Whose American Theater Is It, Anyway?

THE FALL THEATER SEASON IS getting started, playbills are coming back from the printers, and dozens of local playhouses are promoting their upcoming slate of “theatre.” This raises the question: Why can’t American thespians spell?

Search the American Theater Web, which should be some kind of authority on the subject, and the Anglicized style takes an almost 2-to-1 lead over the hometown kid. Sadly, the more local you get, the less American the theatrics. The roster of the League of Washington Theatres—which notes its allegiance in its name—offers a nearly 5-to-1 ratio of D.C. “theatres” to D.C. “theaters”: Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre, Source Theatre, Round House Theatre, Actors Theatre of Washington, African Continuum Theatre Company, Charter Theatre, Little Theatre of Alexandria, Theatre Alliance, Theatre J, Trumpet Vine Theatre Company, Young Playwrights Theatre, and on and on.

Even Pennsylvania Avenue’s National Theatre, which trumpets itself as “the Theatre of the Presidents,” refuses to call itself the National Theater.

Erin McKean, senior editor of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press and editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, explains that Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, juggled the “-re” into “-er” to standardize the word “theater.” This was part of his longstanding quest to wrest control of the native language from the dictionary of notorious American-hater Samuel Johnson. Henceforth, Yankees were free of the time-wasting encumbrance of extra letters in “traveller,” “waggon,” and “jeweller,” blessed with streamlined forms of “color,” “jail,” and “ax.”

“British is often assumed to mean ‘better,'” McKean writes via e-mail, “especially when it comes to cultural products—such as plays. So it’s not so much ‘putting on airs’ as it is ‘knowing their customers,’ who probably respond more favorably, if unconsciously, to ‘theatre.'”

Donn B. Murphy, president of the National Theatre and a professor emeritus at Georgetown University—which offers degrees in “theater,” though Murphy lists his field as “theatre”—is unashamed of his playhouse’s spelling habits. The place, he points out, dates from 1835, a mere seven years after Webster published his dictionary.

“I guess Mr. Webster’s fiat hadn’t been sufficiently circulated and popularized,” Murphy says. “Or perhaps the organizers of the National—including Mr. Corcoran of latterly Gallery fame—wanted to continue to be a bit more cosmopolitan or international in tone.”

Either way, D.C. drama supporters have kept rejecting Webster through the years. In 1863, John T. Ford named his little place on 10th Street Ford’s New Theatre. Joyce Patterson, spokesperson for Ford’s, is delighted to check the historical record: “I’m looking at the playbill, a re-creation of the ticket from the night President Lincoln…” Her voice trails off over the phone, even though it’s been 138 years. “We are following in the footsteps of Mr. Ford,” she offers. “I’m sure during that day or time they would have used the British spelling.”

Gail Beach, producer for the Hartke Theatre at the famed drama department of the Catholic University of America, notes that the spelling “goes through phases, and a bunch of theater groups in town were founded by people who came out of this department. So maybe it’s what they were raised with.”

Many proponents of the “theatre” spelling deny that they’re rejecting American spelling. They argue that “-re” relates to plays and “-er” is for movies.

Or they share the view of Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, the industry association that publishes the New York-based American Theatre magazine. “Technically, ‘-er’ means the building and ‘-re’ means the process.” Hence his magazine spells the word with “-re” not only in its title, but in all uses of the word “theater” in its articles.

Says Oxford’s McKean, “This sounds like a distinction in search of a difference; people love to try to find logic behind word choices that are usually not logical at all. The only difference I am aware of is that ‘the process’ is often referred to as ‘the theater,’ as in ‘What made you want to go into the theater?'”

Cameron also points out that worrying about the spelling means that “half the theaters in America are un-American.” But he’s not bothered. “I think we look at it as classic American diversity.”

Others view it as classic theater-industry pretentiousness. Bruce Burk of the State Theatre in Falls Church says his venue’s owners “wanted to have more of the image of”—he lapses into an imitation of Jon Lovitz‘ Master Thespian character—”the thee-ahh-taaaah!”

Beach notes that when she began her theater career, “They wanted to make me the costumier. And I said, ‘No, costumer is fine. Forget all this effete stuff—that’s not a word we use in this country.’ It was a lot of extra letters that didn’t get me further in this job and didn’t pay me any more.”

The Anglicized spelling reflects “frontier insecurity about theatrical art,” says Jack Marshall, CEO and artistic director of the American Century Theater, which is “dedicated to great, important and neglected American plays and playwrights of the 20th century,” according to its red, white, and blue Web site.

Marshall thinks that the prevalence of “-re” is a recent phenomenon. “Back in the ’60s, when I was in college, I saw ‘-er’ more often. I guess somebody decided that ‘-re’ looked cooler on the page and gradually it became the more common standard. There are regions of the country where nobody uses the ‘-re’ form—the Midwest and the West.”

Perhaps there are, but searching an online database for Madison, Wis., theatrical venues finds 21 “theatres” to 15 “theaters,” including—Marshall may be sorry to learn—the “American Players Theatre.” In Nebraska there is Theatre West; Illinois has the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Indiana the Paramount Theatre. Then there are the Fargo Theatre in North Dakota, the State and Orpheum Historic Theatres in Minnesota, and the Ariel, Victoria, and Sandusky State Theatres in Ohio. Thank god for Wisconsin’s Pabst Theater.

Still, a few institutions reject the British spelling altogether. “The New York Times will only spell it ‘-er,'” says Cameron. After a recent story on the magazine, Cameron tried to shake the paper’s ironclad standard. “I went back to them and they said, ‘I’m sorry, our policy is to spell it “-er.”‘ I said, ‘You’re printing a typo of my organization in your paper,’ and they still wouldn’t do it.”

And some theaters have a right to their Anglophilia. It would be churlish to demand that the Shakespeare Theatre change its name. The Theater of the First Amendment, on the other hand, had no choice but to embrace Americanism. Or did it?

Managing Director Kevin Murray explains that when he and Artistic Director Rick Davis were hired at the end of the theater’s first season in 1991, “the previous theater director was using ‘-re.’ And the first thing Rick says was, ‘Theater’s spelled with an ‘-er’ in this country.’ And so, since we were still young, we went ahead and made that switch.”

“I grew up in this town surrounded by theaters that used ‘-re,'” Murray says. “But when you went to a theater, a venue, a room, it was often an ‘-er.’ Then a strange thing happened. I think movie theaters, drive-in theaters, everything started using ‘-re.’ It’s kinda like the ‘e’ on the end of ‘Olde Town.’ Some people think it adds class. I don’t think it necessarily does, but sometimes the sway is held by the vast majority out there.”

Also fighting against the vast sway is the American Century Theater. But that company, too, nearly used the 18th-century spelling, Marshall confesses. When Marshall and his partners originally set their mission to paper, they spelled the name with “-re.” “And my wife said, ‘That makes no sense whatsoever. Why would you ever use the British form of the word?'”

Marshall reveals that this all-American policy has had its costs.

“It’s opened the way to millions of misprints. On a regular basis, a printer will use the British form. We’ve had to throw out business cards.” Marshall even has to “harangue” board members for improper usage.

Marshall says that the order of the two little letters has “actually been something of a mission in and of itself, and a crusade. As often happens, you come by your passion accidentally, more by happenstance than intent.”

Compounding the difficulty of his crusade is the fact that the company performs in Theatre II at the Gunston Arts Center. “We’re carrying on our own rear-guard action here,” says Marshall.

But in the District, it seems to be a losing fight. Even among movie houses: PG Theatres, the new operator of the Avalon Theatre, opted to go Anglo when it reopened the facility. Why? PG owner Paul Sanchez is stumped by the question: “Why did we do that? I guess it was me. They let me do some of these major decisions.” The decision matches the company name, about which Sanchez passes the buck to his late business partner, who made the choice around 1970. “I said ‘OK, we’ll go with that. They both sound the same—what the hell.'”

Pondering, Sanchez comes up with another explanation: “One of the other reasons is my late partner liked to drink a lot. It might be one of those situations. Maybe he’d had a snoot-full. Maybe he picked up the dictionary and picked the wrong one.”

Reprinted from Washington City Paper