Why I Now Refuse To Spell It T-H-E-A-T-R-E (And Why You Should Too)

06.23.10 | 35 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, ideas, rabble rousing

Can you imagine trying to convince people working in the American theater to stop spelling it theatre?

Why would you even want to anyway?

It’s not like Merriam-Webster lists the theater spelling first. Or that the Associated Press Stylebook has any thoughts on theatre vs. theater.

Of course, you could say, “Theater refers to a building. And theatre suggests the live performance.”

And I could go with that. In fact, I used to use the theatre spelling. Frankly, it just seemed cooler.

Or maybe I’m just harboring feelings of inferiority?

At least, according to George E. Chartier, public relations specialist and author of the book: Full House, The Definitive Guide for Successfully Promoting School and Community Theater. He writes:

“This practice of using the continental spelling when an American word exists suggests to me that many people working in American theater harbor feeling of inferiority when comparing their nation’s efforts to Europe’s–and especially English theater.”

I’m not sure about all that. And I’m surely not trying to start a war between nations. But whatever the case may be, I’ve decided to spell it theater from now on. And I believe you should too.

Here’s why you should spell it theater

As a simple symbolic gesture. A means by which to say it’s time to leave the past behind and embrace the new. No need to balk if you have to spell it theatre because it’s part of a name. But when it comes time to choose–go with theater.

Now do I expect you to say, “That’s your best idea yet, Dave!”

No. No I don’t.

Spell theater any way you want

As long as you’re creating it. As long as you’re promoting it.

I’m more concerned with ways to make theater/theatre a viable means to make a living. At that point you could spell it t-i-d-d-l-y-w-i-n-k-s for all I care.

What do you think? Does it really matter which spelling you use? Or is it just a case of “you say tomato. I say tomato?” (I guess you’ll need to say that out loud.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dave Charest

When not acting, playing music, or being a lovin’ husband and Dad - Dave inspires indie artists to make simple changes to their marketing for better results.

Latest posts by Dave Charest (see all)

Send to Kindle
  • Ian David Moss

    Oh, I'm so sad you backed off your position at the end. I cringe every time I see the “-re” spelling (which is a lot of times).

  • In one of the funniest, simplest comedy routines I've seen was some years back, a British comedian–whose name escapes me, and I wish it wouldn't–sat down at a piano with some classic songs. First, in boxers and undershirt, he performed Irving Berlin's “Top Hat” while dressing along with the lyrics of the song. In so doing, he proved it was impossible to dress in that order and, by the way, Irving forgot to mention anything about putting on pants.

    Then, he brought out “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.” If you've actually read the sheet music, you'll know it actually does spell the words phonetically, “tomato/tom-ah-to,” “potato/po-tah-to.” But his premise is that he's reading this for the first time, and the words are the words. So he begins to sing.

    “You say tomato, and I say tomato…you say potato, and I say…potato…” And as he goes through the song like that, he finally stops. “I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't see the problem here.”

    It's very much the same here. This is one of those models that'll never be broken, never be standardized, and as you say, that's all right.

    For my part, it's my audience telling me the difference. They've said as much, that “-er” is the building. Or, more to the point, “-er” is the place with the movies. They make the distinction for me, and I work with that.

    And as Travis Bedard likes to point out, with “-er,” we fade into a sea of buildings and movie palaces on Google. With “-re,” at least we stand a chance of being found.

    But of course, we'll be found if people are really looking for live performance. I'm not worried about that. (Should I be?)

    What does everyone else think?

  • Kate Powers

    I'm more of an '-re' kind of gal than an '-er' kind of gal. The distinction between the building and the art, and all, but if I could get people to come to my Shakespeare Tiddlywinks, I guess I'd get right over it.

  • You already know I'm firmly in the “er” camp, which strikes me as a lot less pretentious than the “re” spelling (and thus more accessible to a wider audience), Mr. Loehr information notwithstanding.

    Really, though, it's all good.

  • Bries Vannon

    I once found myself writing about a project to a non-arts, non-corporate crowd. Not a grant thing, not a formal marketing campaign thing, just a message to a group of young, casual potential audience. I noticed that I had inadvertently switched to '-er', because it seems more accessible/less hoi polloi to the uninitiated. That was the moment I switched: if it's easier for me to switch those two letters around than it is to attempt to tear down a stereotype, why not? It's not like my work's going to change at all regardless of the spelling. I lately find myself sometimes switching between the two completely at random without realizing it — I haven't disowned '-re' entirely, but it's no longer a hard and fast thing. It's a silly little argument that will either have no effect on an audience or distance them. I'll do what I can to avoid the latter.

  • As one who uses 're' (as in my Twitter name) I think of it the same way I think of my actual name: Ann. There are many who spell it Anne, but I'll spell it my way because it feels comfortable to me. I embrace the fact that there is a choice.

    As a matter of fact I embrace the fact that people say the word theatre, however it is spelled! (And I sort of love it when it is pronounced thee-ay-ter, or theer-ter.) I mean come on, doesn't the spirit of the theatre support “pro-choice” spelling?

  • I guess it depends where you grow up & how you are expose to the word theatre/theater. I find -re normal & would more likely cringe at -er, perhaps bacause I grew up with British English & when I was studying theatre in the US, -re was used to refer to the field/art and -er to the building.

    Only somewhat inconvinient thing as twitterer is having to search for theatre and theater, and their corresponding hashtags to link to both groups.

  • Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    Funny how the placement of one little letter can spark such discussion.

  • I remember seeing a skit or maybe it was a movie scene where they sang that song with the words pronounced the same. Very funny.

  • “It's not like my work's going to change at all regardless of the spelling.” Very true.

  • It is a bit annoying to always have to add both spellings.

  • Theatre looks French. Why would you hate freedom?

  • Swalters

    I spell it theayter.

  • Chicagoartmagazine

    As a non-theatre/er person, I am all ears for a style guide. We're working on a site, and listings and as a writer, I was totally baffled. I thougth I “got it”, but then when I tried to apply it, it got confusing again.

    For ease of use, even as a middle ground is Theatre was used in proper noun titles, and then theater for all other uses, that would help…


  • Chicagoartmagazine

    My previous commment could use some proofreading. That said, here's where I ran into problems, writing copy about the creation of a Theatre Website.

    So my question: if we had the following categories to search for shows

    Children's Theatre
    Fringe Theatre

    Which spelling?

    Found this on the web. Where do you guys disagree?

    “theatre – theater: Many uses of either spelling can be found in American English. Both theater and theatre are commonly used among theatre professionals. The spelling theatre can be seen in names like Kodak Theatre and AMC Theatres. However, theater is used by America's national theater and all major American newspapers such as the New York Times (theater section) to refer to both the dramatic arts as well as to buildings where performances take place. The Columbia University Guide to Standard American English states that “theater” is used except in proper names.[13]”

  • Their were 170 monthly searches for that spelling. You may have a niche. =)

  • Hi Kathryn,

    My suggestion would be go with theater unless a proper name. As that's the current accepted style.

  • And here I was thinking I was alone. I feel EMPOWERED.

  • I like the sound of that web ninja. Can you elaborate?

  • Right, but our attitude might change. We can get pretty fu**in precious about this art that we make.

  • Thanks for posting this, Dave. I agree with you, but you pull your punches a bit. I recently decided that I'm always going to spell it theater, unless it is spelled the other way in the name of a theater that I'm citing. I would write a sentence like this: “Steppenwolf Theatre Company produces theater.” I have some reasons. They don't touch on the quality of the art that is produced, but they are pretty important to our attitudes about the art.

    1. I think the whole building vs. art difference is, frankly, a snobbish and silly affectation. I don't believe we are all snobbish about it, because most of us learned it in our “theatre” programs in college or high school, at a time when were predisposed to affectation, and then just got so habituated to it that we never really think about it again.

    2. It looks like silly affectation to the uninitiated. Do you want audiences beyond just “theatre” majors from college? I hope that you do. Do you want to take time to explain the difference between “-er” and “-re” to your audience? That seems wasteful, because every moment of interaction with your audience is valuable.

    3. It's like a not-so-secret handshake, but it still must be learned as a difference. The point of a difference like this is to establish some sort of exclusivity or club membership. It suggests that there should be an initiation required to appreciate the art. If anybody ever says out loud and in person to me that there SHOULD be an initiation to appreciate theater, I will try really hard not to punch you in your nose, but still, consider yourself warned.

    4. It's not like there isn't an American spelling of the word. There is an American spelling consistent with other American spellings of English words. Can we realise that we have no performing arts centres here?

  • I'm with Nick. I feel like I can't generally talk about this, even though I have a strong opinion about it, because I'll piss off the people that I work with in theater. Just the fact that this is on 2amtheatre.com (ironic or not?) gives the discussion legitimacy.

  • Great points Aaron. Thanks.

    “I will try really hard not to punch you in your nose, but still, consider yourself warned.”

    I have an unrelated funny story about that statement. I'll have to share with you some other time. =)

  • I know where you're coming from in terms of silly affectations. But in my case, it's the uninitiated outside audience telling me that it's “-re.”

    My community is a small, mostly rural area, certainly not a hotbed of the arts. The audience runs the gamut, but for the most part is not an inside-theatre/er group. And they're the ones who told me that “-er” was a movie theater. They're the ones making the distinction between the movies and the people on a stage in the room with them.

    That they want to distinguish what we do from the building or the projector, that's fine by me.

    Funny thing is, the only people I've ever heard worrying about this or debating it, they're all theatre people. I've never had to explain the spelling to anyone outside of theatre people.

    Now, colour with a u, that's just silly.

  • I would definitely let the audience trump my own opinions on this. 🙂

  • Jax Steager

    Are there any British reading this who would care to weigh in on their spellings being classified as necessarily “pretentious”?

    I believe we are being simplistic here: theatre vs theater is part of a much larger linguistic phenomenon–the intentional differentiation of spelling (largely vowel usage) by specific individuals with heavy influence on the population, at a sensitive time in the history of American independence. In other words: Noah Webster had two reasons for wanting to change the way Americans spell things, and one of them was about nationalism.

    There's brief mention here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_Briti

    Further research will pay off if you want to delve into the linguistic sphere. Personally, I differentiate between a movie theater and a live-performance theatre, and there are some other British spellings I've chosen simply for aesthetic reasons–but I don't buy that a British spelling is inherently snobbish.

  • I don't argue that British spelling is inherently snobbish. I argue that living in America and deliberately choosing the British spelling over the American spelling demonstrates an intention to outclass anybody who doesn't do the same. This is based on a cultural construct that anything British is classy. This is, of course, not empirically based, but it is an existing and common bias.

    I'm sure there are also a lot of people who choose “-re” just to be different from their perception of movie theaters, or the Walmart version of America, or whatever. And it is common (to the point of cliche, see Glee) for theater students to be or want to be different from their peers.

  • Jax Steager

    So…you believe that anyone who opts for “-re” is snobbish, or sophomoric.

    Interesting. Can't say that I agree with that whatsoever.

  • So. All the posts about theatre/theater marketing, pricing, playwrights' plights, all the ideas and questions we bandy about here, and the post with the most comments is the one about which way we spell the word theatre/theater?


  • This one's easier. 🙂

  • Aaron Andersen

    I'm not asking you to agree; I know many disagree with me.

    And I would not say “sophomoric.” That is too harsh. It's not sophomoric to try to differentiate one's self from one's peers. But I think we tend to start with pretentious differentiation, then fall into a habit. So, by the time we learn that differentiation through spelling is somewhat shallow, we spell it that way out of habit and don't really question it.

  • After a varied career which included a spell in theatre stage management, training with Prudential and several senior IFA posts, he joined Merlin Financial …

  • If you came in halfway through a season, you’d have no idea who anyone was, what was happening or why you should care. The network seems OK with that,

  • People refuse to accept this. Instead, they concoct actions that bring about their … The production of the magical force takes place by spell, manual and ..

  • .. that the only thing left to her after being gang-raped is her decision to remember and to bear witness. So who are the eponymous saints? Who are the new Adam and Eve? O’Brien’s compassionate, mesmerising tales exhilaratingly refuse to spell that out.