Arts 101: Theater vs. Theatre

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A sampling of theater signs and logos from around the Twin Cities.

At State of the Arts we welcome questions that at first might appear simplistic or obvious. Because, more often than not, we find out something new in the process. That’s why I’ve created a special category “Arts 101” to handle just these sorts of topics.

For our latest installment, I asked colleague and “Grammar Grater” Luke Taylor to hunt down a question that I’ve pondered for years, namely, why do some theaters spell their name Theater, and others spell it Theatre? Here’s what he learned…

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Melodie Bahan, the Guthrie Theater’s director of communications, knows a little piece of Guthrie lore that most of us don’t.

“Originally it was the Guthrie Theatre, R-E,” Bahan reveals. “It was so named until 1970. If you go back and you look at all of our materials, all of our programs, it was R-E.”

You may be surprised about what precipitated the Guthrie’s spelling switch, and we’ll get to that a bit later. But The Guthrie’s change from Theatre to Theater reflects a wider inconsistency throughout the theater community. A quick survey of some performance spaces in the Twin Cities exemplifies that: the Guthrie, Jungle, Fitzgerald and Varsity fall in the E-R camp; Penumbra, Mixed Blood, and the State/Orpheum/Pantages (the Hennepin Trust properties) opt for R-E.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the venerable reference for all things related to the English language, says that the spelling rules for words ending in R-E and E-R generally differ between British and American English, respectively, but notes that “the contrast … is not totally systematic.” Examples of this irregularity include such words as somber/sombre, specter/spectre, and of course, theater/theatre.

So what’s behind the choice to use theatre (R-E) or theater (E-R)?

Katherine Scheil is an associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota, specializing in theater history and performance studies. Her spelling preference is R-E. “I think ‘theater’ and ‘theatre’ have different connotations,” Scheil says, “and I would imagine that a director or founder of a theatre would want to tap into those.”

Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, did exactly as Scheil imagines. Bellamy carefully considered the spelling of theatre when he named the Penumbra. “It’s my feeling that R-E connotes the ‘craft’ and that E-R connotes the building within which the craft takes place,” he says.

Scheil speculates that the American spelling, theater, may convey more of a sense of accessibility for a potential audience rather than the elite connotations of theatre, but admits such connotations are unfounded. “British theatre has a long history of amateur performance, and at least in London, theatre is much more accessible to common people that it is here in the U.S. in terms of cheap tickets,” Scheil says. “The Globe in particular encourages a more democratic audience base with cheap tickets, audience participation, and a more rowdy atmosphere than one would find at the Guthrie, for example.”

One might think the Guthrie’s E-R spelling was chosen to reflect the fact it was a major project designed to bring theater to the heartland of America. The Guthrie’s Bahan notes that the Associated Press Stylebook advises American writers to use theater unless the proper name of such a place is Theatre. “Of course I latch on to [the AP Stylebook] because it confirms our spelling,” she laughs. “I’m sure if the accepted AP style was R-E, I’d find some reason why we were correct and AP was wrong!”

But the truth about the Guthrie’s spelling has nothing to do with the company’s mission or the AP Stylebook. Bahan says that in 1970, the Walker and the Guthrie simultaneously expanded, and together they built a shared lobby space on Vineland Place in Minneapolis. “On the entrance to that space, there was this beautiful steel typeface: ‘The Walker Art Center and the Guthrie Theater,’” Bahan explains. “It was a decision that was made–my guess would be that it was led by the Walker–that they wanted a visual consistency between ‘center’ and ‘theater’. So that was when it was changed to E-R. And everything else after that time, all of our materials, it was Guthrie Theater, E-R. It was totally driven by signage.”

Bahan says that when the Guthrie moved to its new standalone building in 2006, there was never discussion of reverting to the R-E spelling. Not that others don’t get it confused. Asked if she ever sees its name misspelled elsewhere, she replies, exasperatedly, “All. The. Time.”

When writing the playbills for the Guthrie’s performances, Bahan and her staff are always meticulous about listing credits accurately, ensuring that theater names are correctly spelled ER or RE. “It’s very frustrating when I go to other theaters or go to New York or DC or someplace and I look at playbills and I see actors’ credits who have worked at the Guthrie and see theater spelled RE when it’s us,” Bahan says. “That just seems sloppy and lazy, so a little frustrating.”

The Penumbra Theatre’s Lou Bellamy has a different attitude about such spelling mix-ups. “It doesn’t really matter to me,” he says, “so long as they can find the theater to attend shows.”

Can this arbitrary spelling be a nuisance for audience members? An informal survey conducted simultaneously on Gather and Facebook yielded a few results about public perception of the theater/theatre spellings. One respondent on Gather said having two spellings didn’t bother him at all. Another celebrated the fact that she is British and doesn’t need to worry about different spellings. “No problems,” she wrote. “We only spell it one way, i.e. theatRE.”

Cory Busse, former Grammar Grater teammate, mused, “I am more willing to accept a ‘theatre’ putting on a play than I am a ‘movie theatre.’ The first makes sense to me … the second seems pretentious. Which is funny, because–as you can tell–I’m the one guilty of snobbery here.”

Context can indeed influence a writer’s spelling choice. Professor Scheil’s work at the University of Minnesota is mainly about British theatre, so she uses that spelling. She acknowledges, however, that scholarly authors who write books or articles about theater/theatre are usually bound by a publisher’s preferred spelling of the word, regardless of context. We here at MPR follow AP Stylebook guidelines.

In her day-to-day work, Professor Scheil keeps an open mind. “I use ‘theatre’ but have always accepted both spellings from my students,” she says. “After this interview, I may have to caution them to think about the connotations behind the different spellings before they choose one!”

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What do you think? Theater E-R or theatre R-E? Why? Share your thoughts.

Have any other questions for Arts 101? Let us know!

  • Beth

    I’m in Lou Bellamy’s camp. TheatRE connotes the process and outcome of an artistic team ie theatre troupe and theatER is the space in which an audience shares the work. The military use of theatER discribes location as well. Thanks for the insightful review! Leave it to classical MPR to keep me thinking! Mary

  • Leah Cooper
  • tae

    I don’t mind either spelling, but my MIL says it the-ATE-r and that drives me nuts!!

  • Robert

    Use of “theatre” may predate current marketing, but all I see in the -RE spelling is somebody trying to sell me something by using an “exotic” spelling (as in River Centre, Centre Village, Lake Pointe). Let’s kick out the “e” all together and while we’re at it we can get rid of the “h” and leave it at “teatr”. Although it may look like bad English spelling it can embrace “teatro” “teater” and, of course, “teatr” as well as “theatre” and “theater”

  • Dan Pinkerton

    Scheil speculates that “the American spelling, theater…” Well, I confess I don’t have a PhD in English (only an MFA in playwriting), but my reading indicates that both the British and the the Americans have gone back and forth between “theater” and “theatre” and that there have actually been times when the Brits were using “theater” and the Yanks were using “theatre” (late 18th, early 19th centuries, I think).

    Or not. What I like best about this debate is that there are so many legends surrounding the various reasons one ought to spell it a certain way. When I was growing up in California, I was taught that it was “re” for live theatre and “er” for movie houses. I know now that the rule was apocryphal, but I continue to follow it.

    Others follow other rules that are similarly arbitrary, creative, and anarchic — and that’s one of the things I like best our profession. I hope the spelling is *never* standardized!

  • http://wyrmmage.com wyrmmage

    I’ve always believe that “theater” was supposed to be used for a theater building, and “theatre” refers to the art of theatre.

    I keep looking up the difference between the two words because spell-checking software rarely recognizes the word “theatre”, and this casts a seed of doubt into my mind.

  • Matthew S

    I honestly don’t care how others spell, it depends on how you learned to spell theatre. I personally learned it theatre and that is how I spell it, but I do not care if other people spell it differently. there is not one right way or worng way, just two different ways of spelling theatre.