Theatre Director Joyce Branagh talks about new production ‘Ladies That Dig’

Ladies that Dig, a new play by Joyce Branagh is heading to The Edge in Chorlton and Oldham Coliseum in February
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Joyce Branagh works in all aspects of theatre, including directing, writing and performing, specialising in Shakespeare, Pantomime, and comedy.

Last year Joyce directed new musical Now Is Good, written by Tim Firth which was nominated for Best Musical Production in the UK Theatre Awards. She also starred in the hit film Belfast.

Her latest play is Ladies That Dig and this means Joyce is off on tour, beginning next month and stopping off at Chorlton and Oldham. The piece is a new comedy drama with original music about the great outdoors and the people who enjoy it. We caught up with Joyce to find out more.

How did this production come about? 

 We did a play back in 2020 called Ladies That Bus, and it was based on interviews and workshops around a bus route that travels through the Lake District. Although people did talk to us about the bus and the route, it also led to all sorts of conversations about family and loneliness and ‘journeys’ that we go on through life – and the play that we came up with went down really well with audiences.  SO we thought, why not find another topic which gets people talking about something specific, but also bigger stuff…

We kept the same cast and director from that show Lisa Howard, who is an amazing comedy actress, me, and Helen Longworth who writes the beautiful music and sings like an angel and added Riana Duce – who is new young blood!  So it’s a great cast led by the amazing Kirstie Davis as Director – keeping us all in line, and making sure I get the script written in time!  And we’ve got We Are Team producing it all for us.

We’ve had huge support from The Dukes Lancaster, Oldham Coliseum, Lawrence Batley Theatre and the Brewery in Kendal who all helped us meet people for our interviews, and we’ve had funding from the Arts Council, which enabled us to do the research, and finance the tour.

Why do you think we love to dig, whether it is gardening, looking for buried treasure or making moats in the sand on a beach in Blackpool? 

Talking to all the people we did – it appears, as a nation, we really do love to dig!  It seems for some that it’s a way of doing something physical – you don’t need to think, so weirdly it can become almost meditative.  Some also said, that when things got too much – either at work or in their family home – it was a way of getting rid of some pent up aggression!

Others said that knowing that they were planting something now, that would grow and become something in the future, gave them hope – which was rather beautiful.  Some are struggling financially and needed to grow food to eat…  One of the archaeologists said they love to do it to get away from their everyday cares and ‘time-travel’ instead, which rather struck us. And one detectorist wanted to do it as a long held ambition but ended up finding true love and real treasure!

 How good is it to be back on stage following a break due to you know what? 

Amazing!  One of the main reasons I love theatre is that LIVE feeling, that ‘it’s only ever going to be just like this once – for us now, here in this auditorium, tonight!’ That’s very exciting, and we really did miss it.  Part of the reason we chose our gardening/digging topic was that it was outdoors, so that we could do our interviews and research even when there were some Covid restrictions still in place – lots of cake being eaten at a distance while chatting about sprouts and lasagne planting! (And yes, that is a thing!)

Do you have a routine when you write or any tips on how to get started for anyone who is keen to try? 

The short answer is – ‘No routine’ sorry.  But, what I have found that helps is a deadline.  There’s an online writing support called The Literal Challenge who do various month-long writing challenges where you write every day for a month – and they were a huge help in actual getting me writing regularly.  I also found our research & development time – where I needed to get something written for our showcase at the end of the week a huge spur – nothing was polished – but better to have something than nothing.  You can shine it up afterwards.

What I would say to people who are thinking of writing is – just do it.  Write something. START.  The worst that can happen is that you don’t like it.  But writing itself is helpful – to get your thoughts out.  Then you can see if what that initial splurge gives you is worth working up into something better.  In Manchester Cathy Crabb runs regular writing workshops (which I think are free?) and she’s amazing.

Also, I am running some free writing workshops at some of the venues we are touring to – talking a bit about how we came up with Ladies That Dig and doing a bit of practical writing too – so for those who are interested, check with your venue when you book your ticket.

What you love about the Oldham Coliseum which is one of the stops on the tour? 

The Coliseum is my local theatre, and I’ve worked there a lot and seen tons of productions.  I love the people who work there – they really care about doing great productions, and they work their bottoms off to produce it – despite difficulties with funding. And I also absolutely love Oldham audiences – I don’t know why, but they always feel like the most engaged and VOCAL audiences I have ever made work for!  They tell you when they like it and they tell you when they don’t!  So to get a rapturous applause from them feels amazing, and like you’re all in it together – which this particular play is ALL about.  (Blimey, I hope they like it).

What are some of the pros and cons of touring?

It can be tiring – because you’re travelling and lugging the set in and out of venues – BUT the upside of that is that it’s always new and exciting – each venue is slightly different and the audiences respond in slightly different ways, and that’s very thrilling as a performer.  We didn’t manage to get to Manchester with the last tour, so we’re very excited this time to do a few dates at The Edge in Chorlton (and I can spend a few nights at home!) Most of the venues are in places we held interviews too, so the chances are for every show that there will be somebody who spoke to us, who has a bit of their story popping up in the play in the audience.

What can audiences expect from Ladies That Dig

Laughter, sadness, and surprises!  We’ve taken all the interviews and stories that people have told us, squidged them together, added a bit of fiction and ended up with a mix of comedy and drama, with some wonderful live music and songs.  We read through the script on Zoom a couple of weeks ago and were giggling, crying, and humming the tunes for the rest of the day.  It’s a testament to the wonderful people we met, and their openness to tell us their stories.  And, one of the final huge surprises in the play, that people will probably assume is fiction, and it’s not – it’s absolutely TRUE – is on the topic of buried treasure!

And what one thing do you wish for this year?

Apart from a general election?!

You can catch Joyce Branagh and her pals The Ladies That Dig next month when the tour opens in Doncaster on 9th February and arrives in Manchester at the Edge in Chorlton from 16th – 18th February and tickets can be booked here.

Or you can catch the show at the Oldham Coliseum on 23rd February here.

If you want to see more from the Ladies That Dig, watch the trailer below

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