Two years ago, the husband-wife pairing of Kristl and Aaron Densley brought their skills to the Theatre Department at BYU–Hawaii. They shared how they sought to give it new life and how the performing arts program offers opportunities for students to learn empathy and follow their dreams.
Kristl Densley, an assistant professor of Theatre, said, “The philosophy I try to bring into all of the classes I teach is that I’m about the one. I might have a class full of students, but I hope at the end of the semester they each think they’re my favorite.
“I firmly believe in Christlike empathy. One of the most important lessons I have gathered from the Savior’s life is His love for the one.”
Aaron Densley is the special instructor in the Theatre Department. He shared what President John Tanner’s vision for the Theatre on campus was.
“[President Tanner] said, ‘I want the audience and the stage to look like our campus.’ And that’s what Kristl and I have tried to do since we’ve been here.”
Kristl Densley originally taught at Indiana University and then at Penn State as a special instructor before accepting a position as an assistant professor at BYUH. Her husband, Aaron Densley, taught at Penn State as part of his graduate work. During this period, Kristl Densley directed productions at Central Washington University.
Aaron Densley has acted in various movies and TV shows, including “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum, P.I.” He has also had roles in commercials and this year’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” He joked that he is often cast as “police or military guys.”
Speaking of their journey here to BYUH, he said, “When we were dating, all of our important life decisions happened at the Pizza Hut lunch buffet. I joked with her that I’d like to teach at a church school part-time and also be an actor. It was such a pipe dream at the time, but years later, here I am.”
He said he was formerly a student at BYUH. There was a lot of uncertainty about the future of the arts programs at the time, and he had to leave in order to continue his studies elsewhere. “I was heartbroken,” he said. “I was in the airport and normally, I don’t receive actual words from Heavenly Father when I pray, but I was praying not to leave Hawaii.
“I had this distinct impression that has stuck with me my whole life. I had this voice in my head say, ‘You have to leave so that you can come back,’ and I would wonder what it even meant. So I left, went to CWU where she (Kristl) was getting her master’s, and met her. I did some auditions in New York for Broadway, and got my master’s from Penn State.”
During one of his last classes, he said his stage combat instructor told him about a position that had opened up at BYUH. Intrigued, both Kristl and Aaron applied, with Kristl ending up with the job.
Approach to theatre
“This is one of the most, if not the most diverse campus in the world. We really wanted to take advantage of that in the stories that we were telling,” Aaron Densley said.
“When we got here in 2016,” Kristl Densley began, “The certainty of the program wasn’t always certain. The former assistant professor had worked through administrations where that was the case. When I arrived, there was no theatre minor. The position I took was actually in the English Department, but they hired me with the intention of revitalizing the theatre program.
“Within the first year, [the administration] had tasked me with opening the minor back up. President Tanner was adamant that the arts continue. He had done his master’s thesis on pioneers crossing the plains using Shakespeare. Both he and John Bell [vice president of Academics], who’s a published playwright, were big proponents of the theatre.
“I coach the Empower Your Dreams competition and the Great Ideas one as well, and I’m using the theatre to support our business school. So the business students, who may not think much about theatre, are actually benefiting from it. I always say that you have a math and science part of your brain and an artistic part. You need to exercise both parts of your brain and you will be unstoppable.”
In a few short years, the theatre minor had “taken off,” in the words of Kristl Densley. “We have had several students who were placed in theatre-related jobs and the exciting thing about that is they’re all from our target area. We have one student from Samoa named Honey, and she got two job offers to teach theatre in Samoa.”
She explained how the job offer Honey received was almost unheard of in Samoa at the time. “Here she is using the skill set she learned here at BYUH. We have another student, and his whole plan is to take theatre to Tonga as soon as he graduates because it just doesn’t exist there. He wants to use theatre to preserve some of the native stories of Tonga through plays.”
Aaron Densley also spoke of a student from Korea who had left a semester early to work at a South Korean film production company using skills he learned in theatre.
“I’ll never forget when this kid named Lehi Falepapalangi came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before, but I binge watch Broadway.com videos, and I want to be an actor so bad.’
“And I told him to go for it. I set him up with connections, and now he’s a Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) actor. He’s auditioning constantly, and already got roles on a bunch of TV shows.”
The big picture
Theatre is the connection between performer and audience, according to Kristl Densley. “Even with those exact same people in the same room, you’re still never going to have the same experience. It’ll be new, and when it’s gone, it lives in our hearts and imaginations, changing the way we view the world. We carry that little bit with us as we go on.”
Aaron Densley said he and his wife had noticed so many people were auditioning for the shows on campus. There could be so many who auditioned that there were people who went through their whole experience without getting a chance to perform in front of an audience. Simply because there were not enough roles for everybody.
He explained he and his wife took it upon themselves to revitalize the Little Theater and use it more as a theatre space.
“The recent musical, ‘Familiar Strangers’ was just a few students who wanted to put on a show. One kid from a playwriting class got together with a music student and produced the musical. Now we’ve added two shows a year, but even then it’s hard to cast everyone who wants to be a part of it.
“I remember when I was still in school, and Ty Burrell, my classmate who’s now been in ‘Modern Family’ and a few popular movies, told me how now is the best time where for people to create their own art. You can literally make your own movie in the palm of your hand and not have to wait for producers to tell you no.
“The biggest goal we have is to help people have empathy. To see others as human beings. In college, theatre is one of the few courses where you can really experience true empathy. Students need to get inside the head of a character others might see as just a villain, and really look for the humanity inside of him or her.”
Lehi Falepapalangi, an alumnus and actor in the film industry from Tonga, said he is indebted to the Densleys for how they helped him excel in the theatre. “They gave me an opportunity to explore something I never thought I could thoroughly enjoy as I do now. Because of that opportunity they gave me, I have now been able to ignite the passion they gave me and carried on into the film industry,” he said. Since receiving his SAG membership, Falepapalangi has been in TV productions from studios such as Netflix, Hulu, The Travel Channel, CBS, and ABC.
For Kristl Densley, she said, “It all harkens back to the Savior, who cared about the one and had empathy for all. I think the changes in the Theatre Department have helped students find their voice and learn what it means to be in someone else’s shoes.”
Writer: Elijah Hadley