Buzzworthy: Is it 'theater' or 'theatre'? Depends on whom you ask

July 13, 2014 

The last time you went to a play, you may not have been in a theater. You may have been in a theatre. You may have seen a theatre company, not a theater company.

Last week, in fact, I saw a play that Banyan Theater produced in the Cook Theatre.

You may not have noticed the spelling. If you noticed, you probably didn't much care.

But people who are involved with theater, or who write about theater, think hard about such matters. Some of them even have pretty strong opinions about it.

Jerry Finn is one of them. He's the founder and artistic director of Sarasota's Banyan Theater. He's adamantly in favor of -er.

"It's the way I grew up," he said. "When I was growing up in theater, -er was the American spelling, and -re was the English spelling."

Still, Finn allows that the vast majority of companies around the country use -re.

Jeffrey Kin, the artistic director of the Players Theatre in Sarasota, is every bit as attached to the -re as Finn is to the -er.

"I'm a believer in -re," Kin said. "To me, -re is live theatre, -er is a movie theater."

Kin inherited the name Players Theatre, but it was under his watch that the company opened its Backstage Theatre. Board members had urged him to use the -er spelling for that space, which would have meant there was a theater inside a theatre.

Throughout most of its history, Manatee Players avoided the whole question. But last year it opened the Manatee Performing Arts Center, which includes the Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theater.

Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director of Manatee Players, is one of the few theater people who don't have strong feelings about the spelling. In fact, until I told him how it's spelled on the company's website, he didn't even realize that his own space was a theater, not a theatre. There was no discussion about it that he knows of. Probably, he said, whoever wrote the name of the space the first time spelled it "theater," and no one cared enough to argue.

For my job, style rules dictate that I use the -er spelling (which I prefer, in case anyone asks) unless there's an exception in a proper name that uses -re.

It was easier at another paper I wrote for, where I was always supposed to spell it -er, even when referring to a company whose name was officially -re.

It's hard to keep track. I'm sure I sometimes get it wrong. It's Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, Theatre Odyssey. The Cook, Mertz, Keating and Gompertz are all theatres. But Banyan Theater and the Bradenon Kiwanis are theaters.

In St. Petersburg, American Stage Theatre Company is a few blocks from the Mahaffey Theater.

In Tampa, Jobsite Theater Company just produced a show at the Jaeb Theater. Tampa Repertory Theatre performs at the Hillsborough Community College Studio Theatre.

David Jenkins, the artistic director of Jobsite Theater, said the people in his company put a lot of thought into the spelling. They went with -er because they wanted a more blue-collar feel, to mesh with the word "Jobsite" and to make the art form seem more approachable. And, it's the standard American spelling.

Still, he said, nine times out of 10, people use the -re spelling when they refer to his company.

"I'm never going to go on a warpath about it," he said, "because that would just be silly, and something only someone who spells it 'theatre' would do."

He was, in case it's not obvious, making a joke with that last comment. But some people genuinely find the -re spelling insufferable.

"I do think it's pretentious," said Banyan Theater's Finn. "I think it's the theater equivalent of spelling 'center' with an -re."

Of course, a lot of words that end in -er in American English end in -re in British English. Somber/sombre, liter/litre, luster/lustre. So you could look at the use of -re as an affected Anglicism, a sign of an inferiority complex in the American theater world.

There are also people who maintain that a theatre is performing arts company, and a theater is the building the company performs in.

C. David Frankel, the artistic director of Tampa Repertory Theatre, said he chose -re for aesthetic reasons.

"To me, the -re ending made the word look more open," he said. "The -er ending turned back on itself. It was closed off. So, I associated 'theatre' with an expanding and expansive view."

One of the country's most famous theaters, the Guthrie in Minneapolis, actually changed from -re to -er in 1970. It had moved into a building that had "center" in its name, and the company decided that it would be weird to have a theatre with an -re in a center with an -er.

Does it really matter? Not much. Still, the question still evokes some strong opinion among theater/theatre folk.

"It's something we all think about," the Players Theatre's Kin said. "But I don't think people are going to get into fist-fights over it."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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