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Playwright happily shouts from 'Roof' tops; Kleiman's one-act play featured at city festival


Talk to Sheila Kleiman long enough and you will realize that she takes words very seriously.

The thoughtful Columbia playwright chooses her sentences precisely to convey exactly what she means. Next month, her words will be featured at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, which will include her one-act play, "Up on the Roof," as part of its annual showcase.

The play focuses on Benjamin, 80, who grapples with the loss of his independence while interacting with his daughter and a young girl he meets on the roof.

Kleiman said having her work selected by the festival is a great honor.

"It's an amazing festival, and it's representative of about seven theaters in the area," said Kleiman, who is a member of the Washington Playwrights Forum and whose works have been read around the state. "This is a really big thing for me."

Kleiman, 57, has always had a good eye for what makes a story. Born in New York and raised in Baltimore, she has been writing most of her life.

"I can't remember a time when I wasn't imagining and making stories," she said as she relaxed in her Columbia home. "My mind is always going, and I could be driving somewhere and there's a story. There's a story everywhere with everybody."

She received her training as an observer of the world early. Kleiman began working at age 12 as a baby sitter and page at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Growing up, she had big dreams for her writing.

"When I was young, my aspirations were to go to Broadway," Kleiman said, chuckling. "As I have matured, my aspirations are 'Give me a reading.' "

To get those readings, Kleiman works hard at her craft. Her bedroom doubles as her work space, and a computer shares space with dozens of books about writing.

A member of the Writer's Center in Bethesda and an avid reader of suspense novels, Kleiman began focusing on writing plays eight years ago.

Two years ago, she retired from her job as a paralegal with the Federal Aviation Administration to devote more time to writing.

"In order to write, you need to have energy," Kleiman explained. "Now, I set my own schedule, and sometimes I stay up late at night to write."

Not that Kleiman's life is all work and no play. She is a self-proclaimed "movie nut" who tries to take in at least a film a week -- sometimes squeezing in as many as several a day. Another passion, the Orioles, consumes her during baseball season, and she watches or listens to all 162 games.

"I'm obsessed with baseball," said Kleiman, who is a season-ticket holder even though she prefers to watch or listen to the games from home. "I count the days until spring training, and I don't let up until the World Series in November."

When she is not rooting her favorite team on, Kleiman is formulating characters and stories. Her work has ranged from 10-minute plays to the full-length play she is working on.

She said she is always thinking of ideas.

"I am a dialogue person," said Kleiman, who has expanded "Up on the Roof" from a 30-minute, one-act play to 90 minutes. "I really get into what the characters have to say."

Gareth Kelly will direct "Up on the Roof" for the festival and describes it as "a wonderful play."

"It gives a great deal of emotional range for an older actor," said Kelly, who continues to cast for the lead role in the play. "It tugs at your heartstrings."

Allan Lefcowitz, artistic director at the Writer's Center in Bethesda where Kleiman is a member, said the center sponsored a reading of the play in February.

"We chose her play to do as part of our play series," Lefcowitz said. "It showed a facility with dialogue and an ability to set a kind of scene that made you feel like you are dealing with people instead of actors."

Even without the accolades, Kleiman said, she still would have to write. Luckily for her, the woman who once wrote "Chicken Sidney" -- a play that centers on the kidnapping of a stuffed chicken and a trial featuring Lt. Will B. Fried as one of the prosecutor's main witnesses -- is a respected playwright whose work will be discussed May 28 at Borders Books & Music in Columbia.

"I love everything I do," Kleiman said, smiling. "It's wonderful."

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