The NYC Play That Seats Its Audience in a Ball Pit Gives In, Suspends Performances

In a massive pit of brown balls, a man emerges as two other people sit, partially submerged in the balls, nearby.
Alex J. Moreno, center, in the ball pit. Hunter Canning

New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that all mass gatherings involving more than 500 people will be banned and that Broadway theaters must close until mid-April to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The mandate came a day after a Broadway usher who had worked two separate shows tested positive for the coronavirus and as producers like Scott Rudin slashed ticket prices to combat dwindling audience attendance. Smaller, off-Broadway theaters, on the other hand, were left to make their own decisions about whether to keep the lights on.

One show that surprised observers by staying open for this long was The Fre, written by MacArthur Genius grant recipient Taylor Mac and staged at the The Flea Theater. The play follows “a rambunctious group of fun loving anti-intellectuals [who] spend their days cavorting in the mud,” represented by a ball pit in which audience members mingle with the performers. Though the website promises that the pit is sanitized before each performance with “a professional-grade disinfectant,” the Flea (like many other off-Broadway houses) announced Friday that The Fre and other productions have in fact been suspended starting March 14 until April 2.

I spoke to Mac to find out more about the story behind the ball pit and the reasoning behind continuing to perform for as long as possible. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rachelle Hampton: Tell me a bit about The Fre and the ball pit.

Taylor Mac: I grew up in a place that wasn’t very welcoming to me as a queer. I went to New York City and my life has turned out pretty good as a result. But the place that I came from, it’s still really struggling. And I guess I’ve always wondered what my responsibility was to stay and hang out and try to make the place I was raised a better place. [The Fre] was commissioned by a children’s theater, and I wanted to write a play that no one would’ve shown me as a queer kid growing up in this town that was pretty homophobic, so that’s what I did.

I set the play in a mud pit because one of my husband’s favorite memories as a child was wrestling in a mud pit with a bunch of other kids, so it was kind of my present to him. But then when I finished writing it just didn’t seem like asking actors to hang out in mud for … I’ve had to do that for a show and it’s just unpleasant. And the theater that was producing it in New York, they weren’t really excited about having mud in the theater, and I want this to be produced by more than just one theater. So, I was like, “OK, what’s a better solution? What metaphorically could we use?” I wanted some of the audience to be able to sit in the pit and throw things. Mud just gets in people’s eyes. You could use goggles and all that stuff, but it just seemed annoying. Everyone would have rashes. Even if you use clean mud, that’s a 10-minute experience, not an hour-and-a-half experience.

When kids are in the ball pit, you see their faces just light up. It’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them. It’s thrilling. And adults don’t really get to play so much anymore. We’re so serious about our playing. I thought maybe there’s a way that these two worlds can exist together and inside this ball pit. And it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen a play staged in a ball pit. It allows for so many different things, like entrances and exits from the ground up, and it changes the movement—they’re really noisy. You have to say what you want to say and then move, rather than move while you’re talking, which is very Elizabethan. I think theater is about surprise, so I’m always trying to surprise the audience and it really does that.

One not-so-great surprise affecting the show is the coronavirus.

If coronavirus was out last year, we probably would have postponed the production, or we would have come up with another solution. But to be honest—and this is the kind of annoying part of it all—the balls are actually really clean. They’re not like your childhood balls that you remember where everyone got colds. The balls that we’re using are called the GermBlock balls and they’re antimicrobial, so they resist germs and germs don’t cling to them.

So you’re in the ball pit and the germs that are in the room that day are there. But the germs from yesterday are not there. We clean the balls every day. The ball pit in some ways is the cleanest place to be in the room, because the theater chairs had the germs from the last 50 performances, but the balls actually don’t. Of course, now everyone’s cleaning their chairs too. But now everything’s shut down, so it doesn’t matter.

There was a lot of assumptions like, “Oh, how dare you? How could you do this in this time?” And we were getting annoying social media people that were saying these things. And they don’t know the reality of the situation is that there’s more germs on your phone than there are in the ball pit. But you can’t convince people of that. They just believe what they think they know. That’s the reality of our world. Hopefully after this blows over, assuming it does, we’ll get to do another production and people will calm down and there won’t be such a deal because it is just a blast. It’s so much fun.

Before the gubernatorial decree, what was your decision-making process like as to how long to keep the show going? Were you concerned at all?

Well, it’s a choice. The audience can sit on the sideline, they can sit in regular seating, or they can sit in the pit. We were talking about eliminating the audience sitting in the pit. That would mean we’d have to change the set. We’d have to increase the number of seats that were in the audience and shrink the pit. But we felt like we could do that. None of the actors have gotten sick. They’re in the pit more than anybody. We felt like that was a reasonable compromise for what we’re being told by the city. And now just not gathering seems like it’s the right solution, so now all theaters, even ones that are a hundred seats are shut down right now. We’re doing one more show tonight. We had two casts and so we wanted to give each cast one last show. We gave one cast their last show last night and tonight we have one last show with the other cast.

Had ticket sales changed at all as coronavirus fears have escalated?

No, we were basically sold out. But what we found was that cancellations were happening a little bit here and there. Basically until last night, until Donald Trump’s announcement and the city put out a huge kind of guidance, until Broadway shut down, we were packed. We were sold out every night and there was always maybe five people that didn’t show up or something like that. But then last night we had our smallest audience we’ve had. People still had fun. They had a good time.

What do you think about Broadway shutting down?

Broadway’s been through a lot. It’ll recoup. I’m not worried about Broadway. I mean, having worked on Broadway, I certainly didn’t make a lot of money like people think that you do, but I made enough to weather a financial storm. I’m not really worried about the Broadway performers so much if this doesn’t go on too long. I’m more worried about the downtown performers. I heard a young woman the other day at The Flea who said she had three jobs. Yesterday she had three jobs and today she has no jobs.

I’m worried about the people who are living week to week and not just in our industry the theater, but in all the industries. How are they going to pay their bills? So, I’m working with some friends and we’re going to try to figure out how to create some kind of financial help for some artists that are really struggling. We’ve got to rally our resources and try to figure out how to pick people up. Are people even going to be able to eat? That is a question that’s real for a lot of the downtown artists.

I’d say, “Oh, boohoo me, my poor play got shut down,” but there is some kind of comfort in knowing that everybody’s in the same boat and that everyone’s worked really hard on all their plays and they’ve shut down and somehow we’re going to figure this out together. I’m sad but optimistic.