Theater Review - Local playwrights take show to Manhattan

Jeremiah Parker Hobbs and Jessica De Maria bring The Last Time We Were Here to the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Fans of the Atlanta theater scene are familiar with Jeremiah Parker Hobbs and Jessica de Maria from their work on stage — this month Hobbs can be seen as Roger in Rent at Actor's Express, and de Maria is portraying Janet Conover and Helena Landless in the Stage Door Players production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. However, the weekend of July 25 both shows will feature the actors' understudies as Hobbs and de Maria take their own creation, The Last Time We Were Here, to the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).

The Last Time We Were Here began as a project in Hobbs' playwriting class at Columbus State University in 2008. "There's probably been 10 different incarnations of the show," he says, adding that he's revised and rewritten the work over the years. Hobbs met De Maria about two years ago at a Halloween party. "I mentioned that I had written a show and I wasn't incredibly proud of it; I didn't like the dialogue in it, but I loved the songs and I loved some of the poetry in it," he says.

A few months later Hobbs gave his new friend the script to review, and exactly 48 hours later De Maria came back with half of the script written out. She had changed the concept from a linear story to one that is more emotionally driven, and the actors continued to work on revising the play.

Hobbs describes the show as "a memory play with music more than a musical," centering on his character, Jacob, who is an up-and-coming singer/songwriter struggling with memories of his lost love, Grace, while performing an intimate set at the bar where they last saw each other. "We're really proud almost mostly of the poetry and the heightened language of the show," he notes. "With texting and emojis, no one speaks that way anymore." While Grace is a historian fascinated with the love letters exchanged by couples during WWII, Jacob is focused on developing his future, and the romance fails as they lose their ability to connect in the present.

Less than a year after their initial discussions in summer 2014, Hobbs and De Maria performed songs and some of the poetry from the play at Java Monkey in Decatur. It was warmly received, and they felt encouraged enough to submit the show to the Alliance Theatre's new works initiative. When they weren't accepted there, Hobbs notes that rather than getting discouraged, the duo took the rejection as a learning tool. "We immediately started looking at the show and saying, 'What can we do differently, how can we build this up to something that would be accepted?'" he says. Another festival submission resulted in a rejection, but one of the panelists loved the work and passed it along to one of his connections at the NYMF.

The NYMF has been a launching pad for several successful productions, with more than 90 of the 350 musicals being produced after the festival. Of those productions, 24 have transferred to off-Broadway, and the most famous alumni of the fest are the Broadway hits Next to Normal and title of show.

While they were encouraged and honored by the interest in their work, the actors then entered a long waiting period, enduring months without hearing anything from the festival and seeing the supposed notification date come and go. Finally, they were advised that their script had only reached the appropriate person after the selections had been made, but within two days of reading their submission, the festival decided to make room for The Last Time We Were Here.

The show will be performed twice in New York, with De Maria and Hobbs taking the stage together. A reading of the work earlier this year at Actor's Express featured a four-person cast, but the financial realities resulted in the decision to take it down to just two characters. Hobbs says losing two characters "consolidated a lot of things and ended up making it a lot clearer." The duo is also excited that several of their colleagues in the Atlanta theater community will finish their own Sunday matinees and then head to the airport to catch the Monday afternoon performance of the show in New York.

"The plan is really just to be seen, to get it out there, to be able to perform it up there and hopefully have some of the right people come see it and just get the word out," Hobbs says.

While he admits that even getting the show into the festival has been an overwhelming amount of success, now the next best-case scenario would involve obtaining financial backing and additional workshops of the show.

Just as Hobbs says the show is about "the difference between something being romantic and something being romanticized," this young team from Atlanta is showing that they are willing to put in the work to get their project from inspiration to expression.

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