People Library

Finding freedom in art

“It was the most healing, life-changing and perspective-shifting experience I’ve ever had…

Imagine that the freedom of expression we felt as children was possible throughout our lives. That unabandoned joy of playing, creating and dancing for no other reason than ‘I’ve got an idea and want to try and make it’ Not for an audience, not for a purpose, not for approval – purely for the joy of it.

For many, creativity gets suppressed as we age and we keep ourselves safe from the critical response of others, and in a society full of entertainment and fast paced social media, it’s very easy to distract ourselves from the reality and health of our own internal worlds. We ignore the feelings of discontent, feeling safer trapped in our own comfort zones and fears, rather than looking in the mirror to understand the reasons we are the way we are. But what if ‘freedom of expression’ is also a path towards finding happiness and contentment in life? A route to healing and joy?

Kayle McCoy is a freelance Dramatherapist and a firecracker of ideas and initiatives. She’s on a mission to help people use art to play more in life, gently encouraging them into safe spaces where they can experiment and learn to express themselves, without judgement.

It’s a passion born from her own journey, where she had to let go of everything she’d been working towards in life and re-start from the inside out. A fun-loving and caring individual, she’s brimming with creative energy and passionate about helping people find peace and freedom, no matter what stage or walk of life they’re from.

“I don’t remember a lot of togetherness from three years old,” she says, referencing her mum and dad’s marriage breakup. “On the whole though, my childhood was happy and filled with great memories. I lived with my mum, who’s a very high octane, expressive, lover-of-life kind of person, and she both modelled and allowed us the freedom to explore our creative sides.”

“I remember her spending ages painting a mural on our kitchen wall and after school my brother would be upstairs making music and I would just come home and make things on the kitchen table.” You can tell she cherishes the memories. “I used to love Neil Buchanan’s ‘Art Attack’ on the TV and I have this attention to detail that is almost hypervigilance, it gives me the tools to re-create anything.”

Looking back, Kayle describes how she was totally in the moment when she was creating, in her words, a sense of “complete presence”. She credits her creative freedom as a child for her current entrepreneurial leanings. “From start to finish they were my creations, there was no input apart from my own, and it has served me well.”

Kayle’s caring side and value of intergenerational community seems to originate from her childhood too. “My mum worked in a care home. I’d wait for her to finish her shift and would take the biscuit tin around and get into conversations with the old people. They always had a smile on their face, I felt welcomed, and I loved it. It was part of my everyday life.”

In time, Kayle’s creativity found an outlet through drama. “I remember my first memorable taste was with my dad at a community amateur drama (amdram) production in the old St.Lukes Church on Holmewood, Bradford. I got a rush of adrenaline for the small part I played, and I think I began to focus on the live aspect of performance because of the immediate response I got.”

Her persona is light-hearted, and she’s always been able to make people laugh. “I’ve got a characterful face, which lends itself to the stage and the big, bombastic characters, like the villains, the ‘joke-a-minute’ type of characters.”

As she reflects, she recognises how her internal world impacted her external world “I’ve been described as a chameleon, I can just evolve into my surroundings,” she says, and then pauses, “I guess on reflection, in my acting days, I was seeking attention, to be validated, and now i seek to validate others.”

She explains, “My dad is a workaholic and my mum worked two jobs.  The two-year gap between myself and my brother meant that I had a lot of time in my own world growing up. On one level that was a gift, but on another level it might have been too much space, and my passion for acting probably did boil down to self-esteem.” 

By the time she reached Year 11, Kayle was the lead character in ‘My Fair Lady’ for the annual school performance. “That was massive for me, and I got such good feedback from it that I wanted to become a theatre actress. So, when I was 18, I got on a train by myself to Newcastle to study a three-year degree in performance at Northumbria University.”

Several years after graduating, Kayle began to realise just how competitive her career choice was. “To be an actor you need an agent, to get an agent you need them to come and see your work. So the amount of letters and headshots you send out, all these freebies and showreels you create, but you’re not getting paid and the amount of rejections you get…”

“I realised there were thousands of 5 feet 3 inches young brunettes who could act, and they all wanted to become stars. It was saturated.” The thoughts that followed were pivotal in her life “I remember thinking that I’d given a decade of my life to getting rejections and asked myself ‘what am I doing with my life?’”

After years of pursuing an acting career and not achieving the success she wanted, she knew she had to face her internal drivers and explore and understand herself.

At the time Kayle was working at the University, taking lecture notes and following students on their academic paths of psychology, child care and nursing. She discovered that she was more interested in people and individuals and the reasons why we think and behave the way we do.

After sharing these thoughts with a close friend, she was encouraged to check out Dramatherapy. “I’d never heard of it before, but found a website and watched a ten minute long video with long term dramatherapists demonstrating how it works. They explained how they mix psychotherapy, drama, and the understanding of how the brain works with what we’re doing with our body, and I was like, ‘Sold!”

At the time, Kayle was working at a school in Tong, but the idea of dramatherapy had taken hold in her mind and she applied for a two-year Masters Degree in Derby. Describing her interview and experiential days, she says, “It kind of blew my head off because they gave us a task of performing Red Riding Hood without words, without a stage or an audience. I was like ‘this is performance, but it isn’t performance’. It was really uncomfortable because I didn’t have control. I was so used to structure and boundaries. Yes, I wanted freedom, but not ‘that’ freedom. Without a rehearsal we had to perform a 3 minute show. You have to become so attuned to yourself and a group of strangers, and then the story didn’t play out how I saw it in my head. To release that, I felt ‘wow, how empowering’ and that’s what I wrote about in my reflection afterwards.”

The next two years were relentless for Kayle and she only took one day off as she juggled work, travelling to Derby and studying for the MA. “I was in a relationship when I started and I remember saying ‘I don’t know what these two years are going to look like, but I’ve got to do personal and group therapy and I’m seeking something. I’m not happy where I am.”

“What I loved is that there’s no set way with drama therapy, it’s up to you to figure out how you can use it, which meant it was really wide and explorative. Those two years gave me permission to really explore myself and, although intense, it was the most healing, life-changing and perspective-shifting experience I’ve ever had. Oh, I miss it so much.”

After graduating, Kayle was burnt out from the demand of the previous two years and took a year out. “That year gave me the headspace to rejuvenate, and I planned to set up my own drama therapy practice and to also go into primary schools with a pilot lesson that I’d designed. But then Covid-19 hit and all the schools shut.”

As it was for many people, Covid-19 gave Kayle space to re-imagine her life. “That space, coupled with a small bit of funding from Bradford Council gave me the freedom to create something again and it came so quickly,” says Kayle. “One of the founders of drama therapy said ‘there aren’t many roles in the world for us, so you’re going to have to make drama therapy work for you’. So I’m now on a mission to raise the profile of it within Bradford.”

She now runs a Community Interest Company called United Art Project with a close friend, which aims to develop and facilitate artistically creative experiences for communities and individuals, allowing people to play and express themselves, providing a healing and therapeutic experience.

The four foundations of United Art Project are: ‘Art for Free’, ‘Art to Unite’, ‘Art to Heal’ and ‘Art to Aspire’ – It’s incredibly inspiring hearing how this is outworked. Recently they took blank canvases to Centenary Square and set them down in front of the Knife Angel art installation, allowing passers-by to paint whatever they wanted.

They’ve also consulted with communities to co-create murals in parks, schools, community buildings and spaces. They have been funded to run a research project with young adults, therapeutic paint sessions with young people displaced by war, pop-up exhibitions and public art experiences like the one in Centenary Square.  In a nutshell they create bespoke experiences for individuals and communities to express themselves.

Kayle originally left Holmewood to go to university but found herself coming back when she embarked on her Masters degree 6 years later and has lived there for the majority of her life, She’s a proud Bradfordian. “I never go on holiday and say I’m from Leeds. I like the talking point it provides from people’s perceptions of our city.”

When asked about her thoughts on Bradford and its creative future, she says, “We need freedom to express ourselves. I’m not sure how deep our organic expression is just yet, but I’d be really keen to do some kind of research piece on that. Imagine what could happen to a city if it was given complete creative freedom no matter what that looks like. It’d affect us all.”

“With Bradford 2025 coming, we’re looking like there’s lots happening, and I hope there is. I hope that each ward will get an opportunity and exposure for free artistic expression.”

Asked what she thinks would happen to a city, if it was given complete creative freedom and expression, she pauses. “Good question. I think it could be chaos,” she laughs, and then explains deeper effects possible for people.

‘The process you go through of making a conscious choice, even choosing a colour, when so much of what we do in life is subconscious, it promotes presence. Having artistic freedom, I think, would promote tolerance of each other because there’s freedom of expression and an understanding of each other’s expression.”  

She continues, “Someone might say ‘I can’t paint a picture’ but I’ll respond, ‘But you can pick a colour, what’s the colour?’ ‘Red’ ‘Right, okay, let’s brush that red onto the canvas. Now, what are you going to do?’” She smiles, “That’s the beauty of creativity, you can start by just picking a colour.”

“When people are presented with something new and they stop themselves, it’s because of societal constructs or their own feelings of ineptness, and that’s a cycle that they’re used to. For me, it’s drawing people out of their comfort zones. Even if I have to stand with you for 20 minutes while you pick a colour I’m going to be there for you, because that little shift in you is going to cause change.”

“You need to allow individuals to go on a journey and trust the process, and not to worry. It will come.” She continues, “I work as a mentor with Uni students and there’s this idea that we have to get everything right, we have to have all the knowledge before we even explore something.”

You can tell Kayle is only just getting started, it feels like this will be a lifelong passion for her. “There should be no boundaries to expression, because if we don’t express and process, then it stays inside and who knows how it will manifest itself. So we need to create non-judgemental spaces and give people freedom to express themselves.”

“We should go through life without an end goal in mind, purely for the journey it leads us on. I’ve found that approach brings a sense of contentment, I’m cool on this journey of learning” She concludes “I’ve learnt that I can trust ‘the idea’ even if I don’t have it all figured out. There’s freedom in that.”

Find out more about Kayle’s “United Art Project” here

Story by Tom Harmer