Ric Royer's New Book And CD are the Same--But Different
"There are two things I learned in college," says local performance artist Ric Royer of his experiences at the University of Buffalo and Towson University. "One is how to continue going to college. They tell you how to take the loan out, how to register, and when you graduate they teach you how to go to grad school and then how to teach. And the other thing I learned was something one of my mentors, Robert Creeley, told me--to write what you don't know and you'll always get the most out of it and your readers will get the most out of it."
Royer's coy grin suggests that he knows he's being both serious and silly, a look that crosses his face many times during an hourlong conversation at a Charles Village coffeehouse. Nursing a too-sweet strawberry lemonade, Royer has wryly encapsulated There Were One and It Was Two: Annotated Artifacts from the Doubles Museum, a new spoken-word performance CD and book that's his first project with Narrow House Recordings and the local poetry publisher's most ambitious project to date. It's a funny, informative, and freakishly entertaining exploration of the concept of the double--as otherness, as twins, as pairings, as doppelgängers, and so on--in literature, in psychology, in epistemology, in nature, in mythology, and in the serendipitous collisions of all of the above. As with most of Royer's live performances, each of There Were One's 10 individual tracks takes the form of the narrative lecture, with sound accompaniment provided by local unconscious thought mover/shaker John Berndt.
Don't misconstrue that setup, however: Royer and Berndt aren't tapping into some Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen hep-cat bop wonking. There Were One is one of the city's most genuinely odd cultural artifacts in some time. It's not going to wave its freak flag in your face, though. Royer's mind works in much more subdued ways. As in, multiple listens and perusals of the CD and booklet calibrates the brain to take note of Royer's admission that he learned two things in college. There Were One is entirely predicated on the curious mind's ability to find instances of pairings/doubling in everyday life. All you have to do is start wondering what--not if--they mean anything.
Of course, part of the fun here is that this "double phenomena" is and isn't a cold, hard fact. Yes, the history of occidental thought is littered with different examples and theories that rely on observations-qua-understandings of pairings and polar opposites. From Charles Darwin to Claude Levi-Strauss, animal procreation and creation myths have cited instances of doubling as integral early stages of physical and cultural development. Many theories of knowledge systems are predicated by forming meaning in opposition--light and dark, fire and water, good and evil--that cascades out through Hegelian duality, the Lacanian mirror stage, the Jungian thing, and so on. And these notions filter into literature and the stories we tell--Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray and his portrait, Cain and Abel, Narcissus and his own reflection, David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers--as well as the fascination with its literal manifestations in natural phenomena of twins, disparate things that look almost exactly alike, déjà vu, anatomic bilateral symmetry. Just what we extract from all this, though, is equal parts observable science and intellectual creativity.
"I'm sure I've been into it since, as a child, I recognized that there were multiple selves involved, when I first recognized the Other," Royer laughs while explaining his own fascination with doubling. It probably began "when I first saw the Doubles Museum--well, the Museum of the Double, because there is such a thing as the Museum of the Double. And the Doubles Museum, which I refer to in the book, is, I guess, the double of the Museum of the Double. And it does have two curators, these [in the performance] are fictionalized versions. And I first saw that in 1999, 2000."
As curated by Cal Clements and former Baltimorean Julia Dzwonkoski, the small collection of the Museum of the Double was a traveling exhibition that contained various artifacts (photos, hand-made ephemera, art) that explored doubling--Royer says it's curatorial motto was "Two where there should be one." (For There Were One, the Doubles Museum's curators are Canadian educators Jill Millings and Dr. Armand Rudge.) Royer saw it for the first time as an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo, donated a few pieces to its collection, and the experience instantly seeped into his own work.
"I can't really explain it--it's inspired several projects and essays," Royer says. "There must be something involving the double that I'm really curious about and therefore would do an entire research project and book, CD, whatever--because I don't know."
Royer does know what he's doing onstage, though, and if you've never seen it, you're missing something wonderfully innocuous. A petite man of slender build and short dark hair, Royer tends to dress benignly--plain slacks and tucked or untucked plain oxford shirt or some other ordinary men's collared attire--and often looks like he's onstage to announce that somebody left their car lights on. He doesn't look like somebody about to lead you on a Byzantine journey through some collaged narrative of partial fact and inspired fiction, much less entertain you in the process. Entertaining monologists are neurotic, twitchy, personalities telegraphed in their frazzled and frayed attired. Royer looks like he could give you user-friendly directions to the nearest Target.
It's all part of his congenial disarming of his audience. The mundane stage personality is part of who he is--offstage, you're not going to find Royer in bell-bottoms and ironic T-shirts--but you suspect that it's also because he recognizes that the there is no better costume than that of the average American white guy, from whom 1) casual American society expects absolutely nothing and 2) casual American society lets get away with anything. And when such a man gets onstage and starts talking in a everyday, mellifluous voice, you pay attention, only so far as you want to know what you're about to ignore.
Royer shape-shifts before that dismissal happens. "The twins," Royer evenly intones in the There Were One piece of the same name, as if he were introducing 60 Minutes. It's immediately followed by the tongue-twisting "One more like the other than the other is more like the one. Unmistakably the same in every detail . . . except the way the ears bend towards pitches, the way the smiles curl, the way the sex manifested at birth."
The piece then courses through a elliptical discussion of Narcissus and sex and death before bubbling up into a discursive froth of sincere weirdness: "It takes a tender attack to make a rattle. It takes two halves to whole. Now, let us imagine it together. Come on, everyone out there listening, imagining at the same time, twins of opposite sex having sex, conceiving weird shadows animated on cave walls by flickering torches. These doubles, these doubles, these doubles, collect all of the emotion we feel--whether it be joy, sorrow, or relief--and reconfigures them on the shadow of the brain where everything re-merges as morbid anxiety."
Royer's ruminations hit the ears better through the CD than they read on the page, even though what's written isn't always the same as what's said. "I'd rather perform my projects--it's more of a rush than sitting in a room and writing," he says. "And I'm more comfortable performing. Performance takes advantage of certain ways of expressing language. So I've always wanted to do this type of project with audio and text together as a document for performance--and I figured this would be a great performance for it, the double, and have two versions of the same thing, similar but slightly different, which is the theme throughout the text. There are two things and they are very similar, but they're slightly different--and what is the difference and what's important about the difference?"
He is and isn't being serious. That's part of the point. "As I'm setting up a project, two major things that I make sure that are there [are] that it has a certain depth--a certain death, too--but not at the sake of fun," Royer says. "It should be humorous and utilize irony but not the irony in the way that all art of my generation uses irony, which is usually to hide behind. But to also express something that is very significant for you. Like, I do a lot of song of dance in the performance, and a little bit of sleight of hand, I guess. But there are some moments where I just stand up and say, `I'm in love and it makes me kind of afraid.' So one not forsaking the other."
Like all his previous work, There Were One started as a performance that became captured on this release. For his next project, though, Royer is going to reverse his process, writing something before turning it into a performance. And this latest project came to Royer during his first bout of insomnia a couple of months ago. "Not being able to get to sleep--and my circadian rhythm wasn't thrown off at all," Royer says. "I'd go to sleep at 3 but I'd still wake up at 8. I'd go to sleep at 5 I'd still wake up at 8. And I said, `You know, that's a huge subject that I'm very interested in that I never learned about.' Reading about it definitely helped. Insomnia is stress related, and one of my major stresses was that I didn't know what I was doing next. I didn't have a capital-P project. So I used my lack of sleep as that project. And I was getting comfortable with how I was doing things, so why not change that?"
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