As far as I know British people "go to the theatre" meaning "go to see a stage play" but for Americans theater is a place where you can watch either a movie or a play. So would an American say "Would you like to see a play?" instead of "go to the theater?" Another question When someone says "Chicago is famous for theaters" how do I know if he's talking about live stage theater or a movie theater?

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    Nobody in America says theater when they are talking about going to see a movie until the context has been established. I.e., one might say, "Do you want to go see a movie? We can meet you at the theater." Also, musicals may also be seen in theaters. – Jim Nov 14 '13 at 7:12
  • @Jim But what do you normally call the place where you see a film/movie? I remember a time when they were called 'movie houses'. I don't think 'cinema' was ever too popular in America. So are they now movie-theatres? 'Cinema' is still the accepted term in Britain. If you used 'film-theatre' it would imply something intellectually up-market such as at a University or the National Film Theatre. (I assume it is still in existence). – WS2 Nov 14 '13 at 7:26
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    @WS2- Of course it's a movie theater. But nobody ever says, "Let's go to the theater" when they mean the movies unless they've already established that they are talking about the movie theater (which is the physical place, not the activity) Hey, the movie starts at 1:00, let's head over to the theater. – Jim Nov 14 '13 at 7:30
  • I didn't ask about going to the movies! I asked about seeing a play in a theater. What phrases are used for it? – Peter Nov 14 '13 at 8:32
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    I (an American) would say "would you like to go to a play". – Peter Shor Nov 14 '13 at 10:42

In the US, theater has two distinct meanings in this context

the legitimate theater, as distinguished from films, TV, etc. (often with the)


a place where plays, operas, films, etc. are presented; esp., a building or outdoor structure expressly designed for such presentations

When talking about seeing a live dramatic play (including musicals and comedies), it would be perfectly fine and common to say either

Would you like to see a play?


Would you like to go to the theater?

If you were talking about seeing a film, a person would most commonly say

  • Would you like to see a movie?
  • Would you like to see a film?
  • Would you like to go to a movie?
  • Would you like to go to the movies?

You might say would you like to go to the movie theater, but that would sound a bit stilted to most US ears.

The use of the term the theater, wiuthout more context, would almost always mean seeing a live dramatic performance.

The term theater is often used to refer to the venues where films and musical concerts are performed or displayed.

  • What theater (or movie theater) is that film playing in?
  • I'll pick up my tickets for the film at the theater
  • The concert was held in the newly renovated theater

However, reference to going to the theater, without more, conveys the type of entertainment, a dramatic play, comedy or musical, not the building.

The statement, Chicago is famous for its theater [singular] would refer to the wealth of good dramatic presentations. Chicago is famous for its theaters [plural] would likely refer to the architecture where drama, film and concerts are performed, although some might interpret that to mean good drama.

  • If C had only one theater (building) then "C is famous for its theater" would refer to either the good presentations or the architecture. – Mario Elocio Nov 14 '13 at 21:35

Going to see a play is uncommon enough in the US that from my experience one person would say to the other, "Would you like to go and see |name of play|?"

It's not that theater-going is a rare occurence so much as it is a part of the infrastructure for seeing plays. As a rule, there are not theater districts in major cities. (Chicago and New York are obvious exceptions.) One does not go to the theater expecting to watch what is available... one goes to the theater with a foreknowledge of what will be there.

Otherwise, the phrases "would you like to go and see a play?" and "would you like to go and see a musical?" are the ones I would expect to hear from a friend.

  • THEAO,I find your opinion surprising. In my circle of friends it is quite common to say "go to see a play" (in my language of course). I mean there are people who frequently go to the live stage theater so sometimes you just feel like seeing a play but you don't mean any specific play. You know there are a few great theaters in the city and there's always something good on. "I would like to go and see a good play this weekend. Let's see what's on." Why would that sort of talk sound uncommon in the US? – Peter Nov 14 '13 at 9:50
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    @Peter I'm not saying that it would... Based on your question, I was under the impression that you were asking for an American's opinion on whether I would expect to hear "would you like to see a play?" vs "would you like to go to the theater?" ......... but your comment clearly asks about "I would like to see a play this weekend". That sounds correct to me. If you had stated "I would like to go to the theater this weekend," then that would sound a little bit unnatural. – THEAO Nov 14 '13 at 9:57
  • That's exactly what I asked for. – Peter Nov 14 '13 at 10:00

I consulted the dictionary and learned that the word theatre is widely used for stage plays. In US, Australia and New Zealand, "theatre" is the usual word for cinema (but not always, right?). Cinema is strictly for films while theatre can refer also to cinema.

So the factors to consider would be:

  1. The context.
  2. The country/place you're in.

If you are not really sure and you cannot determine (given all the factors) if a person talks about live stage theatre or movie theatre, I think it will not hurt to ask him.

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    Two Americans in the US (context is clear) talk about going to the live stage theater. What I would like to know is how one of them would say that he wants to go/see a play at a live theater. – Peter Nov 14 '13 at 9:53
  • If I were to say it, and I am using it always, I would use the word "play". "Come and let's see a play!". It is also valid. – Lester Nubla Nov 14 '13 at 10:07

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