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Virginia Players embrace their digital ‘Natives’

As the world becomes more digitized, Virginia Players and director Jakob Cansler embrace a new format

<p>Virginia Players presented a digital version of "Natives" by Glenn Waldron.&nbsp;</p>

Virginia Players presented a digital version of "Natives" by Glenn Waldron. 

The Virginia Players debuted their Fall Lab Series production of “Natives” by Glenn Waldron Dec. 17. Following the digital format of the Drama Department’s fall production, “Natives” — directed by fourth-year College student Jakob Cansler — was presented as a roughly 90-minute movie on the Virginia Players’ YouTube page between Dec. 17 and Dec. 24. 

It may be hard to guess just by the title what “Natives” is about, but the Virginia Players put in the effort to clear any ambiguity. The production — which was composed of personal vlog entries — offered audiences an intimate look at three 14 year-olds on their birthday. 

“‘Natives’ is about a generation that has grown up completely online,” Cansler said. “I think it really means a lot that this production is being made by and for a generation that knows no other world than a digital one.”

The unnamed 14 year-olds, portrayed by third-year Commerce student Brody McDevitt, second-year College student Javier Perez and second-year College student Lex Schwartzman, each have an uncomfortable obsession with an aspect of their worlds, digital and real. They struggle with their obsessions with status, sex and the limits of innocence. Instead of resembling uninspiring stereotypes of teenagers, these kids are shown to be individuals who have been scarred. The characters are humanized by the acting talents of McDevitt, Perez and Schwartzman. The actors each find a way to make their characters likable, even as they struggle with uncomfortable obsessions like sex and status.

The entirely student-run Virginia Players is a small team of students. The production of “Natives” saw just Cansler and his production manager, fourth-year Commerce student Lydia Modlin, manage the daunting task of running auditions, rehearsing and filming with limited contact.

“All of the pre-production happened over Zoom,” Cansler said. “We had a Google Drive folder that must have had at least 100 documents and a dozen versions of the script in it. Rehearsals were pretty much just me, [Modlin] and one actor, all sitting 6 feet apart from each other with masks on.”

Despite the grueling work that went into “Natives,” the Virginia Players put on a relevant production that understood how digital natives can be beholden not only to their devices but to the permanent audiences they willingly invite in. These characters make spectacles of themselves, not because they are vain or self-centered, but because they are lonely and scared.

“These teens just want someone to hear their story and respond to it,” Cansler said.

Juggling COVID-19 restrictions, school and a late start on production, “Natives” required the dedication of everyone involved to get off the ground.

“Everyone was really committed to this project, because the show is so timely and because we knew that we couldn’t let theatre stop in the face of the pandemic,” Cansler said. “One of the biggest effects of the pandemic has been how quickly everything has had to digitize — work, education, entertainment, everything. Pretty much every aspect of our lives is online now. We’re basically building a [second] world that’s different in so many ways from the real world.” 

Luckily for audiences, the Virginia Players were committed to the production of “Natives.” Rehearsals lasted around three weeks, and all of the scenes were filmed in just two weeks and only involved the actors in their scenes and Cansler. As more of the performing arts has become digitally produced, new forms of storytelling become necessary. Even as these new forms emerge, artists still have the task of keeping the stories as impactful as they were on stage. When asked if a digital format of the play affected his vision, Cansler responded.

“‘Natives’ is clearly meant to be performed live in front of an audience,” Cansler said. “There is something incredibly intimate about the stories these teenagers are telling, and you lose some of that intimacy. It’s also fitting to see Natives in the digital format.” 

Despite the challenges, Cansler and the Virginia Players put forth an engaging and unique production of “Natives.”