Kiah Clingman stands with the grant award at Tribeca Film Festival
Kiah Clingman (fourth from left) recently won a $1 million grant from AT&T’s Untold Stories program at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Kiah Clingman considers herself something of a storyteller. 

For the actress, producer and director, her introduction into the film and television world would come a little later. But from the time she was a kid, she had a deep love of books that spurred a love of acting. 

“I would escape through books, and end up creating characters and coming up with alternate storylines in my head,” Clingman said. “I’m an only child, so I would go and perform them for my parents, not knowing at the time of course, that I was acting, or coming up with stories. But that’s essentially what I was doing.” 

All of that time spent performing one-kid shows paid off. Clingman, who is based in Atlanta, has acted in numerous films, shorts, and television shows. But these days, she’s focusing more on producing work through her company KiahCan Productions, which she started in 2017. Clingman has produced short films like “Black Santa” and “Black Butterflies,” and the feature film “The Comeback” which is slated to air on Peacock later this year. She was also recently recognized by re:imagine/ATL, an organization dedicated to helping young people build careers in creative and digital media industries, with their Emerging Talent Award on May 24. 

Rough Draft Atlanta caught up with Clingman following her trip to the Tribeca Film Festival where she pitched a new feature to the festival’s AT&T Untold Stories program. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You were at the Tribeca Film Festival recently pitching a feature with AT&T Untold Stories. How did that go?

Kiah Clingman:  We actually won the $1 million grant! 

That’s awesome. 

Clingman: Thank you so much! I pitched a film called “Color Book.” It’s about a single Black father in Atlanta raising his son with Down Syndrome after the passing of his wife, Tammy.  We pitched against four other finalists who all had incredible projects, and we ended up taking home the $1 million prize. We have our first pre-production meeting this evening. 

Wow, getting right onto it. 

Clingman: Right onto it. We have a year to produce the feature, and it will premiere at Tribeca next year. 

Is this something that’s part of your daily routine, pitching projects like this?

Clingman: I wouldn’t say part of my daily routine. I’m an indie film producer and TV producer, and I’ve actually just recently gotten into the pitching process of pitching some of the projects I’ve been developing, or attaching myself to directors like David Fortune. He’s a writer/director, so he actually penned the script for “Color Book” and then pitched me to join as his producer. So I’ve only recently been getting into the pitching process for original ideas. 

I know that you wear multiple hats – you’re an actor and producer, and as I understand it, you’ve got your directorial debut coming up as well?

Clingman: We’re planning to shoot in the winter, it’s called “Her Pretty Vagina.” I’m really excited about it. I have a good team – we’re still building our team, but I have a good team on board. It’s a dark comedy, so it’s very different than some of the other projects I’ve produced in the past. So, I’m really, really excited about this one. And it’s a personal story. 

I do usually wear multiple hats, but I got into the industry originally through acting, which I still have such a love for. But my place in the industry has kind of evolved into producing and directing, doing a lot of story editing, and coming up with stories for writers. 

You mentioned “Her Pretty Vagina” is a personal story. Where did the inspiration for it come from, and can you tell us what it’s about?

Clingman: The inspiration came from my struggle of having endometriosis since I was around 16 years old. I got fired from one of my first jobs working at a small chicken shack company in my hometown, Cincinnati, because I had painful cramps and fell out at work. I was placed on birth control at such a young age, and just having to deal with this cycle of pain every single month. And it’s actually progressively gotten worse. I’ve been in the hospital for ruptured cysts. 

I wanted to write something that I knew would resonate with a lot of women and talk about something that we don’t talk about, especially in the Black community. A lot of these issues, people don’t know about – they don’t understand. And men in society don’t understand how it affects women. I wanted to shine a light on that.

I wanted to also shed light on the stigma that society places on living with STIs and STDs, specifically HPV. We see the commercials all the time, you see them growing up – you know, get the HPV vaccination. I know a lot of parents who are really afraid of that. I know my mom was, and so I didn’t get the vaccine growing up. 

But HPV leads to cervical cancer, some strands of it, and that’s another thing we also don’t talk about. A friend that I grew up with passed away from cervical cancer because she didn’t have access to getting pap smears, she didn’t have insurance. Cervical cancer is actually one of the cancers that can be prevented with routine screenings, and women should have free access to that. 

So the story ended up evolving, and HPV turned into “Her Pretty Vagina.” I touch on both subjects throughout the comedy, and my protagonist has both – HPV and endometriosis. We get to explore what it means for her to have a life and also date while having these two things. 

When you’re writing something that’s so personal, what’s that process like for you emotionally?

Clingman: It’s honestly been very difficult. I’ve developed and co-written lots of projects, and helped other people with their scripts, and it’s been fairly an easy process. I come up with ideas very easily. But for this, it was hard because I was trying to integrate my own experience into this fictional story. I’ve had a lot of frustrating moments in the writing process and had to bring in other people to help me get out of my own head, or say hey Kiah – it’s one thing to write your own story, but then you have to also know your intention with the audience. So you kind of have to punch up some things, like – oh, this is a comedy, let’s add more of the jokes. Sometimes your life exactly how it happened doesn’t play on screen, so how can we change that? Or how can we resonate with a larger audience? 

All those different factors and questions have come up during the writing process. I’ve had to adjust and adapt and get an outside perspective from some of my close writer friends, who have really lent their voice to the story and made it a greater story that I think is going to affect and resonate with an even wider audience. 

Yeah, if it’s a story that hits that close to home, I can imagine getting in my own head as well. 

Clingman: Exactly. And being like, oh, I want her to be exactly like me! But then it’s like, no! This is a fictional story! [Laughs]

Sure, you can take a few liberties if you want. You mentioned that you first got into the industry with acting, and then started producing and now you’re directing. Do you enjoy one aspect of the industry over the other? 

Clingman: That’s the number one question, I think, that people ask me. I feel like about five years ago, I probably would have always said acting, because that was my heart, and that was my introduction to the industry. I’ve always been a performing arts kid. I played violin and piano growing up, I was in plays, and I truly, truly love acting. But as I evolved in the industry, as you learn the business side of this industry, you realize that actors are usually – unless you’re the lead talent – you’re the last to get hired. And so you don’t have a lot of creative control when it comes to the process.

I found, naturally, I was really invested in what happened before the actors even get on set. That happened very organically for me, and so now I’m at a place where I love all of it. I love just being on set, and I don’t have to wear the actor hat to enjoy that. I love helping other people tell their stories. I love the joy I feel like completing a project and knowing wow, I produced that. I helped them secure this beautiful location that adds to the production quality that helps them tell the story in a unique way. I love that I was able to help cast this perfect actor who was able to bring this character, that someone birthed from their soul or from their personal story, to life and knowing that I had a hand in that. 

I get joy from all of them. I got to act in this piece called “Time’s Up” this year. I flew out to L.A. and shot that for a week with this great, amazing director named Hugh [D.G.] Moody. I hadn’t acted in a while, I actually hadn’t acted in about a year. It was amazing though, because I was number one on the call sheet and the lead in the project, and got to be involved in it in a different way than I have when I was attached to other projects in a smaller role. I really got to dive in deep with the director and tell him how I related to the story – how Kiah related to it, not just the character. It was an amazing experience. But with acting, you don’t always have those opportunities. It’s hard to book anything. It’s hard to book a small – I won’t say small, no role is small – to book a co-star, let alone a guest star, or series regular, or lead role. So I’m just thankful for any opportunity I have to get to play. But I will say producing has afforded me the ability to be able to live and survive in a way that acting has not, as far as stability goes.

When did you start your company, KiahCan Productions? 

Clingman: I started KiahCan Productions in 2019. I had actually been producing way before that, but I decided to start my own company in 2019. My dad helped me come up with the name, KiahCan.  My friends are always saying, Kiah, you can do everything! 

Were you just looking, like you said, to have more creative control, or what else were you looking to achieve when you started the company?

Clingman: It’s a different community in Atlanta, when it comes to creating content. I’d say in comparison to L.A. and New York, we’re still emerging as a community in the industry. So I wanted to be able to brand my company in a way to show these are the types of stories we can make and this is how we can make them. It is possible to have top quality content in Atlanta. Because we have a stigma here in Atlanta, and people think that crew and cast are lazy, or we don’t know how to do everything, we aren’t as skilled or talented. And that’s totally not true. So I wanted to make sure the team I was building would have a name to be associated with, so that when people see a KiahCan production, they’re going to know that this is Atlanta. Because I’m Atlanta-based, and proud to say that. And we’re creating quality content. 

It’s so interesting you say that. I was at an event last week, and an actor from Atlanta was saying in her experience, particularly with acting, when you go to sets most of the top talent is from L.A. or New York. They’re never really filled out by Atlanta talent. 

Clingman: Yeah, that’s very true. They’re still flying in. And you see how many production studios they’re building here – they’re building so many production companies, and they’re shooting so many productions, but really, are they telling authentic Atlanta stories? And hiring or sourcing a majority of their crew and cast from here? 

Some projects are doing that, and they are applying Atlanta casting directors to do that sometimes. But I’ve heard even stories from casting directors where they’re like – hey we’re bringing you all this talent, but y’all are still flying out people from L.A. 

Speaking of Atlanta as an emerging community, I know you recently won the Emerging Talent Award from re:imagine/ATL. When did you learn about that and how did that feel? Tell me a bit about that night. 

Clingman: That night was incredible. re:imagine/ATL is such an incredible organization, led by some fantastic people, one that happens to be one of my film colleagues, Ebony Blanding. I got connected with re:imagine through Ebony. She’s an incredible Black woman director in Atlanta, and I was looking for an opportunity to employ some of the youth for the productions that I was shooting. I was shooting a pilot called “Consider the Rainbow,” and we needed some PAs. I always like to find emerging talent, or people who just really want to get the chance to work and learn from the community on an indie level – I’m very passionate about indie projects. So I reached out to her, and she referred us to some of the re:imagine talent. 

We had a whole spreadsheet of all these different PAs, but I decided to go with two of their students. They were incredible. They were fantastic – so professional. Julie [Straw, executive director], over the re:imagine/ATL program, she was so thankful and grateful that I decided to bring them on. 

I started my relationship just by using some of the great talent that they had, and then found out that I was nominated for their Emerging Talent Award. It was such an amazing night, but even before the night, just seeing the work that re:imagine is doing, and the fact that they decided to use this year to celebrate talent in Atlanta who is actually doing the work – producing, for sure, is a thankless job, so it felt really good to be honored in that moment.

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.