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Q&A with Sam and Danaya, our Romeo and Juliet

If you score free tickets to our Free For All production of Romeo & Juliet, you’ll probably find yourself impressed with Sam Lilja (Romeo) and Danaya Esperanza’s (Juliet) onstage chemistry. While the Juilliard graduates have the acting chops to pull it off, they got a little help from their eight-year friendship and two-year romantic relationship while in college. (Don’t worry, they parted amicably and are both in committed relationships now.) After a long day of rehearsals, they sat down and answered some questions about Free For All, working together as friends and portraying literature’s most iconic lovers.

Did you work together at Juilliard? Were you ever in performances together or scene partners?

Sam Lilja (Romeo): We worked together a lot!
Danaya Esperanza (Juliet): Our teachers loved putting us together. The first thing we did was In Arabia, but we weren’t in any scenes together.
S: And then in our second year we were in Hedda Gabler.
D: I played Thea.
S: And I played Lovborg. So she had an unrequited crush on me. And then in third year, we were…
D: Wait, was it unrequited? We were writing poetry together. I ran away with you.
S: Oh yeah, yeah! We wrote a book together. But then I still loved Hedda. And then in our third year, we worked together a lot.
D: But another year we did a scene from Romeo and Juliet! I played the Nurse.
I played Peter.
D: In every couple of scenes, we switched roles. So I played Benvolio to your Romeo in the party scene.
S: So that was the first time we acted in a scene together at school, Romeo and Juliet. For a few scenes. So third year, we did that Romeo and Juliet scene again and we did Hamlet together. I was Hamlet and you were Ophelia, which was great fun!
D: He’s nicer to me in this play.
S: Much nicer. Then in fourth year, we did Iphigenia and Other Daughters together, the Ellen McLaughlin play. I was Orestes and Danaya was Iphigenia – so we were brother and sister.

Is this your first time working together professionally? What was your reaction when you found out you’d be working together at STC?

D: Yes! My first audition was on tape, so I walked into my callback and said hi to Carter [Wooddell, STC’s Resident Casting Director] and hi to Alan [Paul, STC’s Associate Artistic Director], and I didn’t even realize Sam was the reader until I saw him. I don’t remember what I said.
S: She didn’t really say anything to me! She didn’t react. I said, that’s kind of weird!
D: But I didn’t see you right away! And when I saw you I was like, “Oh my god.” I was very excited to have Sam as the reader. I thought, “This is going to be great.”
S: She did good! And after she left, Alan said, “Offer her the part.” When I auditioned for Romeo, I knew Danaya had gotten the part, but I didn’t find out I was cast until two weeks later. I was very excited.
D: I was very excited, too!
S: It’s thrilling to be working together.

What’s it like playing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s most famous lovers, together?

S: I don’t know how you could do this play in ten days, like we are, without having a relationship with each other. I think it would be much harder.
D: It would be. Absolutely. But we struggled with being too comfortable too soon, because we’ve known each other for so long.
S: But I think it’s easier to pare back rather than sauce out the intimacy that you need for these roles in ten days. I can imagine that would be really hard, so I think having that relationship worked out in our favor.
D: Yeah. I feel safe on stage with Sam.
S: And it felt like really safe rehearsal room, and we all speak the same language and have the same goals.
D: We’ve known each other for eight years, so we already had an intimate relationship. And you have to go into the room with trust. Because we’re going in with that trust, everyone is collaborating with us and helping us find it.

What are you most excited about for Free For All?

S: I can say from having done it before — the coolest part for me is that people who have never seen Shakespeare before or have never seen a play before, come see this. To see their reactions and get to talk to them is extraordinary. It’s really gratifying.
D: I haven’t done Free For All, but I’ve done the mobile unit for the Public, and that was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. I’m excited for young people and communities that don’t normally get to see Shakespeare or theatre. This production is so fresh, honest, and timeless that I can’t wait to talk to those people.
S: Also, STC is such a great company. An extraordinary company. And I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’ve done and what I am doing without their support. I don’t even think I could have learned all these lines in ten days without a company that’s so supportive and so willing to dive in.
D: Oh my god, no! And honestly, it’s crazy that we’ve only been rehearsing for two weeks. Time has really stretched for us, I feel like. Nothing has been rushed. Alan and Charlie [McGrath, Associate Director] have been incredible about giving us the time we need and figuring it out and helping us shape this story we want to tell. And they’ve been so open to our artistic sensibilities and really recreating this experience with us.

Romeo & Juliet is now playing! Get your free tickets today.

Sam and Danaya in Iphgenia and Other Daughters by Ellen McLaughlin and Directed by Ellen Lauren. Photos by Jessica Katz.

Sam and Danaya in Hamlet. Photo by Jessica Katz.

Sam and Danaya in STC’s Free For All production of Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Tony Powell.

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