McCarter Theatre Center shifts to ‘mask optional,’ lifting long-standing COVID-19 mandate – The Daily Princetonian

McCarter Theatre Center will no longer require audience members to wear masks during performances, per new COVID-19 protocols implemented on Sept. 15. The previously enforced mask mandate had been in place since September of last year, when McCarter first reopened to the public.

“After careful consideration, McCarter has made the decision to become mask optional,” wrote McCarter staff in an email sent to patrons last week. The message went on to specify that the venue continues to “strongly encourage the wearing of masks.” 

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According to Debbie Bisno, McCarter’s Director of University and Artistic Partnerships, and Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, many factors contributed to the recent relaxation of the theater’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“As a public performing arts venue on Princeton’s campus, sharing space with many University partners across multiple departments, we consider a range of factors in making our COVID policy decisions,” they wrote in a joint statement to The Daily Princetonian. Some of these factors included “artist and staff safety, CDC recommendations, patron feedback and preference, PU campus protocol, industry standards,” they said.

Within the world of performing arts, McCarter has remained more cautious than many peers: Broadway’s mask mandate was lifted in July, with many major theaters and concert halls nationwide abandoning audience masking requirements even sooner.

At McCarter, an upcoming production of “The Wolves,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a women’s high school soccer team, will be the first show affected by updated guidelines. Saturday’s opening night marks the first show performed in front of unmasked audience members since 2020.

“The Wolves” has put on four preview performances this week, and according to Rasmussen (who directed the production) and Bisno, most attendees of these preliminary showings have seemed “excited” and “comfortable” with the change.

“[P]atrons are buying tickets for the rest of the run, and the season programming through Spring of 2023, knowing the mask-optional policy. So there is a willingness — and perhaps an eagerness … among the public to attend live performance again without a mask,” they shared. “That said, we are also noticing patrons (of all ages) at the preview performances who are more comfortable wearing a mask throughout the show.”

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“It is clear,” they added, that “everyone appreciates having the option.”

“The Wolves” will additionally hold four mask-required performances on Sept. 27 and 28, as well as Oct. 4 and 8. According to Gina Pisasale, McCarter’s Director of Equity and Organizational Culture, these masked performances are key to “providing access” to viewers of all comfort levels and health situations.

“After 2 years among this global pandemic, regional theaters are in a critical existential moment to recall audiences (and among them, funders) with varying expectations, perspectives, and capacities around COVID safety,” Pisasale wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

The theater has also taken measures to ensure performers’ comfort and safety. At the request of cast members, since the change in audience masking protocol, the actors have begun daily rapid testing, in addition to continuing the previous surveillance protocol of three PCR tests a week. Additionally, backstage areas and the rehearsal room remain mask-mandated spaces.

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The theater has not yet made a decision as to whether designating select showings as mask-mandated will be replicated in future productions, according to Bisno and Rasmussen. However, they reported that there has been notable demand for tickets on “masked nights” of “The Wolves.” 

“It is an incredibly delicate balance to strike. But the stakes are high and we are doing our best to listen and meet our artists, our community, and our organizational needs in this moment,” Pisasale wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Tess Weinreich is an assistant news editor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at tw7353@princeton.edu.

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