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The Great Debate…Kinda: Theatre vs. Theater

As part of promoting AuditionInside.com, I post auditions for new employers coming on board our website.  One day I posted for a company with the word “theater” in their name. Without thinking twice, I changed “theater” to “theatre.” No big deal, right? Well…I didn’t think so until I received an email from the employer asking me to change “theatre” back to “theater.”

At this point I felt terrible. I just assumed that they used the wrong version of “theatre.” It never dawned on me that I might be wrong here!

With anything that I am wrong about, I start to dig deeper.  I went to Google and typed in “theatre vs theater.” I chose the first three results it came up with, one grammar site, one arts news column, and a geek website.  Here is what I learned:

The one overall theme throughout all three articles was that the “-er” vs “-re” debate is at its most basic level, a language difference.  Our British theatre counterparts only use “theatre,” while, Americans adopted “theater” when developing their dialect of English. As stated at http://www.wisegeek.org, the “-re” vs “-er” issue is common between British and American English. Words like sabre/saber and center/centre have the same issue.

So, I am coming to the conclusion that we have a choice in which version we use.  What are we using more often now-a-days?  According to http://grammarist.com, it seems as if theater is a clear winner.

     “Searching a selection of 40 American news and cultural publications that put their content online, theaters appears 8,500 times from 2000 to the present, against just under 200 instances of theatres. This just suggests that theater is the preferred spelling for actual venues (the art form is a mass noun so would only rarely be pluralized), which no one seems to dispute. What’s more interesting is that the phrase theater critic appears 260 times against three instances of theatre critic, theater actor appears 43 times against zero instances of theatre actortheater scene appears 60 times against two instances of theatre scene, and the phrase contemporary theater appears 27 times against two instances of contemporary theatre (and both of these are in names of buildings).”

So at this point, I consulted my Playbill collection, because I could not believe what I was reading.  I thought for sure that Theatre was the “artistic” and “correct” term for everything proscenium performance. I split my playbills into four piles, “center,” “centre,” “theatre,” and “theater.” I had an even split of “center” and “centre,” but way more “theatre’s,” than “theater’s!” Perhaps there was an explanation for this in the third website?

Minnesota Public Radio explains that sometimes there are different connotations in different versions of a word. For example, Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul says, “It’s my feeling that R-E connotes the ‘craft’ and that E-R connotes the building within which the craft takes place.” But, notice Lou said “feeling.” I guess that it really does not matter which way you go. It’s all up to your perception of the word in the specific circumstance.

After reading these articles, I think the main thing to keep in mind is that, we all have a choice. There is no right or wrong way to spell Theatre(er).  There is only your way!  And for me, in the future…I will just list the spelling that the employer chooses to put down, because after all, it is their choice! :)

It’s important to remember that these rules are for live performance only. When referring to feature films, it might be really weird to go to a movie “theatre!”

For more information and the history of theatre vs theater, visit these links:




By Zachary Miller

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