The former Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has a new name and shifts to the ER camp.
October 21, 2021
By Rohan Preston Star Tribune
After struggling, like every other theater, through the COVID-19 uncertainties, the former Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company has re-emerged with a new name and reaffirmed mission of exploring universal themes through a Jewish lens.
It is now the Six Points Theater Company — a nod to the Star of David — and opens its much delayed production this weekend of Charlie Varon's "The People's Violin," headlined by actor J.C. Cutler.
JC Cutler plays Sol Shank in "The People's Violin" at six Points Theater, which was formerly known as Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Sarah Whiting photo.
The name change for a longstanding arts institution is not unique. The Plymouth Music Series became VocalEssence. And after decades, the former Bloomington Civic Theatre is now known as Artistry.
But the Minnesota Jewish Theatre has not just changed its name, but also the spelling of the purpose for which it exists. Theatre has given way to theater, raising evergreen questions about the distinction between the two spellings — questions that sometimes confound lovers of the performing arts.
"I would have to say that when I founded the theater, I didn't think very much about [the spelling]," said Barbara Brooks, artistic director of the company that she incorporated in 1994. "Should it be theatre with an -re or theater with an -er. It just felt a little more official with the -re. It seemed to me there's a deep tradition of theater in Britain, and that's how it should be spelled."
I say to-MAY-to, you say to-MAH-to?
There's a British and American divide around the spelling, with -re preferred in countries that were part of the former British empire — Canada, India, Jamaica and South Africa. Americans, on the other hand, generally are in the "er" camp.
While "the continental -re spelling might sound highfalutin, -er signals a connection to the common person," said University of Minnesota theater professor Sonja Kuftinec, who did a deep dive into the subject about 15 years ago. Her conclusion?
There's no real difference between the usages.
"For me, the -re has always meant the craft and the -er has always meant the building, so that's why I chose -re for Penumbra," said Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy. "There's a little bit of class that's associated with that English spelling. I know some theater artists view the -re spelling as kind of snooty. I don't."
There's also a distinction between the place where plays and musicals take place and the space where movies are shown. Additionally, -er is used in war parlance to denote a separate place of action, like, say, the Pacific theater.
In the Twin Cities, performing arts companies are all over the place with their spelling (the Star Tribune, like most American newspapers, uses -er spelling in general unless it's part of a name). Companies such as Mixed Blood and the History Theatre are -re while the Guthrie, the Jungle and Latté Da use -er.
There is seemingly no rhyme or reason.
"It's like an Abbot and Costello routine — nobody really knows," said History Theatre artistic director Ron Peluso.
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher says that for him, one spelling feels ordinary, the other an affectation.
"I always feel I'm supposed to put on a vest and tie when I say theatre," said Hatcher. "There's just a little part of me that thinks there's something pompous about theatre. I have a pompous enough demeanor."
Sometimes the reason for a particular spelling is random or glib.
"To be honest, we were at BLB [the Bryant-Lake Bowl] for a cabaret and they said, 'we need a name for the calendar,'" said Theater Latté Da founder Peter Rothstein. "I think it was the waiter who said, 'Well, you ordered a latte, how about theater latte da?' That was 25 years ago, and I've been trying to change it ever since."
Jack Reuler was 22 when he founded Mixed Blood Theatre in 1976. He does not quite remember how he made the choice.
"I'm sure I used the Yellow Pages and copied what someone else did," he said.
For Lynn Lohr, who founded the History Theatre with playwright Lance Belleville in 1978, the spelling choice was based on aesthetics.
"I guess I liked the way it looked better — maybe I'm old school or maybe because it's dealing with history," she added.
That has left a bit of a headache. Peluso, the longtime artistic director of the History Theatre, says he constantly reminds actors who list the company on their résumés that they should hew to the proper spelling.
While the choice between an -er and -re may be flip for some, it is given some deep thought by others. When Rhiana Yazzie was founding New Native Theatre, she wanted to nod to the history of Indigenous performing arts companies.
"A lot of First Nations companies spell it with -re, and I wanted to very much pay homage to the First Nations theater artists and mentors who paved the way," said Yazzie. "Native theater in the dominant society is not really taken seriously, so if we can do that with switching out two letters, maybe we won't be viewed as community theater or a space, like a movie theater."
The etymology of the word theater points to its purpose and function in the place where western theater originated. "Theasthai" is Greek for "to behold" while "theatron" is a place to view things. Those words and concepts passed into Latin and French.
The linguistic heritage shows up not just in English, but also in Spanish. Teatro del Pueblo is a Latinx company based in St. Paul.
Wendy Knox, founder of Frank Theatre, said that her company owns the web domain for both spellings because she wanted to make sure she was able to capture anyone looking for Frank.
"We spell it with an -re in all of our stuff but we get checks written to -er and we cash them," Knox said. "It's not a big deal to us. Pretension does not really fit Frank."
For Brooks of Six Points Theater, the change to an -er spelling is a sort of coming home.
"When we changed the name, the board and I talked about it, and we felt that -er was more traditionally the way it's spelled in America," Brooks said. "This type of name change announces our evolution and we hope that it will help people understand the character and identity of who we are. We're not a theater just for Minnesota. Fifty percent of our audience is not Jewish. We don't want anyone to erroneously feel that they weren't welcomed."
'The People's Violin' Who: By Charlie Varon. Directed by Warren C. Bowles. When: 8 p.m. Sat., 1 & 7 p.m. Sun., 1 p.m. Tue., 7:30 p.m. Wed. & Thu. Ends Nov. 14. Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul. Protocol: Proof of vaccination. Masks required. Tickets: $23-$38. 651-647-4315 or mnjewishtheatre.org.
Rohan Preston covers theater for the Star Tribune.