The show must go on: Drama professor Justina Mattos overcomes pandemic restrictions

In adapting her teaching methods to an online format, drama and performing arts professor Justina Mattos has persevered by choosing to seize new learning opportunities over trying to change the new limitations.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Justina Mattos
Justina Mattos

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, performers all over the world are on an open-ended hiatus. But this obstacle is not one that Justina Mattos, assistant professor of drama and performing arts at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, has allowed to overwhelm her. Just because performances are suspended, doesn’t mean that performing arts students’ education can be, too.

Justine Mattos stands next to a banner reading UH Hilo Performing Arts. She holds two small signs, one in Hawaiian, and one translation "YOU'VE TOTALLY GOT THIS!"
Justina Mattos on the Campus Center Plaza pre-virus lockdown. Courtesy photo, click to enlarge.

“Like theatre practitioners around the world, I wasn’t too sure how the collaborative and communal part of theatre would translate to an online platform,” remembers Mattos about being confronted last March with quickly transitioning to video teaching. “We were mid-semester when we had to shift to 100 percent online modality, and three of my courses were very collaborative in nature. I had to figure out a way to allow the students to finish the semester alone, online, from the confines of their living quarters.”

Mattos began working for UH Hilo in 2002 as a lecturer for the communication and English departments. She was hired to her current position as assistant professor of performing arts and drama in 2017 and has since taught a variety of classes including introduction to drama, acting, directing, playwriting, and drama in education.

Recently she has taught drama of Hawai’i and the Pacific. Mattos says this course involves “reading and viewing plays by and about the people of Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Island nations, to examine the socio-historical dynamics in each of those places.” Drama, she says, “helps us to develop empathy and explore other perspectives, so I feel courses like this are especially important for us to understand the place where we live, as well as our neighbors throughout the Pacific.”

Online teaching

To accommodate the needs of each of these classes, Mattos explains that with online teaching, the learning goals and the content are still the same, but the method of delivering the content is different. To some extent, she says, the method of assessing student mastery of the content is different, too.

“I still try to keep some hands-on community outreach with each class, but obviously those are online now,” she explains. “My acting students will be videotaping their performances to share online, instead of performing them on stage. In some of my classes, students have to interview a professional, and those interviews will be shared on our class website.”

Of course, the current circumstances are less than ideal for a performing arts educator. Mattos confirms this by observing, “Acting and directing are the most difficult classes to convert to an online platform. Two things I emphasize in acting and directing are: effective use of space, and interacting with other people within that space. Unfortunately, these understandings of space have dramatically changed and are limited to what students can see on Zoom.”

A left is director Justina Mattos giving two actors direction on the stage. Background is empty tiered theatre seating.
Justina Mattos (left) directs two actors during rehearsal of Aloha Las Vegas, a local-style comedy presented at the UH Hilo Performing Arts Center in April 2018. Mattos says the two things she emphasizes most in directing are effective use of space and interacting with other people within that space. These understandings are now dramatically changed with the restrictions of online teaching and learning. Courtesy photo.

Yet, Mattos has persevered by choosing to seize new learning opportunities over trying to change these limitations.

“Our work online necessarily becomes less physical and more cerebral; less communal and more individual,” she says. “The scale of the work is smaller and more detailed, because the space we are working in is smaller. While previously, I focused on helping student actors and directors create interesting pictures that would fill a stage, now I help them use more filmic techniques to tell a story within a tiny picture frame.”

She goes on to express, “I think the biggest challenge is to ensure that the sense of community is not lost. I hope that by challenging students to stretch beyond their comfort zones, witnessed and supported by their peers, we will still achieve the sense of community that we strive for in theatre.”

An A+ for the teacher

The success of Mattos’s transition to online learning is demonstrated through positive feedback from her students. In a recent anonymous survey where students were asked which professors transitioned to online teaching the best, Mattos is praised for being “extremely clear in what she expected and provided many resources for students. She was accommodating of students in remote areas with limited internet access and she was extremely organized and prepared. [She] had a great way of teaching online classes where students could go ahead and do future assignments, giving themselves more time in the future for other assignments.” Also noted is that Mattos was “always providing students with helpful information about school updates.”

Some new technological programs that Mattos is using for classes are Screencast-O-Matic, YouTube, Flipgrid, and Zoom. “In one class, I also utilize an interactive map tool called Padlet, introduced to me by [online teaching and learning specialist] Cindy Yamaguchi who, along with her team, has been an incredible support for faculty learning the intricacies of Laulima and other online teaching tools,” says Mattos. Laulima is the UH System’s long-established online learning and collaboration system.

Grid of nine students in class on video platform.
Screenshot of Justina Mattos’s students in class on Flipgrid. Image by Justina Mattos.

Online directing and producing

Although very busy with providing students with a quality education, Mattos has also found time to direct. More impressively, she is finding ways to keep theatre alive during the pandemic.

Before the COVID-19 lockdown last March, Mattos explains that the cast and crew were only two weeks away from opening The Conversion of Kaʻahumanu before production was ceased. “I was able to capture our final rehearsal on videotape,” she says. “I’m waiting for our collaborators at Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Hawaiian language charter school to complete their videos so that I can incorporate those. We hope to share the final product online by the end of December.”

Mattos was also sure to keep working over the summer. Working closely with Kepano Richter, a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, the two produced Moore: A Pacific Island Othello. “It’s a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello,” Mattos says. “We plan to release it online to educational audiences on November first. Students will be able to see it by logging in with their email addresses.”

Currently, Mattos is working on Scary Scenarios 2020 which she says will be an evening of Halloween-themed monologues performed online by students. “There’s a little bit of everything: some scary pieces, some sad, some sweet and some fun,” says the director. The evening will be divided into three sections: one appropriate for everyone, including young audiences; one appropriate for general audiences (PG-13 and up); and one for mature audiences (may contain disturbing content). Performances will be held online during the last three nights of October; webinar opens at 6:30 p.m. with performances beginning at 7:00 p.m. Register in advance.

Advice to students: Use this time to your advantage

During this stressful and isolating time brought on by the virus, Mattos wants all students to remember that college is a time of exploration. She says that no matter what, “Do something you love. Create your own reason to look forward to engaging with class. You may never again have such a rich opportunity to explore as you do during these years, so take advantage of it. Education is what you make of it. Enjoy it.”


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo. 

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