In 2008, the wonderful Lyn Gardner came to review Theatre Deli’s first production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

This alone gave me hope that Theatre Deli would not just be a flash in the pan, another good idea that collapsed under the weight of personal ambitions and failed collaborations. If we can make this work, I thought to myself, then we may be onto something.

I grew up professionally in the hallowed hive of BAC in the early 2000s amongst a generation of theatremakers who were genuinely testing the boundaries of what theatre and performance could be. Within that community Lyn’s name was revered - and it was always Lyn as though she was the friend we all knew, expected to be there but for some last minute delay hadn’t made it to the party.

For us she was exactly who she is now - a champion of our collective work, a pathfinder shining a light to illuminate a theatrical landscape that lay just across the horizon, persuading audiences and reassuring audiences that unless we moved forward that future would remain undiscovered.

In fact, I think I may partly owe my career to Lyn Gardner.

I cannot confirm the veracity of this, but as the story goes Lyn Gardner had wonderfully - and according to all those concerned completely unexpectedly - given a 5-star review to “The Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrana, The Ugliest Woman In The World”, a show commissioned by Tom Morris as part of his ‘In The Dark’ season, directed by Andrea Brooks and written by Shaun Prendergast.

This review, and the audience reaction it prompted, was instrumental in persuading BAC to restage “…Julia Pastrana…” which then turned into a national tour, sending us up and down the country, plunging audiences into complete darkness, so we could tell the story of arguably the most famous sideshow freak who had ever lived - and in the pitch black forcing them to use their imaginations to conjure the vision of what the ‘Ugliest Woman in the World’ would be.

I say ‘us’ because that was my first paid gig in theatre - Assistant Directing Andrea Brooks in rehearsals, driving the van on tour and playing the musical saw on stage.

From the very start I know the power that reviews and critics had.

So, I awaited that review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream drunk on a cocktail that was a single shot excitement, a full measure of trepidation.

And then it came. A single star. Just one. and an opening line that still sends chills down my spine.

'Oh dear. When will young companies learn that a space does not make a play?'

I was devastated. I thought we were finished before we had even begun. Luckily, Frances ‘Effie’ Loy, who actually directed the piece was made of stronger stuff.

We came together, enjoyed the joy of the audiences who came, and tempered our disappointment with some positive words sprinkled amongst the mediocre reviews of minor critics and moved on.

Now as Theatre Deli moves into our second decade, having created 10 pop-up creative hubs in London and Sheffield, having generate £2.6million through working with property developers - of which we handed £1.7million directly into the hands of artists - and helped cultivate the burgeoning immersive theatre scene, most agree that this was the best advice we could have had. We embraced it, learnt from it and moved forwards.

That does not make the experience any less painful.

In an article in The Stage, Mark Shenton asked 'Can critics and artists be friends?'

For me, the answer is emphatically ‘No’.

This is not the answer of course. Every individual has a different relationship with their art, creativity and the professional world they inhabit. I can only speak personally, of course.

But for me the relationship between the artist and critic is based on a power imbalance. I have never been able to get over the sense that there is nothing at stake for the critic. They get the same fee for a 1-star as a 5- star review. Of course, many will attest that they are as passionate about theatre as the theatremaker, and are working in partnership with the artists to explore the form.

At the same time, to the artist everything is at stake - the development of their practice, their reputation, the financial health of the production and the company.

Quite simply, if audiences had listened to that Lyn Gardner review and stayed away Theatre Deli would not exist.

Obviously artists and critics are bound together in a strange ménage à trois with audiences. There is no escaping this relationship that, at its best, is loving, supportive and fruitful

We cannot escape the fact, however, that it is a relationship where one partner has a significant power and demand over the other. We know from experience that friendships based on a power imbalance are at best unhealthy and can be hugely damaging.

The criticisms I have - even when I have agreed with them and learnt from them - have cut me to the core. Getting bad reviews fucking hurts. There is nothing wrong with that. The work matters to me more than anything else on earth. It should hurt when people criticise it because I care so deeply about it.

So I can accept that critics are important, I can celebrate their work and respect them as colleagues.

But I in no way whatsoever want them for a friend.

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