets about theater
Thittreist – a pompous person who Tweets about theater.
If they’re going to change theater to theatre, why not change Broadway to Boardway?
@NewYorkTheater evolution of language (yr a step ahead): origin Latin theatrum; Greek theatron. but a boardway can help navigate a broadway?
— O-ho-ho-beron Books (@OberonBooks) January 7, 2015
@NewYorkTheater I’ve always thought “theater” was the wrong spelling. Guess it depends on where you’re raised! 😀
— Shannon Leigh (@LVShannyLeigh) January 7, 2015
@NewYorkTheater When in doubt…blame the francais… Some other fun ones… #Harbour #Pop #Flavour
— jan..one n; no e (@janeramma) January 7, 2015
*The mention of “Daniel Webster” is inaccurate. The founder of Webster dictionary was named Noah Webster. But some historians say Noah Webster was reflecting the American changes in spelling rather than initiating them.
For further reference: Theater vs. theatre in The Grammarist and You Write Theatre, I Write Theater by Anthony Chase in Artvoice.
The American effort to reform the English spellings, I’ve read, began in the early 19th century for both cultural and political reasons. Americans preferred simplicity (honor is simpler than honour, program has fewer letters than programme, theater is closer to the way the word is pronounced.) Americans also wanted to distinguish themselves from their former colonizers.
I like these origins of “theater.”
3 thoughts on “Theater Vs. Theatre, Revisited”
I like theater for brick and mortar, theatre for the concept. I also prefer playwright (which I am) even playwrighting vs, playwrite/playwriting. (Spellcheck tells me the last three are incorrect.
I know that language changes, but at any given time there’s supposed to be a consensus — that’s what dictionaries are for. It’s not supposed to be up to each individual to make up his or her usage.
So, according to every dictionary I checked:
1. it’s theater or theatre for any and all meanings of theater (or theatre) — i.e. no distinction between the two.
2. It’s playwright, never playwrite
3. It’s playwriting, never playwrighting
45 years in theatre/theater exhibition, I’ve seen movie theaters/res spelled both ways. The “ter” is used a lot in older movie palaces that had live shows. The “tre” was applied mostly to “film-only” venues, however, today, there is no rule. Let the Brits wallow in their “tradition”!