Theatre or Theater? In stage circles, that’s a fighting word

Photo from Curious Theatre Company’s 2016 production of ‘White Guy on the Bus.’ Photo of Sam Gregory and Jada Suzanne Dixon by Michael Ensminger.

How companies spell that one volatile word says much about their histories and theatrical sensibilities

When The New York Times announced in March that Denver’s Curious TheatRE Company will be opening its fall season with Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” the article claimed the play was being presented by Curious TheatER Company.

As painful as this is for a journalist to say, this is a rare example of a credible media outlet not only getting it wrong. It got it wrong on purpose. This is real #FakeNews. The correct spelling is Curious TheatRE Company.

But at The New York Times, it doesn’t matter what you call yourselves. Even if you have “TheatRE” in your proper name, The Gray Lady will change it to “TheatER” in America’s leading theatre, er, theater publication. That’s just their style.

As someone who has covered the Colorado theatre/er community for nearly 20 years, I have always been fascinated by how companies and journalists alike use the word both in their names and in everyday use. So I did a study on it.

Colorado has 92 active or recently active companies – defined as any troupe that has staged a production in the past year or has one scheduled in the next year. It turns out the vast majority of companies that have Theatre or Theater in their proper names prefer the word Theatre (40). But not all. Because are we or are we not Americans??? Fourteen Colorado companies use TheatER in their names. And a healthy number (38) perhaps smartly avoid the word altogether.

Those in the TheatRE corner include Theatre Aspen, Phamaly Theatre Company and the DCPA Theatre Company. (The inclusion of the Denver Center in this group should surprise no one given that founder Donald R. Seawell was an honorary member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.) Those in the TheatER corner include Buntport Theater, Local Theater and the Firehouse Theater Company.

Media outlets follow designated style books – these are compendiums of rules not necessarily covered by grammar stricture to ensure consistency in copy. More than 1,400 U.S. newspapers use the Associated Press Stylebook as their bible, and that bible calls for theatER in all cases except proper names. The DCPA Stylebook, which governs this very article you are reading, calls for theatRE in all uses except proper names. And The New York Times … well, follows its own bliss.

For the majority who prefer TheatRE, the argument is an open-and-shut curtain: Historically, theatRE has meant the art and theatER has meant the building it takes place in. By that logic, any theatre organization should be named RE, while any physical space should be named ER.

When the Creede Repertory Theatre opened in 1966, it was known as ‘Operation Summer Theater.’

But those aren’t the only reasons companies have chosen to use TheatRE in their names. Our survey revealed some fun facts about our shared Colorado theatre/er history. For example, two of our mountain companies call themselves TheatRE simply to distinguish themselves from their towns’ movie houses:

  • Lake Dillon Theatre Company (Dillon): “The founders of our company kept getting phone calls for the local movie theater, so they changed the name to Lake Dillon TheatRE to help the operators connecting the calls understand we were the live theatRE, not the movie theatER. It didn’t help, by the way. I got here nine years later, and for my first three years, I would say half of our calls were for movie times. So we just started telling people what time the movies were on.” – Producing Artistic Director Christopher Alleman
  • Thingamajig Theatre Company (Pagosa Springs): “We originally named the company TheatER in 2010. However, when we set up our land line, the phone company gave us the last four digits 7469, or SHOW. And it turned out the movie house had done the same thing, so we both had the same last four numbers, just different prefixes. So when folks Googled for theater in Pagosa Springs, they would phone us thinking we were the movie theater. After three months, we just changed our name to TheatRE to further differentiate ourselves. So you could say the reason we chose TheatRE was really a result of search-engine optimization.” – Producing Artistic Director Tim Moore

Perhaps no one in Colorado is more passionate about the preferred use of TheatRE than Steve Wilson, Executive Artistic Director of the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, which until recently ran the Denver Children’s TheatRE. Wilson has a magnet in his office that says: “Theater re.” You’ll note the ER is stricken in favor of RE.

“I was the one who insisted on the ‘RE’ spelling for both the Denver Children’s Theatre and the Elaine Wolf TheatRE we perform in,” Wilson said. “Every respected theatre professional I have ever encountered spells theatRE with an RE. One of my teachers once said that the ER spelling can refer to the actual building, but I believe we theatRE people aspire to the belief that our spaces are always inhabited by the higher art at all times. Hence – assume pretentious British accent here – ‘The TheatRE!’ ”

But the mighty minority have their own passionate reasons for embracing the word TheatER. Primarily because we are Americans, and a few hundred years ago, we staged a revolution to get out from under the Brits’ oppressive word clutches (and I suppose some other clutches as well.)

“We call ourselves Local TheatER Company because we develop new American plays, and we spell theater ER here in the United States,” said founder Pesha Rudnick. Rick Yaconis, founder of the currently dormant Edge Theater Company, chose ER, he says, “because TheatRE seems pretentious to me, and I didn’t want there to be anything pretentious about The Edge.” John Ashton, who took over the late Avenue Theater in 1990, went with TheatER “just because theatRE seemed kind of uppity and froo-froo to me,” he said. “I’m not sure what authority I may have to think that way; that’s just how it feels.”

Then there is Buntport TheatER collective, which in typical self-deprecating fashion picked a side “but not from a place of great passion ­– except when playful sparring with friends is involved,” the company said in a collective response. “We discussed it when we started, but not at any great length. It’s just: We don’t write ‘colour’ or ‘neighbour’ or ‘centre’ in the U.S., so we also don’t tend to write ‘theatre.’ ”

The Buntport gang also pointed out that, a credible source for grammar conflict resolution, stays neutral on this issue, saying: “In most contexts, there is no difference in meaning between theatER and theatRE. Neither has any special definitions in general usage.”

OK, so that might be grammatically true. But what is drama without great conflict? To stoke the embers further, here are a few representative responses when we asked Colorado companies why they chose the names they chose:

TheatER proponents

  • “The standard American English is TheatER. Some feel sort of superior by using theatRE as if they’re more ‘in the know,’ but neither is ‘correct.’ Or more to the point, both are.” – Lynn Fleming, Secretary, Coal Creek Theater of Louisville
  • I named our new venue TheatER 29 instead of TheatRE 29 based on the fact that the RE spelling yielded fewer results in an initial Google search. My unscientific research led me to believe the ER spelling would be better for website purposes.” – Lisa Wagner Erickson, co-founder, Theater 29, Denver

TheatRE proponents

  • American TheatRE magazine is, obviously RE, and that, we think, is the industry standard.” – Denise Freestone, co-founder, OpenStage Theatre & Company, Fort Collins
  • “We decided that the English version, theatRE, was more appropriate for what we wanted to do, and for the audience we wanted to attract.” – Mark Rossman, co-founder, Cherry Creek Theatre
  • “We don’t have a single home for our shows, so TheatER doesn’t really fit us. TheatRE reflects our commitment to the process of creating, collaborating and living.” – Alexander Evert, Artistic Director, Fearless Theatre, Denver
  • “When I talk about theatRE vs theatER to my students at Pikes Peak Community College, I equate it to ‘A church’ vs. ‘THE Church.’ The theatRE resides in each of us. (Insert smiley emoji).” – Sarah Shaver, founding member, Springs Ensemble Theatre, Colorado Springs
  • “Bas Bleu is French for ‘bluestocking,’ which means ‘an intellectual woman.’ The 18th-century Bluestocking salons in Europe closely reflected what we hoped to accomplish on the Front Range of Colorado. But we called ourselves ‘The Bas Bleu Theatre Company’ with our tongues firmly planted in our cheeks. There are such glorious mispronunciations of the French language in Fort Collins left over from the days of the fur trappers. The ‘Poudre River’ is often called ‘The Pooder,’ for example. We knew we were being somewhat cheeky by breaking some boundaries and choosing to do plays that might inspire, excite and terrify us as artists, but that might not have broad box-office appeal. We thought we would only last two years. That was 27 years ago. But in short: Bas Bleu is French, and in France, theater is always spelled theatRE.” – Wendy Ishii, co-founder, Bas Bleu Theatre Company, Fort Collins
  • “I named our company Vintage Theatre because I wanted to pay homage to my mentor, Amnon Kabatchnik, and that was the name of his touring company in the Finger Lakes region of New York.” – Craig Bond, founder, Vintage Theatre, Aurora
  • “I’ve always spelled the word TheatRE. But it could be my British husband’s influence. I find a lot of my words suddenly have The Queen’s English spelling.” – Susan Lyles, founder, And Toto too Theatre Company

Bonus: A few naming nuggets from Colorado history

  • Creede Repertory Theatre: The company was founded in 1966 as a desperate attempt by the local Jaycees to save the town as silver mining was drying up. The Jaycees sent a letter to universities within a thousand miles, hoping some excited students would answer the call to operate a summer company on Main Street. University of Kansas theatre student Steve Grossman was the only one to respond. The Jaycees originally called the project Operation Summer TheatER, which was changed to Creede Repertory TheatRE in 1968. “We company members were delighted NOT to be called an ‘operation’ anymore,” said Kay Lancaster. “We wanted to be recognized as a repertory theatre, and we also wanted Creede in the title. Creede Repertory TheatRE had the perfect ring to it. And I will always remember how many folks in Creede called us the “THEE-A-TER kids.”
  • The Bug Theatre: In 1994, The Bug Performance and Media Art Center debuted in what originally opened in 1912 as a nickelodeon movie house in 1912. After several variations, the neighborhood children nicknamed it “The Bug House,” and the name stuck. In 1994, it was incorporated as “The Bug Performance and Media Art Center,” which was an accurate name, “but a pain in the butt to say answering the phone,” said Executive Director Alex Weimer. From 1994-98, the building was called The Bug TheatER. “When we started our theatRE company in 1998, we wanted to have an entity under yet separate from The Bug,” said Weimer. “We were punks. We were driven. We did not understand the business of a non-profit organization, but we were motivated and ready to explore. We called ourselves The Bug TheatRE Company, spelled the arsty-fartsy way, because several of us were in the blushing bloom of our adulthood of creativity and embraced our pretentiousness in a manner that takes the piss right out of it. At least, I thought so at the time. Anyway, when artist and designer Kenn Penn re-did the facade of the building around 2003, he cut the logo from one-quarter-inch steel and we stuck with the name “The Bug Theatre.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

What’s in a name? Here is the current Colorado roll call:


And Toto too Theatre
Bas Bleu Theatre Company
Benchmark Theatre
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company
Breckenridge Backstage Theatre
Bug Theatre
Cherry Creek Theatre
Counterweight Theatre Lab
Creede Reprtory Theatre
Curious Theatre Company
Cygnet Theatre
Dangerous Theatre
DCPA Theatre Company
Denver Children’s Theatre*
Dog Star Theatre
Elaine Wolf Theatre
Equinox Theatre Company
Fearless Theatre
Fine Arts Center Theatre Company at Colorado College
Jesters Dinner Theatre
Lake Dillon Theatre Company
Little Theatre of The Rockies
Longmont Theatre Company
Moon Theatre Company
OpenStage Theatre & Company
Phamaly Theatre Company
Pop Up Theatre
Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater
Sphinx’s Riddle Theatre Company
Springs Ensemble Theatre
square product theatre company
The Source Theatre Company
Theatre Aspen
Theatre Or
Thingamajig Theatre Company
Thunder River Theatre Company
Upstart Crow Theatre Company
Vintage Theatre
Viva Theatre


Avenue Theater*
Buntport Theater
Coal Creek Theater of Louisville
The Edge Theater Company*
Emancipation Theater Company
Firehouse Theater Company
Fountain Theater
Funky Little Theater Company
Inspire Theater Company
Local Theater Company
One Night Stand Theater
Spotlight Theater
Theater 29
Theater Company of Lafayette


5280 Artists Co-Op
5th Wall Productions
Adams Mystery Playhouse
Arvada Center
The Athena Project
Aurora Fox Arts Center
Band of Toughs
BDT Stage
The Bitsy Stage
Black Actors Guild
Candlelight Dinner Playhouse
The Catamounts
Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Control Group
The Curtain Playhouse
The Dinner Detective
Evergreen Players
Germinal Stage-Denver
Grapefruit Lab
Iron Springs Chateau
Lone Tree Arts Center
Magic Moments
Midtown Arts Center
Miners Alley Playhouse
Northglenn Arts
OvationWest Performing Arts
Parker Arts
Peak to Peak Players
Performance Now
Pipedream Productions
Platte Valley Players
Sis Tryst
Stories on Stage
Su Teatro
Theatrix USA
Town Hall Arts Center
UpstART (Ouray)

*Recently closed company