Announcing the Winners of the Inaugural James Stevenson Prize for Comedic Short Plays!

The James Stevenson Prize was created to bring the finest American comedic writing to a nationwide audience. In his cartoons for The New Yorker, Mr. Stevenson told stories about the human comedy with energy and economy. This prize in Stevenson’s name, sponsored by his wife Josie Merck, recognizes his love of theater, as well as his extraordinary ability to pack a punch with very few lines.

“Jim was an irreverent soul who revered the truth in humor.  He would be pleased to know that the three Stevenson Prize winners are so truthful - and funny as hell," said judge and playwright Willy Holtzman.  

The winning plays were selected from nearly 600 entries. Playwrights Holtzman, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and Paul Rudnick served as guest judges for the final round of the competition, along with Merck, Bonnie Antosh (Playing on Air’s Literary Manager), and Claudia Catania (Playing on Air's Founder and Producing Artistic Director).

"We received an overwhelming number of contest submissions from playwrights across the country, and those plays, read collectively, provided a unique window into the hopes - and especially fears - that are gripping writers at this moment," said Antosh. "Gracie, Lily, and Elizabeth's scripts are remarkable in how they confront the unexpected with wit, candor, and inventiveness."

"It was a joy to encounter so many funny writers,” said Jacobs-Jenkins on the experience of judging. Rudnick agreed that selecting the final trio “was a tough choice, because the submissions were terrific: funny and touching and highly original. What a joy to honor James Stevenson with the work of such gifted and wildly entertaining writers.”


First Prize - HATE BABY by Gracie Gardner

Gracie Gardner is a proud member of the Obie-winning group Youngblood at Ensemble Studio Theater, a SPACE on Ryder Farm Resident, and an affiliated artist at Less Than Rent Theatre. Her play Pussy Sludge was the winner of the 2017 Relentless Award, and her Athena was recently named a New York Times Critics’ Pick. Other work includes Panopticon (Clubbed Thumb Biennial Finalist), The Student From New Jersey (Manhattan Theatre Club Sloan Foundation Commission), Spa Play (Bridge Residency), Primary (Project Playwright Award), IndianapolisAlyssa1985 Is Getting Married (Dixon Place), Very Dumb Kids (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music Commission), Human Resources (James E. Michael Award), Manning Manning Manning (Horn Gallery Grant) and Ballgirl (Samuel French OOB Festival Winner).

Other residencies include the Kenyon Playwrights Conference, Two River Theater, and Collaborative Artists Mobility Project. Her work has been seen at the New Group, Williamstown Theater Festival, Two Headed Rep, Hearth Gods, the High Line, Naked Angels. Upcoming presentations include the Old Vic in London and New York Theatre Workshop.

Second Prize - HEDGEHOG YEARS by Lily Akerman

Lily Akerman is from New York. Her work has appeared in the Dublin Fringe Festival, Cork Midsummer Festival, YES Noise Festival, and in readings with the Bechdel Project and the New Theatre.  She has written several librettos, including Interface (Royal Irish Academy of Music), Off Court (Princeton One Act Opera Project), Front of House (nominated Best Opera by the Irish Times), and Backstage, part of a site-specific opera trilogy in the Cork Opera House.  She’s a Fulbright scholar and a New Georges affiliated artist, currently a member of Clubbed Thumb's Early Career Writer's Group. MFA in Playwriting, Hunter College.

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Third prize - Horse LAtitudes (who wants to be an equine extra?) by Elizabeth Logun

Plays by Elizabeth Logun have been developed and produced by The Lark, L.A. Stage & Film, Ensemble Studio Theatre (LA & NYC), Naked Angels, and The Actors Studio. She is a Playwrights Unit and Company member of EST/LA, as well as of playwright Jose Rivera’s Los Angeles writers group. Logun, who also writes for animation, holds a BFA from S.U.N.Y. Purchase.


When asked about the qualities of Stevenson's work that inspired her winning play, a dark comedy about the unexpected realities of becoming a mother, Gardner cited the cartoonist's "honesty in uncovering scary things to poke at." "When I wrote Hate Baby, I remember being sort of embarrassed because I've always been pretty scared of children and babies and terrified of how fragile they are," Gardner said. "That would be in the spirit of [Stevenson's] writing - talking about these difficult topics with humor."

Beyond the usual distillation required of short plays, the Stevenson Prize competition challenged writers to submit scripts suited to the medium of audio theater. "I didn't originally write this piece as a radio play, but I think it works as one, and I'm excited to hear it without visuals, all the images conjured through sound," said Akerman. “I never know if what I write will find an audience, and when it does, wow, it's like putting the last piece in a puzzle. I can finally see what the whole thing looks like. Or in this case, sounds like."

As part of the Prize, Playing on Air will record Gardner's HATE BABY live at their annual benefit, where it will appear in a double header of short plays with David Auburn's AN UPSET. The December 3rd party and performance will take place at the 52nd Street Project’s Five Angels Theater; details and tickets are available now at

"I'm so surprised and delighted, just really excited that [Hate Baby] is going to reach a wide audience," Gardner said. "There are things in this play that I'd never heard people talk about until they had kids. I hope it's clear that the play is meant to be raising questions about how we raise little boys and what we're teaching them - how we're raising young children so they become good people."

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