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America's Got Talent is returning to the Dolby Theatre with a live audience for season 16's live shows.
The NBC franchise will kick off the first of six weeks for the quarterfinal rounds of competition on Tuesday, with 36 acts scheduled to perform at the Los Angeles venue — and no one is "happier" to be returning to the Dolby again than the cast and crew.
As the show moves forward with a bit of normalcy amid the ongoing COVID crisis, executive producers Jason Raff and Sam Donnelly, as well as host Terry Crews and veteran judge Howie Mandel, tell PEOPLE about how the rest of season 16 will be different than season 15, which filmed the Judge Cuts on a drive-in theater in Simi Valley and rest of the competition on lots at Universal Studios Hollywood last summer at the height of the pandemic.
"The biggest thing that we are looking forward to is that we have figured out a safe way to once again have a live audience. Our audience will be made up of fully vaccinated and masked individuals and we can't wait to bring this excitement back to the Dolby Theatre," the EPs say about making the theatre "feel alive with their applause and enthusiasm."
Though Universal Studios was a one-time switch-up after COVID shut down many productions in California, "it certainly was the best and most creative way to turn a very difficult situation into something fantastic, while providing some much-needed escapism to families across America," they say.
The attendance and participation of a live audience are in stark contrast to last season, when there were little to no people clapping or responding. Later on, in season 15, virtual fan walls were included on set with viewers streaming in from their own homes.
Though the COVID pandemic is still ongoing, AGT will be returning to a live audience starting Tuesday.
"We are happy to say that there are many elements to the season that provide a sense that things are getting back to normal," Raff and Donnelly say. "For one, we had an audience for our early taped shows, and we will have one again for the upcoming live shows. It's great to see the way these fans respond to our judges, as well as the performers. It really provides an electricity throughout the theatre, and every day we are witnessing extraordinary acts who are being given the opportunity to chase their dreams on the world's most prominent stage."
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Crews, 53, credits the return to normalcy to Raff and Donnelly, as well as those working behind the scenes.
"What happened last season was so many mishaps— with Heidi [Klum] going down [due to illness], Simon [Cowell] going down [due to a bike accident and back surgery] and the audience going down," the Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor says. "But what was so beautiful and wonderful was that the crew and everybody involved, there was no quitting. It was amazing to watch, it was like, the show must go on. In fact, we're going to do this and figure it out. Raff and the crew do not get enough credit. They just don't. It's like pulling off the Oscars every week. What they did [during the pandemic] was a miracle. They did not get enough credit last year."
And Mandel, 65, calls this current season the "Sweet 16" installment.
"Are you kidding me? Last season was ... the fact that we got together to do the show, we were the first people back in production. We were the first people to help create the COVID protocol. We have the most responsible, talented production crew who constantly think outside the box. That was great that we got to do it," the comedian says. "But this year is the icing on the cake, this year we are back."
And the EPs couldn't agree more.
"We couldn't be happier about this. Being back at the Dolby is definitely a homecoming we are all looking forward to. The theater has been our home for many seasons, and we love being able to transform this space each week throughout the summer," they tell PEOPLE. "This is all combined with a team of producers that work with the contestants to fine-tune their act, helping them to become the best they can possibly be. The team's creativity, artistic nature and mechanical abilities is truly unparalleled within the industry."
Despite the hoops that the cast and crew went through amid the pandemic, Mandel says it best: "[AGT] is the biggest joy, there's been nothing as soul-feeding as the show is."
America's Got Talent airs Tuesdays (8 p.m. ET) on NBC.