When Kenzie was in the third grade – more than fifteen years ago now, Jesus – I wrote a serial comic strip called Time Out! At the time, and still today, parents were encouraged to discipline their children by extracting them from the milieu in which they performed whatever antisocial act got them in trouble and placing them in isolation – their bedroom, or some more austere impersonal space offering fewer distractions – so that the kids could cool off and reflect on their misdeeds. This is not punishment, advocates of the time-out tactic informed frustrated parents: it’s providing your child with an opportunity. I was skeptical. How do you know what’s going on behind the closed doors of the isolation chamber, or in the head of the kid consigned to that solitary opportunity space? And so I started writing the comic. In the first episode the parent reminds Avery that whatever she/he did was “not okay.” The time out chamber is opened, Avery is escorted inside, and the parent leaves, closing the door. For each of twenty-one installments the comic reveals what Avery is thinking about while languishing in time out. Those thoughts are many and varied, but none seems to follow the expected trajectory forecast by the disciplinary engineers who invented and promulgated the protocol.
Every Tuesday morning after escorting Kenzie into her classroom I would deliver the latest Time Out! episode, hand-drawn and copied two-sided on a single sheet, into the cubbyholes assigned to the parents of our daughter’s classmates. As I recall only one set of parents ever talked to me about the comic; who knows what was going on inside the heads of the rest.
After finishing the series it occurred to me that Time Out! could be turned into an entertaining, even enlightening school fundraiser by staging it as a theatrical intervention. For each episode in the series parents would take the roles of Avery, the parent, and the narrator, reading from scripts based on the comic. There are twenty-one panels per installment, which would take maybe a couple of minutes to perform. At the end of episode one the three actors would rejoin the audience, replaced by three other parents for episode two. I never did it though.
Now, years later, cued largely by the physical presence of the restored Courthouse in my wife’s home town, the theatrical moment returns, and with it the idea of staging these cartoons. In the Time Out! comic the gavel has already come down and Colonel Lynch has already escorted the defendant from the courtroom into custody – as if the trial already took place in Act One and now we’ve moved on to Act Two of Avery’s Via Dolorosa. Now, unspooling inside a static Limbo that is neither a jail cell nor freedom, a proliferation of post-condemnatory fictions takes shape in Avery’s imagination. And so there’s this oscillation between freedom and incarceration, between expansion and contraction, between opening out and locking down, between difference and sameness.
What’s needed is an Act One, where Avery’s case is presented before the Judge. Some alleged transgression is recounted, evidence is presented, mitigating circumstances are described. The verdict is rendered: Not Okay. Repeat with a second charge: Not Okay. Do it fourteen times, the misdeeds perhaps extending beyond childhood, across Avery’s lifespan into adulthood. As the gavel comes down for the last time Colonel Lynch is summoned to escort Avery into the outer darkness. Hit the lights. Act Two begins. Now the setting is the Time Out chamber. Three actors perform the sequence of Time Out! comic-strip episodes.