The Difference Between Theatre and Theater
Theatre versus Theater. Among our many performing arts clients, the choice of spelling is evenly divided. Let's look at the history and the precise difference between theatre and theater and the etymology of the words.
Much of the performing arts found its way to modern day theater through the Greek tragedies. Fittingly, the name is rooted in the ancient Greek term meaning "to behold" or "theasthai." The root of "theasthai" itself is "thea" which means "a view" or "a seeing." Another term sharing this root is "theates" or "spectator." Coupled with the suffix "+tron" which denotes "a place," we can combine it with thea to arrive at the Greek word, "theatron", or a "viewing place." Latin extended that root word to theatrum, and by the time the 14th century rolled around, old French gave rise to "theatre" and borrowed from the aforementioned "theates" to mean "an open-air place in ancient times for viewing spectacles and plays."
While William Shakespeare's plays were being performed to full houses in the 16th century, many English terms began reversing the "-re" spelling in words such as centre, fibre and our beloved, theatre. (Interestingly, around 100 years after this time, the term began to indicate "a place of war" such as the Pacific or European theaters during WWII.)
So, what is the difference in meaning between the terms? In a nutshell, they are identical. However, some venues prefer to use the term theatre as a way of indicating a focus on the performing arts. Conversely, most movie houses prefer the American English version, theater, in order to convey a place for cinema.
This raises the idea of language preferences. In general, geographic regions based on British English prefer the "-re" spelling. This is true of Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., of course, and -- despite its proximity to the United States -- even Canada uses the British "-re".
In the United States today, we commonly see both spellings with a slight preference for theater although many new performing arts spaces may prefer theatre to differentiate between cinema. And in parts of the Southwest, we might even see the Spanish word, teatro, to provide a sense of the region's Mexican heritage.
Finally, if we look at the usage of the word over time with respect to Google search frequency, we can see a clear pattern in the rise of the word, theater. Is a movement underway to move away from olde English? Time will tell. In the end, the difference between theatre and theater is -- no difference!
Tomato. Tomato. Theatre. Theater.
Regardless of the words we choose, we probably all have one thing in common; we love the performing arts!