The son of a professional singer in New York City, Chris Matsos spent his childhood attending Broadway plays with his father and perfecting his impersonations of celebrated actor Gary Oldman. Occasionally, young Matsos would take the stage himself in his mother’s productions.
Today, Matsos, newly-hired professor of the Hillsdale College department of theatre and dance, is starting his first semester here on campus alongside his wife Tory, lecturer in theatre and dance. He will be teaching Understanding Theatre, Theatre History II, and Acting I.
His talents are not limited to the classroom, however. After studying theatre and religion at The College of Wooster in Ohio, he earned his Master of Fine Arts in acting at the University of Florida.
He then worked professionally for a few years, acting, directing, and playwriting. He has worked at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, The British Shakespeare Company, and Sight and Sound Theatre, where he met Tory, a 2002 Hillsdale graduate. Additionally, Matsos worked as an extra on the set of “Batman Begins,” witnessing Christian Bale’s final jump from the top of a building at the end of the movie.
One of Matsos’ most recent roles was “Black ’Stache” in Farmers Alley Theatre’s production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.” Over the course of the play, his character loses his hand and becomes the infamous Captain Hook from the beloved children’s story.
One of the audience members at the production was none other than James Brandon, chair of the department of theatre and dance at Hillsdale, who said that Matsos’ performance was a “scene stealer.”
“He is a very genuine person, and very open, and you feel like you know him right away, and then to see him play Captain Hook on the stage,” Brandon said. “He’s unrecognizable, and that, of course, is what good acting is supposed to be.”
When he witnessed Matsos’ performance, Brandon said, “It cemented everything in terms of his talents.”
Even while he enjoyed success as an actor, Matsos said he missed teaching.
“I realized one day that I had everything that a professional working actor needs or wants, which is a steady income and friends and a rewarding experience with the audience, but I desperately missed teaching,” Matsos said. “And I realized it was the engagement with students that was my source of energy and helps me to define my work as a theatre person.”
Consequently, Matsos earned from Ohio State University his doctorate in theatre history and literary criticism.
He taught at a variety of institutions until the fall of 2016, when Hillsdale was looking for someone to fill in for George Angell, now-retired lecturer in theatre and dance, while he was on sabbatical. Brandon said he immediately thought of Matsos.
“I was thinking, ‘Man! It would be great to have him at Hillsdale,’ but at that time there wasn’t a job,” he said.
With Angell on sabbatical, Matsos was hired. Within a short time, he made quite an impression.
Junior Michelle Reid took his class in 2016 and said Matsos may have been the “most wonderful” professor she has ever had.
“I think it’s difficult to truly receive much from art in an environment that is too demanding, particularly if it’s not your primary passion,” she said. “Matsos gave us students enough freedom coupled with enough structure to truly appreciate theatre.”
The admiration was mutual. Matsos also expressed a love for the community here at Hillsdale.
“I have never taught anywhere like it,” he said.
Before coming to Hillsdale, Matsos said he was “losing faith” in higher education, but the love of learning so apparent at Hillsdale rekindled his hope.
When it became apparent that Angell was about to retire after serving the Hillsdale student body for more than 30 years, Matsos was the obvious candidate.
“It was just a matter of hoping no one would snatch him up before we had a chance to interview him,” Brandon said. “We were very blessed and very lucky.”
Matsos’ triple talent in acting, directing, and teaching theatre history was, according to Brandon, “a very rare combination,” fitting the theatre department’s needs.
Brandon describes his teaching style as very open.
“The best classes are classes where you feel there is a spirit of inquiry with the professor. He is learning along with you. He knows the stuff already, but it feels like you all are going on a journey together,” Brandon said. “It just really feels like you’re part of something. It is easy to get motivated to come to class for something like that. You’re part of a discussion.”
Reid said Matsos’ classes were engaging and inclusive.
“His classes definitely had more discussion than lecture, but he always provided a powerful perspective as a result of his extensive personal involvement in the theatre industry,” Reid said.
Matsos said he hopes students have a sense of the profound ways in which live theatre has shaped Western culture.
“You cannot understand the history of Western culture without knowing how dramatic literature and performance has impacted it,” he said.
At a practical level, Matsos, who continues to act professionally, plans on using his professional connections to assist students in finding jobs in the performing arts. He said he anticipates having colleagues teach workshops in the future.
His directorial debut on campus will be this November in the heartwarming play “Harvey.”
From a young child practicing his impersonations of Gary Oldman to an accomplished professor and actor, Chris Matsos’ love of the performing arts has been a driving force in his life.
“Acting is not putting on artifice to become something you’re not,” Matsos said. “It’s about taking away the masks that we already wear in our daily lives and finding the vulnerable heart of who we are as individuals. That is something I try to instill in my students.”