Think back to when you were in high school. You went to classes all day and came home and did homework, right? And maybe you took piano lessons once a week or played a sport.
Seventeen-year-old Ethan Van Slyke does all that and much more. Currently playing one of the newspaper boys in Arena Stage’s Newsies, Ethan manages to go to Freedom High School in South Riding, Virginia, while he also performs six nights and three matinees a week. And, since he is a senior planning on going to college, he is doing all the required homework as well.
That is a level of organization you seldom find in a teenager. But Ethan is a rare teenager. DCMTA caught up with him one day before the Newsies opening.
Barbara Mackay: How do you fit in all your studies, along with performances?
Ethan Van Slyke: It’s sometimes hard to manage it all but it’s very fulfilling and exciting. During rehearsals, I got to the theater a little later than everybody else. Before rehearsals, I did my homework for my core curriculum classes that I need to graduate. I’m very grateful to my school, which has been very understanding.
Is there a college you’re interested in applying to or will you apply to a performing arts school?
I’ve applied to thirteen schools because there’s so much competition. A lot of them are just liberal arts schools but one or two are strictly conservatories. I’m fortunate enough to be able to go in January to audition for all those schools.
When did you first start acting and dancing?
Fortunately, I grew up in a family of music lovers. Both my parents are music teachers and my mom works in a high school where she is heavily involved with theater. So I grew up watching rehearsals and pretending I was part of them.
What was the first show you were in?
The first time I remember being in a show was in third grade when I did Beauty and the Beast at Herndon High School and I played Chip, the teacup. I had no idea what I was getting into but it was so wonderful. I loved being with those older students. Knowing that high school theater was as cool as it was, I continued with summer theater and more shows at Herndon.
Did you want to try out for sports?
My initial plan was to be a varsity basketball and lacrosse player. I was very much into sports. And then when I got out of elementary school, an opportunity came up to be in Les Misèrables at Reston Community Players. Luckily, I got that part and after that, I thought, ‘In this world of bigger and better theater, there are a lot more elements that go into it.’ So that summer I started taking dance classes at Encore Performers and immediately was immersed in jazz and tap. The tap part came easily to me because my other love – second to theater – is percussion and drums.
So by the time you were in middle school, you were also getting a great education in dance.
Yes, but of course I realized that some of the boys I was dancing with had started studying ballet at age three, so I realized that I really had to work hard since I was starting in sixth grade. But I learned all the basics and I was lucky enough to do Secret Garden in seventh grade and that was another brand-new opportunity to be involved in professional theater. And that led to Arena Stage’s Oliver. It’s been a privilege to experience something new each year.
You were in Watch on the Rhine at Arena, too, weren’t you?
Yes, the year after Oliver, I was an understudy. That’s another experience I’ll never forget. It’s amazing how establishing different connections at different places has taught me so much and helped me decide what is best for me.
Tell me about Newsies.
It’s based on a historical situation, when the young newsboys and newsgirls went on strike in 1899 against Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who wanted to cut their wages. I play one of the newsboys, Davey Jacobs. I sing about sixty percent of the time and act about forty percent of the time.
And how did your director, Molly Smith, approach the musical?
We spent the first week and a half discussing it, talking through the scenes line by line. Molly Smith would pause and ask us questions. The cast members would ask us what each line meant to our character individually. We tried to find common ground before we started staging the show, which I think was just brilliant.
How else did Molly Smith put her personal stamp on this production?
She had us do a lot of individual work, which brings out the musical’s organic nature. I’ve always had a definite image of what this show is because I was such a fan of the first production. But we’re doing something so original, it’s just spectacular because of how historically accurate it is. It’s cool. It’s almost like we’re doing a new musical. It makes so much sense that there is a variety of ethnicities. Now I wouldn’t want to see Newsies done any other way.
Do you have anything to add about what you’d like to do in the future?
I’m just excited to grow. I’m in a place now where I’m being thrown new information and new experiences at a rapid pace. It’s sort of surreal to be where I am and to see how far I still have to go. I’m just excited for the opportunities that will come.