Katerina Stoykova-Klemer is known in the Lexington area for her poetry and her WRFL-FM radio show. But she never acted, until she got the lead in Lexington director Thom Southerland's latest movie.
It helps that she inspired it.
"I head Katerina's voice on the radio on WRFL, on her Friday afternoon show, and I had never met her before," Southerland recalls. "She was interviewing someone, and I was really taken with her voice and how she was communicating ideas on the radio, and I thought, well if her voice can do that, I wonder if her entire being can do that."
Eventually, they met by chance, and Southerland and she began creating the story that would become Proud Citizen, which has its Lexington premiere Thursday night at the Kentucky Theatre.
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The name comes from Proud Citizen, the 2002 Kentucky Derby runner-up who now stands at Midway's Airdrie Stud. Stoykova-Klemer's character meets the Thoroughbred in the movie and Southerland says it seemed fitting for the character's pride in her home country of Bulgaria.
"He kind of let us play ourselves, for the most part," Stoykova-Klemer says. "He didn't put any of us in unnatural roles for ourselves."
She immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria in 1995, initially working as a software engineer for high-tech companies. Late in the last decade, she earned an MFA in writing from Spalding University and has since published several books of poetry and prose in English and Bulgarian.
The character she and Southerland created is Krasi, a Bulgarian writer who comes in second in a playwriting competition. The winner gets to come to America with his family for a production in New York. Krasi gets to come alone for a production in Kentucky.
"Thom had the idea of seeing Kentucky through the eyes of a visitor," says Stoykova-Klemer, whose own writing, a dramatic poetry collection called Black Coat, became the play Krasi brought to America.
Southerland is primarily known for documentary work, and while he wanted to create a feature film, he didn't want to work from a script. So the story and the scenes were outlined, but the dialogue was improvised, which is why he went looking for actors like Stoykova-Klemer, who aren't necessarily actors.
"I wasn't necessarily looking for great actors," Southerland says. "I was looking for people who were intelligent, willing to collaborate and quick witted, quick on their feet."
The cast includes a number of familiar faces to Lexington theatergoers though, including former Balagula Theatre co-artistic director Ryan Case, theater artists Natalie Cummins, Leif Erickson, Sami Allison (and her 3-year-old son Elliott Moore Haynes), Seattle actress Judy Sanders and Blakeley Burger, who may be best known in Lexington for her violin and fiddle work with groups like the Hollow Bodies.
Most of the film was shot in and around Lexington, though Southerland also had footage shot in Bulgaria by a photojournalist based there when Stoykova-Klemer went to Bulgaria during filming. With a shooting budget of $7,500, which Southerland calls a microbudget for a film, there was no money for international travel, though he says the Bulgarian footage was vital for telling the story.
The film was shot in 2012, assembled in 2013, and spent the latter half of last year on the festival circuit, where it was the jury winner for narrative feature at the New Orleans Film Festival in October, audience favorite at the Knoxville Film Festival, best narrative feature at Weyauwega Film Festival in Wisconsin, best narrative feature and a special acting award for Stoykova-Klemer at Paducah's River's Edge Film Festival.
"Every single one of the screenings has been very special to me," Stoykova-Klemer says. "Hearing people laugh, that's awesome, knowing people are enjoying the film."
Southerland says it has been particularly gratifying to be competitive with films that had budgets several times Proud Citizen's.
And Stoykova-Klemer says that after she got over her fears of acting, she really enjoyed the experience.
"I really like doing this, because when I am writing a poem, I can only make it as good as I can write it," she says. "But in group art, and this is my first experience with group art, it's not like that. The film can become better than my acting, better than my part.
"One plus one can become much more."