Theater or Theatre?

My latest read, authored by a playwright and director who clearly favors the -re spelling

Grammar by committee. There’s far too much of that going around these days. I like to think I’m immune to it, but that’s only because I favor grammar by individual edict – my own. Blogging affords writers certain liberties in the name of what we call individual style or “voice.”

Theater companies seem to exercise a bit of the same artistic license when it comes to naming decisions. There’s Phoenix Theatre and Valley Youth Theatre of Phoenix, but also Theater Works in Peoria. 

So which one is right? This feels like a bit of a burning questions to those of us who play with words for a living. I’m not so sure that anybody else really cares. But that didn’t stop me from asking around.

When I checked in with a dozen or so theater professionals in the Valley, most shared a similar take on the issue. “Theater,” they told me, “refers to a place or venue.” But “theatre” refers to the art form.

Childsplay production manager Anthony Runfola suspects that this belief may stem from the fact that the Greek word for theater (theatron) means “a place for viewing.” 

Using this logic, I suppose one performs theatre in a theater. But I find that answer strangely unsatisfying. And Valley venues aren’t helping. Think Hale Theatre Centre in Gilbert, and Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

So I did what most of us do when our questions garner answers we don’t particularly care for. I kept asking.

Chris Rhodes, managing director with the Southwest Shakespeare Company in Mesa wonders whether there might be a bit of a “snob factor” for some who insist they’ve got a “theatre” company rather than “theater” company.

Randy Messersmith, MFA — who serves as theatre arts director for Scottsdale Community College — says many in the profession use “theatre” as if to “somehow seem more important than the low lifes” who use “theater.” It’s not his take, but he’s seen the attitude before.

Messersmith also notes that people go to “Broadway theater” here in America but attend “The Theatre” when in England. Perhaps, he suggests, the two spellings should duel. He imagines them facing off and insisting “this language isn’t big enough for the both of us!”

Runfola says he was taught that “theatre” is the British spelling (likely from a similar word in French) and “theater” is the American spelling. It’s similar to the “colour” and “color” distinction, observes Runfola. Perhaps, he says, it was just a way for folks in the U.S. to differentiate themselves  from the British.

“I believe,” quips Runfola, “this all begins with Noah Webster and his preference for phonetic spellings…so we have him to thank for the confusion!” It’s evident in things like the title of an American magazine devoted to the craft of theater: American Theatre.  

“Personally, I prefer the –er spelling for no other reason than it’s how my high school theater teacher spelled it,” shares Runfola. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.” Runfola is a Chaparral High School alumni whose theater teacher there was Deborah Carrick.

In the end, Childsplay associate artist Debra K. Stevens helped me put it all in perspective. Turns out it’s not such a hot question after all outside of editor-world. The way you spell it doesn’t change the way you imagine, create or share it.

Still, there’s always the “thee-uh-tuh” option when all else fails. Just remember to point your pinky out when you say it.

— Lynn

Note: Raising Arizona Kids follows Associated Press style guidelines – which favor the use of “theater” in all cases except those that refer to a specific theater using “theatre” in its name.

Coming up: Dance meets visual arts, J is for Juneau — or Jersey

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