UH Hilo thespian, playwright, director and award-winning educator Justina Mattos receives tenure

Associate Professor of Drama Justina Mattos is driven by a work ethos founded in the desire to shepherd collaboration between herself, students, and the local community at large.

Justina Mattos pictured
Justina Mattos (Courtesy photo)

This story is part of a series on newly tenured faculty.

Justina Mattos, an alumna of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo and now an associate professor of drama and chairperson of the Department of Performing Arts at her alma mater, has received tenure.

Mattos grew up attending public schools on O‘ahu and in Hilo and received her bachelor of arts in liberal studies with an emphasis in theatre from UH Hilo. She received her master of arts in theatre from the University of Oregon, and her doctor of philosophy in theatre history and criticism from UH Mānoa. She began working at UH Hilo in 2002 as a lecturer for the communication and English departments.


When not teaching a multitude of courses in acting, directing, playwriting, dramatic literature, and other performing arts subjects, Mattos is a director and playwright with a focus in ʻōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) and culture, a hallmark of her scholarly work. Productions have ranged from comedies and dramas to musicals and theatre for young audiences.

“My area of specialty is the local theatre of Hawaiʻi, so Pidgin plays and Hawaiian language plays are my favorite projects,” she says. “I also write plays in English and Pidgin or children’s plays in Hawaiian language.”

In costume, three actors as little pigs, and a wild dog grabbing a little stone house.
Associate Professor Justina Mattos says it’s valuable for school children to be exposed to theater. In looking for more opportunities to reach out to children in local schools, she decided to add a touring element to her Acting Troupe (DRAM 421) class. Mattos directed performances of three popular children’s plays in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) in 2018. Students taking the course performed the plays, which Mattos had translated from their English versions into Hawaiian language. The performances took place at the Hilo Public Library and five Hilo elementary schools during the spring 2018 semester. Above, in Nā Pua‘a Li‘ili‘i ‘Ekolu (The Three Little Pigs), the pigs (Maraea Ku‘uleimomimakamae Lindsey Ventura, Faith Makanalani Kraus, and Kahau‘olilani Keli‘ikuli, at right) cower in fear of the wild dog ‘Īlio Hae (Reece Naukana-Christensen, at left). (Courtesy photo)

She elaborates on the history of Hawaiian theatre and her specialized interest.

“What we think of as theatre in Hawai‘i today is based on an imported Western model that, up until recently, didn’t include Hawaiian language or traditional Hawaiian modes of performance,” Mattos says. “After the Hawaiian language resurgence of the 1980s we began to slowly see its incorporation within western dramatic forms. The field of fully Hawaiian language plays is still young, and there are not very many people in the world who write in that language, for that medium.”

Within this context, Mattos says her greatest contributions to the field of performing arts are her plays produced for keiki, her collaborative work with UH Hilo’s Hawaiian language medium laboratory school Ke Kula ‘O Nāwahīokalani‘ōpu‘u, and her role in producing the annual statewide Keaka Hawaiian Language Theatre Festival that UH Hilo facilitates and hosts.

“As a teacher, writer, and director, the work I am most passionate about involves sharing stories that are relevant to people here,” she says. “My most meaningful work reflects the social, environmental, political, and economic realities experienced in Hawaiʻi.” This can be seen in her academic writing covering topics such as inclusiveness and collaboration in local theatre, and in her creative writing with plays and tales about local characters dealing with life born of Hawai‘i’s unique culture.

Lights! Camera! Action!

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 at the Campus Center Plaza pre-virus lockdown. (Courtesy photo)

In her academic pursuits at the university, Mattos is driven by a work ethos founded in the desire to shepherd collaboration between herself, her students, and the local community at large.

“I direct the plays for our department,” she says, “but I say ‘we’ when discussing them, because performing arts is not a one-person operation. It is always a collaboration.”

Mattos believes the ability to actively collaborate, cooperate, and communicate effectively with a group in order to facilitate a shared project is one of those “soft skills” that many employers are looking for today. Organizing and directing theatrical productions offers students and community members an opportunity to learn and practice those skills. Not only are strong communication skills desirable in the workforce, but also in day-to-day life.

While in-person interactions were curbed for the past two years by restrictions brought on by covid, it was “Lights! Camera! Action!” with Mattos every step of the way.

“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 in early 2020 with quickly transitioning to video teaching.

So she adapted her teaching strategies.

And in 2021, Mattos received the UH Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Teaching.

Why? Because she’s amazingly effective even in the face of adversity: she kept the goals and the content the same in her online classes, kept some hands-on community outreach as best she could, and developed such effective digital learning experiences for her students that many platforms will remain in place as the restrictions ease.  

Online or in-person, Mattos says every incoming freshman at UH Hilo could benefit from a little theatre training to help them cope with new stresses of university life.

“They are coming into a new phase in life and a new environment where they don’t know anybody,” she says. “Some don’t even know themselves very well, and don’t know what they want to do with their life. A beginning acting class provides them with opportunities for self-reflection and helps them learn about other people by stepping into their shoes. Best of all, they often forge strong friendships that can help them navigate those challenging years of early adulthood.”

Now showing

Associate Professor Mattos is currently working on the production of two shows.

Following a children’s musical she directed last spring called Wordsworth that was filmed in ʻōlelo Hawai‘i, she is now directing a live performance of the show to be produced this fall and performed Nov. 4- 6.

Scary Scenarios, an annual student-performed Halloween-themed work that Mattos has produced since 2017 for the entertainment of UH Hilo students and community, is now available for viewing (it went from a live performance to digital during covid, providing students with such immensely beneficial learning experiences in digital adaptation that it’s been decided to keep the production online).

Additionally, Mattos is working on a storytelling series called Wailau that was launched last year and is aimed to build connections between members of campus and the wider community. “Storytelling is a wonderful way to help us recognize the humanity of the people around us, beyond the professional or personal roles they may hold in daily life,” she says. Wailau, started during covid restrictions as an online production, will be held live for the first time in November.

In another lock-down inspired project, Mattos gathered together an online group for playwrights, called Keakalehua, to hear their works read out loud and receive feedback from other writers, producers, directors, and actors. Members are from Hawai‘i, the U.S. continent, Aotearoa, Australia, and the Philippines and many of the shared works have become fully staged, successful productions.

Coming attractions

Coming up for Mattos are curricular collaborations with other programs at the university: a new Certificate in Hawai‘i Performing Arts with Ka Haka ʻUla o Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, and a proposed Certificate in Dance Kinesiology with the Department of Kinesiology and Exercise Sciences.

And live stage performances are returning.

“I’m excited that we are able to return to live staged productions again!” she says. “I know that people have missed the communal aspect of theatre. At the same time, I think we learned a lot during the last two years of creating digital work, and I would like to keep some aspect of that, continuing to offer some productions or showcases online.”

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 were dramatically changed with the restrictions of online teaching and learning during the pandemic. Courtesy photo.

But returning to in-person community collaboration is clearly Mattos’s passion.

“I’m also looking forward to reviving our outreach to K-12 schools,” she says. “Pre-covid, I was working on building that into a regular part of some of our classes. Now that restrictions have lifted, I hope we can reinvigorate those efforts with our dance, music, and drama classes. I think that after-school programs are often extremely underserved, and I would like to write and tour a new bi-lingual play for them.”

Edited by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor.  

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