The multi-talented Joan Ryan has been dazzling audiences for decades with her powerful musical performances in Ruthless!, Little Shop Of Horrors, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Footloose, Les Miserables, and countless others. Audiences also recognize Joan from her recurring role as Tina Paladrino, the quirky music and arts teacher on the cult classic Saved By the Bell. She’s appeared in multiple commercials and shows including The Young and the Restless, but it’s clear she’s in her true element when she’s on stage.
Joan was awarded Broadway World’s Top Female Cabaret Artist of 2013. The “beltaholic” brought her show-stopping one woman act Joan Ryan, Live! to New York, where it’s been met with both critical and public acclaim. Her variety shows include Forever Young with Jason Alexander and Kirstie Alley and One Night Only with Steve Carell, Forest Whitaker, and Eric McCormack.
McCormack (star of Will & Grace) will be her guest onstage at her upcoming L.A. show at the Catalina Jazz Club. The show was going to run this Sunday, March 16, but was recently cancelled after Joan took a fall that left her with two broken ribs. Thankfully, she is okay and on the mend, with the show rescheduled for early May. The evening will benefit The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention efforts for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Joan opens up about her career as a performer, her work in the LGBT community, and the busy V.O. company she runs.
“With this show in particular, if you’re not laughing and crying, then I haven’t done my job.” — Joan Ryan
So, first of all, what inspired you to become a performer?
I have been doing this for as long as I can remember. My favorite thing in the world has always been to perform. Even when I was little, I would make whoever came over to our house sit in the living room while I sang and danced for them. So this was in my blood from the minute I was basically three years old. I think I was just born with it.
And what’s it like for you being on stage?
Wow. You know, it’s an incredible experience when I’m singing — I approach everything as an actor first. I choose my songs as an actress. I break down my songs and figure out what they’re about as an actress. So it kind of depends on what the song is, but it’s also an exhilarating feeling to be connected to an audience. There’s nothing like it. I’ve done a lot of television, and when I do television, it’s just a different feeling, because to be with a live audience, there’s nothing as thrilling — unless it’s not going well, then there’s nothing as horrifying. (laughs) But singing, for me, is my happy place, for sure!
It’s interesting how the two art forms, acting and singing, complement each other. And, like you said, you approach your songs with an actor’s mind. What do you get from singing that acting doesn’t give you?
That’s a really good question. Singing is just so easy for me, because it’s just in my soul. I have three daughters, and our house is full of music all the time, people are singing in their rooms. It’s hard because they are both different, but they’re both very much the same. They’re both very satisfying because you go to a whole new place, to a very different place, and with both I get to dig deep and figure out what the song and character is about for me.
It’s kind of my motto that if you’re not scared before you do a scene or before you do a show, then something is off.
You really do your best work when you’re outside of your comfort zone.
Absolutely, one-hundred percent. You have to go out of your comfort zone, because if you don’t, you’re not – number one, not stretching. You’re not telling the truth, my show is very much about telling the truth. But then it’s a glossy outside, and you don’t take anybody on a real journey if you’re not going on a journey.
You have to embrace that feeling. When you go on stage or before you shoot a scene or whatever it is, if you’re scared and nervous and you try to push it away, then it stays with you. But, if you feel it and embrace it, it always moves to something else.
Now can you elaborate a little bit on said the idea that your show is all about telling the truth?
Well, my show is autobiographical. And there’s a lot of comedy in it. With this show in particular, if you’re not laughing and crying, then I haven’t done my job. It really does take you on that journey. All the songs have been picked very specifically, as they relate not only to my life but to a universal life. I think there will be something in the show for everybody.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I have so many! From the time I was little, every Broadway musical diva was the woman I wanted to be, starting with Mary Martin. I love to listen to the divas like Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley. And when I was little I loved Linda Ronstadt, who was rock. I just gravitate towards women singers who move me, who make me feel something, and usually who have great big powerful voices. And Joni Mitchell. I love Joni Mitchell.
Well you yourself have such an incredible and strong voice. I’m amazed at your ability to belt out a number.
Oh, thank you! You know, I do a really funny comedy bit. I had something written for me in my show called “Beltaholic,” because when I was little I was listening to all of these singers, and I didn’t realize that even though they were powerful singers, their volume when recording was controlled by a volume button. So when I was little, I used to put on their albums and I would sing as loud as I could because I didn’t realize. (laughs) So my writer Steven Witkin and I co-wrote the story into a really fun 12-step meeting about being a “Beltaholic.” But I had developed that big belt voice.
I still take singing lessons and I still take acting lessons, because I think that talent is a muscle that you have to take care of and you can’t just assume it’s always going to be there without technique and training. That’s what I stress when people talk to me about what my best advice is, because you always have to train. I don’t care how old you are or how young you are, there’s always a place to get better, and there’s always a place to strive for. And I think that’s one of the things that is so wonderful about working with my director, Andrew MacBean, is that he keeps pushing me.
In your upcoming show at the L.A. Catalina Jazz Club your guest is going to be Eric McCormack. How did you decide to bring him on?
I love Eric McCormack. Eric has a son and I have a daughter who went to the same school. We met when we were out to do a benefit to raise money for the school. There were a lot of really exciting people — we live in L.A., and it’s the entertainment capital. So, the shows were a lot of fun and very exciting, but they also were kind of long, so we would sit backstage and just talk to each other. He has an incredible voice. I don’t know if a lot of people know that. And is maybe the sweetest guy on the planet, and the funniest. So when it came time to think about a special guest, I emailed him and he said “yes” right away. I’m really excited to have him on board.
A portion of the proceeds from the show are going to go to The Trevor Project.
Yes. And we’ve already been making money, because there is a way to text five dollars on your cell phone to The Trevor Project. And people have really been doing that. I’m very excited.
You’ve also been featured in the stage fundraising shows that benefit the AIDS Project in L.A. Are you regularly active with the LGBT community?
I certainly am, and I’m so honored to be a part of that. You know, to just be able to raise money for the community, and I just think it’s really important with everything going on in the world and how scary it is now all over. And thank God in Texas they just reversed, you know, the anti-gay ban. It’s just unbelievable that in America we can pass laws like that.
I have teenagers, and The Trevor Project is so important to me. I see how difficult it is as a mom to watch my kids go through those teenage years, and I can’t imagine how difficult that must be when you have a family that’s unsupportive or doesn’t understand. And you’re frightened, and you’re not sure how to handle it if you’re gay or if you’re wondering about if you’re part of the LGBT community. So I’m really, really excited to bring awareness and be able to raise money.
Who is someone that you haven’t worked with yet that you would really like to?
Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and believe it or not, I’d like to be on Seth Rudetsky’s show. He’s in New York. But really, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince would be beyond.
Do you have any certain routine or rituals that you do before you take the stage?
Actually, I really do. Before I sing, and I’ve done this from the earliest time — I’m not one of those who likes to sit in the audience and get called up to sing. I have to have my private time before I sing to focus in and really get grounded and feel my body and think about what I’m doing.
So, I say a little prayer. My dad passed away a couple of years ago, so I always bring him in with me to the stage. And — an acting teacher taught me this when I was a kid, and I have been using it ever since — I envision the end of the night when people are applauding. I go to the end of the night in my mind and how it went. And the show is already done in my mind. And then I walk out on stage. It’s that envisioning – envisioning the end goal — that’s the most powerful part of it.
Joan Ryan as Tina Paladrino
Now, many will remember you as the music and arts teacher Tina Paladrino from Saved by the Bell. What was your favorite part about being on that show?
Well, my favorite part about being on that show is it was one of the first kids’ shows. It has a huge cult following — it’s on somewhere every day in a part of the world. But it was so much fun to be working with those kids and with Hayley Mills, who is an icon. It was my first television series, so it was a very exciting time, and scary.
I think my favorite part of the show is really now, because there’s just a big cult following around “Saved by the Bell, so it’s fun to be a part of that history.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the others?
Yes. I sure do. It’s funny, because Mr. Belding is coming to the show. He’s going to bring some of the Saved by the Bell people.
And now you also run a very busy VO studio for both film and TV?
I sure do. The company is called Sounds Great, and I have an incredible business partner. Her name is Toby Stone. She is wonderful, because I go do all my shows and she runs the company when I’m not there. And then when I’m there in L.A., we run it together. It’s a looping company, which are all the background voices in television and movies.
So, if you’re watching a scene and things are happening in the scene, it’s all the background voices in movies and television.
And so doing all of the background voices, are you casting individual people for those?
Yes. It’s a lot of improv. And, it’s a very different skill than the voiceovers for commercials, because my actors are called on to do a lot of things. For example, if you get thrown out of a building, we have to do that sound, or if you get hit by a car. We do the show Criminal Minds, and there’s horrible things that happen every week, that’s all us, getting strangled, hit by cars, and thrown out of buildings.
It’s just a wonderful business, because I get to work with really fun people and I’ve been able to be there for my girls. When I’m home, I can work on this in the morning and then pick them up from school in the afternoon. And there are so many fun shows we have coming up, Falling Skies (the Steven Spielberg show), White Collar, and Graceland.
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