Content warning: Mentions of irregular/disordered eating. Deputy Arts Editor Avery Baumel reviews an MFA Directing Thesis at Columbia’s School of the Arts.

“Why would you do this again?” someone comments on hunger128942307’s live-stream. It is Day 1 of the streamer’s planned forty-day fast.

“I might ask you the same question,” he responds. 

What does it mean to make art? What does it mean to watch art? What if that art is explicitly, specifically centered around self-harm? Who decides if art is art? Does art have to mean something? Does it have to be explicable? Does the artist need to be perceived? Need to be liked? Is the viewer, in any way, part of the art? 

This is “A Hunger Artist,” a play that is a compelling adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story of the same name. Conceived by Yibin Wang (MFA ‘24) and playwright Michael Landes (MFА ‘24) with dramaturg Yi-Ming Chen (any artists not otherwise identified are not Columbia-affiliated), the play is Wang’s directing thesis at the School of the Arts. (Spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t already encountered Kafka’s story, it’s worth a read.)

Kafka’s Hunger Artist starves himself for forty days at a time, in a cage for public viewing. Though he thinks he could go longer, his impresario (manager/producer) limits him to forty days; the public, the impresario explains, won’t keep watching past that time. The public eventually becomes disinterested in professional fasting, so the Hunger Artist joins a circus. He has abandoned his impresario and now fasts indefinitely, beyond the forty days, and no one notices; he dies, neglected, in his cage, and is replaced by a passionate, fierce panther, who draws huge crowds.

Wang takes the same basic framework, but cleverly places his Hunger Artist in his bedroom, live-streaming his forty-day fasts 24/7 to an audience of viewers who can comment (“follow me I followed,” “who’s here from the last one!!”) and react with emojis.

We see H, as the streamer tells his audience to call him, in his bedroom and on his stream simultaneously. The space where a backdrop might normally hang is filled with a screen, reflecting what a viewer might see. The edges of the theater’s seating area often appear in the shadowy corners of the stream. Three actors dressed in all white sit in chairs on the stage as anonymous observers. The team of props designer Lingyi Wang (CC ‘24), scenic designer Qingan Zhang, and projection designers Luhan Rong, Chenyuan Yu, and Keer Zhao creates the perfect environment. This Hunger Artist isn’t in a cage; instead, he’s in a space that blurs the lines between audience and performance and between virtual and physical reality.

The play sets H in the beginning of his second attempt at the fast, the first having failed around day 30. This time, H promises, he’ll be more committed, and more “interesting.” He hires a manager (wonderfully played by Mari Blake) and tries audience-suggested activities, including ASMR, piano, and watching mukbangs. To gain publicity, he appears on two talk shows, hosted respectively by Alex Daniels (a brilliantly manspreading, drawling Jaren Anderson) and Bri Anna (a chatty, ruthlessly inquisitive Abby Wheeler).

Wang and Landes use the modern format to bring Kafka’s questions into new light: what is the role of the audience for the artist? When a suggestion from a viewer leads to viewers commenting “strippppp” on the stream, and pointing out that they can’t see how skinny he’s getting if he’s clothed, H reacts first with utter disgust. Then he pauses. “I mean—would you watch that?” The scene ends before we get an answer. At another point, H tries to read an artist statement to his audience, now represented by the actors in all-white speaking into microphones: “Be fucking for real,” one drawls, interrupting his speech. 

As everyone wants to know, the manager asks “Why did you start starving yourself?” “I’ve always been a light eater,” responds H, his tone somewhere between wryly joking and deadly serious. Over and over, people ask, and H can’t give an adequate response. “It’s just a thing I do,” he tries; someone asks if it’s a hunger strike and he says yes, but can’t answer what for. The manager, exasperated, suggests that he tell viewers he’s “doing art,” because “it makes it important… kind of.” (Blake perfectly times the delivery of this line, and it’s incredible.) Does art need interpretation? 

As the fast continues, H gets more and more physically weak, in brilliant acting by Bindman, who convincingly escalates his shudders and stumbles and limps over the course of the play. Wang’s directorial creativity also shows itself at full force. Though comments and viewers continue, from the first moment where H admits that he’s dizzy, the stream freezes, and the days disappear. When they come back, they’re wrong, or shifting between numbers. Our perception of the outside world breaks down as Wang lets H’s disorientation blur into our own. 

In a particularly well-conceived moment, hate comments flood first the screen and then the entire theater, spoken aloud by a malevolent Siri as the other anonymous actors cower behind chairs and the lights pulse red, like a heartbeat. The sound and lighting design shine under the direction of, respectively, Liam Bellman-Sharpe and Kristen Paige are masterful. “Take Him Down,” we hear and see and feel. “The Hunger Artist Is Wrong For Our Kids!” Can you “cancel” an artist? 

Finally, morbidly still, on Day 35, H, slumped over a bean bag, looks at The Manager. She’s come to his bedroom and begs him to say something, telling him that the controversy is a good thing. He doesn’t answer. Then, just before she leaves, he tilts his head. 

“I do this because I’m fucking lonely,” he says, the words clawing themselves out, an answer to the question that finally feels true. “I’m lonely and then I found out that I can do something and I’m good at it. So I have to do it. And it has to mean something,” he says, close to tears. Is this all art really is? The Manager leaves, and a dream ballet starts, with all four actors on stage. The three in all-white lift H to his feet, and the four move in unison, watching their hand, their fingers twitch, their feet lift. It’s almost playful, and reminds me of a dance improvisation exercise. Then H turns and looks each actor, one by one, in the eye. One by one, as they’re observed, they leave. 

In the final moments of the fast, H looks directly at us for the first time. It’s our turn to be observed, but we don’t leave. We observe ourselves observing him observing us, unsettled. Silently, he smiles, proud. This is what the play, ultimately, wants us to question. To observe is to be implicated, to enable, to be culpable for whatever happens next.

On Day 40, held up, literally, by The Manager, H emotionlessly thanks the audience “for being a part of this journey.” The stream ends, but H won’t eat. The endlessly chatty Manager talks about the success, the meaningfulness, the foods he can eat now, when the next fast should be. At that, H shakes his head. “I’m still fasting,” he groans. It’s indefinite, now. The screen is black.

We move outside to the sound of waves. H is slumped over, looking at us. The Manager comes over, and tells him the project “did affect some people, in some ways,” even if it wasn’t the people or ways he wanted. He doesn’t answer. She leaves.

“I’m sorry,” he tells us, intensely holding eye contact. Directly echoing Kafka, he sighs, “If I had only found a food I liked, I would have eaten to my heart’s content, like you or anybody.” His head slumps over, we watch, and the play is finished. 

Taking works and putting them in Internet-specific contexts can feel like a gimmick, not authentic. Here, though, it works perfectly. Wang’s concept and direction masterfully force us to confront the reality of the modern-day artist and observer. The live-stream format simultaneously introduces the idea of anonymity and intensifies the level of observation, letting Kafka’s questions feel even more poignant. It’s an incredible achievement from all involved. If you have the chance, take the time to see this play.

A Hunger Artist is performed at the Lenfest Center for the Arts (Manhattanville campus) and has two more performances: Saturday, February 10, at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 11, at 2 pm. Tickets are free and can be reserved here

A Hunger Artist’s set via Avery Baumel