Thursday, July 21, 2011

North Coast Journal's War on Theatre

My Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal appeared this week with one repeated editorial change: every time I wrote "theatre," the Journal changed it to "theater."

This was done without consulting with me or notifying me in advance.  I did receive some forwarded emails debating the matter, apparently forwarded by my editor, but these arrived when the column was already being printed.  (In fact, I had no prior knowledge that the column was running at all in this issue.  Nor have I had responses to recent emails to my editor asking specific questions, in particular about a shortfall on my last check.  These forwards were my first indication in over a week that my editor still existed.)

One of the emails contained the response I believe came from Ryan Burns, recent interim editor and feature writer, who was apparently a party to this discussion.  Here's that statement:

"For some time now, Journal style has been to use theatre to describe the art of theatre, which is what every theatre company in Humboldt County does, and to use theater to describe a building - unless of course the theatre company uses the traditional British spelling, which pretty much all of them do. We went through all this years ago when our theatre columnist Bill Kowinski insisted that he prefers to use theatre. Does the Humboldt State Department of Theatre, Film and Dance teach theater or theatre? Do we really need to open up the debate again?"

I can answer one question: the HSU Department of Theatre, Film and Dance teaches theatre.   The statement is correct about  "every theatre company in Humboldt County"-at least every active theatre company uses "theatre."  So what's this all about?

The justification for "theater" is the Associated Press Stylebook, something of a Bible for newspapers, which decrees the use of "theater" except if contradicted by an official name, as in "Van Duzer Theatre."  It's become common practice in newspapers, including the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.  So it could reasonably be a move towards standard practice.

On the other hand, in the theatre world, it's still mostly theatre. It certainly is on the North Coast.  Even the rule previously followed at the Journal, which is also widely accepted--that "theatre" is the art form, and "theater" is the building--runs into the complications mentioned--that many buildings have "theatre" in their names.

At the Journal, my sense when this topic has come up before--and all I really recall is the sarcasm involved--is the conviction on the part of some of the NCJ hierarchy that using "theatre" is pretentious, snooty and arty--and I suppose by extension, so are the people who prefer it.

The "theatre" spelling comes from British practice, and "theater" from Noah Webster's crusade for American English forms.  Movie theaters have been theaters pretty much from the beginning.  But theatre has a different history.

Given the consequences of global warming or of the current march of the morons on Capitol Hill dragging us all into the abyss, the reverse of these two letters is not a compelling issue.  It is perhaps a ludicrous one and seemingly a needless one, and I question why it was raised, and certainly how it was handled.

This was also imposed for the first time on a column in which I used the word "theatre" many more times than usual.  It was also rare in that I didn't use the full names of local theatres and theatre organizations, which left untested the principle that the Journal doesn't have the right to change the names that others give to their organizations or venues.

What it did was to change every instance of "theatre" in my signed column to another spelling, without discussing it and without even telling me in advance. What the Journal does in its news columns or listings is not my affair.  My column is.  So at the very least, I announce to readers of this blog, including those members of the North Coast theatrical community and readers of the North Coast Journal--that I did not approve of the changes in my column.  Maybe I could have been persuaded, but I wasn't given that opportunity.

 So it's still theatre with me.  And it will continue to be.  So every time you read "theater" in my column, you may rest assured that I did not write it that way.

And so I post here my column as I wrote it.  I've added one sort of change, though--I use the full names of local theatres, to emphasize the petulant absurdity of this editorial and dictatorial change. 

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