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Theater Or Theatre? A Centuries-Old Debate Still Plays Today

Courtesy of Buntport Theater
The Buntport Theater includes (l to r) Erik Edborg, Erin Rollman, Brian Colonna, Hannah Duggan, SamAnTha Schmitz.

The difference between 'theatre' and 'theater' doesn't seem like a big deal now, but back in the mid-1800s those could have been fighting words.

Excising Britain from our cultural lexicon was all the rage back then. While Noah Webster was busy American-izing the dictionary, riots were cropping up to get British actors off the stage and the word 'theatre' off the marquee.

"But it never left completely," said the University of Northern Colorado's Head of Theatre Education Mary Schuttler.

Look around and you'll find that both forms of the word are common – and, according to Schuttler, who teaches 'theatre' history – both are correct.

In 1828, Noah Webster published the first edition of his American Dictionary of the English Language, which Americanized certain words. 'Colour' became 'color,' 'grey' became 'gray,' and 'theatre' became 'theater.'

It was important to remove the British mark on America, Schuttler said. Then in 1849, a riot broke out at the Astor Opera House in New York City after members of the audience began throwing fruit and garbage at British actor William Charles Macready as he performed the role of Macbeth. An American actor, Edwin Forrest, was performing the same part at another theater nearby, and they wanted to run Macready out of town. In the end, the Astor Place Riot left 25 people dead and more than 100 injured.

After that, the word 'theatre' was adopted by the elite Americans who held onto the British form of acting, Schuttler said. 'Theater' was used by the more middle-class Americans who preferred the newer, more realistic "American style."

Eventually the controversy settled down, but there are still a lot of conflicting theories about the proper use of the word, she said.

"Many people believe that even today when you're involved in the theater, you use the 're' because you are in the know," Schuttler said. "And that the 'er' is more for the 'non-theatre' person."

Many universities – including UNC, Colorado State University and the University of Colorado – use 'theatre' in reference to their programs. Schuttler said that's likely due to the common, but incorrect, idea that 'er' refers to the venue, while 're' refers to the craft.

When asked which version she prefers, Schuttler admitted she also falls into this category, although "there really is no difference between the two."

Forty-two years ago when Fort Collins' OpenStage Theatre & Co. opened its doors, the decision to go with 'theatre' was an obvious one, said co-founder Denise Burson Freestone. Even if she wasn't entirely confident about why.

Credit Kate Austin Groen Photography
OpenStage Theatre Company recently wrapped up a production of its restaging of Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' set in the Civil War.

"I am adamant about spelling it 're,' even if I'm not sure (about the rules)," Freestone said. "I think it's an indication of the professionalism of your work."

It also ties back to those British roots, she said. When you think Italy, you think Puccini, you think opera. When you think Britain, you think Shakespeare, you think theatre. Freestone said that's probably why most theatre companies go with the 're' form.

Most, but not all.

At Denver's Buntport Theater, irreverence is the name of the game. So when it came time to pick a name, the company wanted to go with something a little less theatre-y, said co-founding ensemble member Brian Colonna.

While he couldn't remember all the details of the discussion they had 15 years ago when they named their then-fledgling company, Colonna said there was definitely a discussion about the pretention behind the word "theatre."

"We didn't want to do 'theatre,'" he said. "We wanted to do 'theater,' regular old theater."

Even though "regular" is a far cry from the offerings at Buntport, which features original works with titles like Tommy Lee Jones Goes to the Opera Alone and Kafka on Ice. But the company has its serious moments, and often collaborates with other theaters, and even a few theatres.


"If we collaborated with a company that was truly like what an 're' theatre evokes in my mind, then I think we wouldn't really get along," Colonna joked. "We don't really take ourselves that seriously. We probably work best with other 'ers.'"

And thus, the battle continues.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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