A spy agency psychologically profiles a West German secretary and delivers her perfect man to embark on a romantic relationship with her to elicit confidential information.
Sounds fictional, right? But this actually happened during the Cold War and Trina Davies, a playwright who lived for years in Edmonton, found inspiration in history.
Davies was living in her Alberta Avenue home several years ago when she stumbled on the history that inspired The Romeo Initiative, which will be staged at SkirtsAfire from March 1-11.
“I was flipping through the channels on the TV—it was spy week on The History Channel,” Davies said.
During the show, a distressed woman said she had been a West German secretary during the Cold War when a spy agency targeted her and sent a man to seduce her and discover confidential information.
“She was crying and crying and didn’t care about spies, but just wanted to know if he had loved her,” Davies said.
The East German secret police had psychologists develop profiles of targeted women. Then, they’d find a “Romeo” who matched what that woman wanted and who could be coached.
“They’d create elaborate, accidental meetings. That spy would be groomed and have a plan. Sometimes they’d stay in the relationship for years before they asked for information.”
Often the women didn’t discover the truth until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a crushing realization after a relationship that may have lasted decades.
The show got Davies thinking. “What is real love?” And espionage aside, “Do we really know who we’re getting into a relationship with?”
The Romeo Initiative, based on that espionage program, is a spy thriller and romantic comedy.
“The play digs into the complexities of the idea of whether you can love someone and betray them at the same time,” said Davies.
Nancy McAlear, the director, said, “It’s like The Bachelor when [participants] are removed from their everyday existence. Do they really love each other when they get back to real life?”
Annette Loiselle, festival director, explained mainstage plays over the past three years have focused on mothers’ stories. She wanted to do something different.
“The Romeo Initiative is a period piece that offers intrigue, suspense, history, romance, comedy, and heartbreak. It presents two strong women who are opposites in personality yet both fierce in their pursuits. It’s a solid woman’s story, but it also gives us a male character for the first time in our mainstage productions; he is attractive, dashing, complicated, and layered……like the play. The Romeo Initiative is bringing a whole new perspective to our audiences and I think they are going to LOVE this play.”
Davies did a fair bit of research. There was no historical record for the methods used, so she dug into the biochemistry of love and how dopamine and serotonin come into play. She researched Helen Fisher’s work.
“Helen Fisher took people who were in love or going through a breakup and put them through an MRI,” Davies said, explaining how Fisher, an anthropologist, researcher, and author, analyzed participants’ brain scans.
Davies also read about methods and strategies pickup artists use on women, threading it into the story. She wrote the play in 2008. In 2012,The Romeo Initiative was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Drama.
But mostly it’s a relatable play. “This play is for anyone who has ever been in love, and for anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak. It is for anyone who has wondered ‘what happened?’ Which, I expect, is a lot of us,” said Davies.
McAlear added, “I hope [audiences] will get swept up in the romance of it but then they’ll try to figure out what’s happening.”
THE ROMEO INITIATIVE
Playing at SkirtsAfire, March 1-11
Alberta Avenue Community League (9210 118 Ave)
Visit skirtsafire.com for more information
Featured Image: Trina Davies, pictured, hopes to attend SkirtsAfire for the Edmonton premiere of the play. | Supplied