To Mask, or Not to Mask: Theaters and Concert Halls Face a Dilemma
The new masking policy at “The Kite Runner” on Broadway was devised at the doctor’s office.
Tracey McFarland, one of the show’s producers, was taking her son to his pediatrician, a theater buff. The pediatrician told her that while he would have liked to see the play, he would not attend if masks were optional, as they are at most Broadway shows these days. That got McFarland thinking: Why couldn’t they put on some performances at which masks are required, and others where masks are optional? She brought up the idea with colleagues.
“Everybody on the phone was like, ‘You know, I’ve had friends who have been asking for that,’” McFarland said, recalling one of the conversations that led to the show’s decision to start requiring masks on Fridays. “We just realized that there really is an audience out there that is not being served.”
The coronavirus continues to pose a dilemma for arts presenters entering their second season after the long pandemic shutdown: They know that some audience members will be deterred by mask requirements at a time when they have vanished from so many other settings, while others will be reluctant to attend indoor performances if masks are not required. Whatever they decide to do, they risk alienating some ticket buyers.
The early unanimity that governed mask and vaccination rules when live performance first returned has given way to a variety of approaches. Broadway theaters (with a few exceptions) dropped their vaccine requirement on May 1 and their mask mandate on July 1. But theatergoers who went to the Park Avenue Armory this summer to see “Hamlet” and the “Oresteia” were asked both to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.
The Public Theater split the difference this summer at Free Shakespeare in the Park, requiring people to show proof of vaccination before entering the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, but not calling for masks to be worn during the performances, which are held outdoors.
Several of New York’s most venerable classical music institutions are doing the reverse: The Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center all plan to require patrons to wear masks, but will not ask them for proof of vaccination.
Deborah Borda, the New York Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, said that the orchestra was guided by audience research and consultations with infectious disease experts who advised that “as the efficacy of some of the vaccine has waned with the new variants, the strongest tool we have in the tool kit is the masks.”
“People say, ‘Well, sports venues are dropping the use of masks’ — those are very young audiences,” Borda said. “Our audiences might not be as young. We did quite a bit of audience research, and we have found that our audiences, in fact, are more comfortable with masks.”
The same is true at the Metropolitan Opera, where Peter Gelb, its general manager, said recent audience surveys showed that a “clear majority” wanted mandatory masking to continue. But the Met decided that it no longer needed to do vaccine checks, which had become burdensome by slowing entry into the opera house, since it believes most people buying tickets to the Met have been vaccinated. “We feel we’re covered,” he said.
“I’m sure there are some outliers who won’t come to the Met because they don’t want to wear a mask,” Mr. Gelb said. But he said that he believes there is relative “mask harmony” among operagoers. “Age is a factor,” he said. “Older audiences feel safer wearing masks. And our younger audiences are respectful of that.”
Some organizations, including San Francisco Opera, are still holding on to both mask and vaccination requirements. Matthew Shilvock, the opera’s general director, acknowledged that “life around us is becoming increasingly mask-free,” but said the company felt that the protocols were still needed.
“If a singer goes out with Covid, they are out for 10 days and that can mean they lose three performances,” he said. “Our recent audience survey also indicated a very strong desire for continued safety protocols in the auditorium.”
At many concert venues, masks have become a relic of the past. At Madison Square Garden, where Harry Styles is playing for 15 nights, masks have long been optional, and few were in evidence among the many boas his ardent fans wore to the concerts.
“The Kite Runner” is not the only show experimenting with offering both masks-only and masks-optional performances. Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, Mass., has been offering masks-required performances twice a week in its indoor spaces.
“You find that people are either very emotional about having to wear masks or very emotional about people not being masked around them,” said Allyn Burrows, Shakespeare & Company’s artistic director. “And you never know where that split is going to happen.”
Mr. Burrows said that his company, which previously had a mask mandate, began hearing complaints about it shortly after the Broadway League announced that it was making masking optional. Some patrons wrote in to say they would never come to the theater again if it continued to require masks; others said that they would stay away indefinitely if masks were optional. But after the company began splitting up its calendar with shows geared toward both audiences, he said, “the feedback dropped off entirely.”
Mr. Burrows said Shakespeare & Company had gotten the idea to require masks at select performances from Hartford Stage in Connecticut, which had been offering two masked performances per week. Cynthia Rider, Hartford’s managing director, said she could count on “one or two hands” the number of people who said that they would not have come to the theater had officials not offered a mask-mandatory performance.
“There are people who feel very strongly about it, but it’s a small number,” she said. That is why the company is planning to go a different route when its fall season begins, when it plans to make masking optional.
At “The Kite Runner,” the decision to require masks on Fridays was met with so much positive feedback that the show decided to add a mask mandate for Wednesday matinees as well.
At a mask-mandated performance of “The Kite Runner” last Friday, staff members scanning tickets just inside the theater were once again asking patrons who arrived without a mask if they had one. They had a supply of black masks on hand for anyone who had come unprepared. Further inside the theater, staff members wore buttons that said “MASK UP” and held signs in the aisles reminding people to wear their masks during the performance.
“We are masking on Fridays,” an attendant told one woman who had managed to make it well inside the theater without a mask on her face. The woman apologized and drew out a mask from her purse.
Rina Park, 26, of the Bronx, said that when she and her friends bought tickets for “The Kite Runner,” they had not known that they would need to wear masks for the performance. But when the show announced the masks would be required, they were relieved, in part because one member of their group lives with someone who is immunocompromised.
“We’ve been very safe,” Ms. Park said of her and her friends. “I still keep my mask on indoors all the time.”
So far, producers said things have gone smoothly at the performances of the “The Kite Runner” at which masks are required. One of the producers, Victoria Lang, said that adding the mask requirement to some performances did not yet appear to have had any impact on ticket sales to those performances.
But the show has sold at least one ticket to a patron who otherwise would not have come. Dr. Marc Wager, the pediatrician whose refusal to attend a mask-optional performance had helped inspire the producers to require masks at some shows, attended a masked performance on Friday.
Feeling emboldened, Dr. Wager said, he had emailed the producer of another Broadway show whose children he cares for, noting that “The Kite Runner” was now requiring masks at select performances.
“Maybe you want to, too,” he wrote.