The first time Trevor Martin created a performance-art piece, it was on a dare.
He had declared an English major at Transylvania University, but then he became intrigued by what he saw coming out of the art department. He enrolled in a sculpture class. After Martin had been in the art department for a while, associate art professor Florence Thorne told Martin he needed to try something.
"Of course, when Florence tells you that you need to do something, you have to follow through," Martin says. "It was such an invitation."
Martin went very public with his first piece, performing it in on the Transylvania campus' Haupt Plaza next to the Old Morrison administration building. It involved a cellist, Martin dressed all in black, a baby, an axe and cans of tomato soup — "My homage to Andy Warhol," Martin says, laughing.
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"It was an image-based, small-spectacle moment," Martin says. "I come to understand a work much later, after I do it. ... Some people said it was a critique of the administration, offering up our children for tuition and they chop them up. That really wasn't my intention, but the porous nature of interpretation intrigued me."
Performance art clearly intrigued Martin, too. After graduating from Transy in 1992, he went on to major in performance art at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is now the director of exhibitions at the institute's school and a performance art teacher.
This week, Martin will be back at his Lexington alma mater, speaking to classes and presenting one of his performance pieces, Afterword: In Search of an Epilogue, on Thursday night at Transylvania's Carrick Theatre.
It's a response to William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet that takes the tale in a very different direction.
"In my version of the story, Romeo and Juliet are both dead, but they're haunting me because we had a love triangle," Martin says. "Romeo was really in love with me to begin with, and then Juliet wooed him away. So he's still haunting me, and Juliet is haunting me because she doesn't want me taking her man."
It is one of numerous pieces Martin developed during a 14-year partnership with fellow performance artist Kym Olsen in Chicago.
"We might start with a question, start with an image, such as Joan of Arc or King Kong or a question, and start researching outward from there," Martin says. "The research may be giving each other assignments to come into the studio to create suggestive sequences that follow a pattern or words, or exchange articles that seemed relevant in some way to the topic. A lot of times, being in the rehearsal studio together, a lot of improvisational things happen, and we always try to videotape everything so that we can look at it later. These might be four-, six-hour rehearsal times, and we may forget by the end of it what we found in the middle."
Martin and Olsen's pieces can take more than a year to develop.
All of this is a far cry from what Martin expected his life would be as he was growing up in Taylorsville, a small town southeast of Louisville. His five brothers all work or have previously worked with the Louisville fire department.
"Some people joke and say, 'How did you escape that, Trevor?'" Martin says.
When he went looking for a college, he wanted the experience of a small liberal arts school and was impressed by Transylvania.
"It was a good place for me and a wonderful experience," Martin says.
Now, he is part of an active Transy alumni group in Chicago that he says has about 80 people across generations in and around the city. Martin pops by the Transy campus every so often, but he says this will be the first time he has performed there in more than a decade.
"I'm excited to be back to visit, to have dialogue with some students," Martin says.
In his piece, he says, he will use one of the distinctive features of the Carrick Theatre: It shares a back stage with Haggin Auditorium. There will be a point when the curtains will be opened.
"You see the emptiness staring back at you across the way," Martin says. "The absence of the bodies will come into view."
He says pieces always adapt to the spaces in which they are performed, and it's particularly exciting to adapt it to a unique feature of his old school.