The Romeo Initiative ponders the industrialization of love

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      There’s no special formula to make someone fall in love—trusting, genuine, all-consuming, stupefying love—with you. Right? It would be impossible to fake or manufacture that heart-pumping, adrenaline-racing, heady feeling that sucks you in and sweeps you off your feet. You can trust him. You can trust him. You can’t trust him.

      The fact is, sometimes love is only real for one half of a couple. It’s this concept that drove Vancouver-based playwright Trina Davies to begin writing her romantic comedy–spy thriller The Romeo Initiative, based on a 1970s-era program run out of East Germany to profile West German secretaries to determine their “perfect man”.

      “I was watching a documentary with my father and it was this woman who had been scorned in this horrible way,” Davies tells the Straight in an interview at Touchstone Theatre’s office on Granville Island. “My father thought, ‘Oh, she’s just stupid, she should have seen what was going on this whole time.’ I took exception and said, ‘What do you mean? She thought she was in love. She believed her experience, so that was her experience.’ For him the truth was not that, it was something else, so it started me down this road.”

      That road led to Germany, when it was still a country divided, and the Stasi’s (the infamous East German secret police’s) belief that women were key to West Germany’s state secrets. That’s why they created a “Romeo” program.

      “They had researched a plan and had steps to make a woman fall in love with these men,” Davies says, shaking her head. “It was like an assembly line, the industrialization of love. What does it mean about us as people if we can do that? And can you [the ‘Romeo’] engage in it without having any feelings?”

      Exploring that question led Davies to research the biochemistry of romantic love and how humans are essentially “wired” to fall for each other. She says the resulting chemical change in the body from falling in love is more powerful than any existing synthetic drug. But the lingering concepts of what it takes to fall in love revealed a more modern phenomenon that she calls “seduction cults”, which aren’t far off from the Romeo program, though the goal is getting laid, not espionage. Probably.

      “There’s this book called The Game which is really well-known, and it’s actually written by a Rolling Stone journalist who infiltrated one of these things and reported back,” Davies says. “They were an online phenomenon before there were even images on the Internet. They were already engaging internationally on tips and tricks about how to get women. There’s a whole movement; these guys go on workshops for a week, they come from all over the world!”

      At first Davies was reluctant to tread any deeper into that world, but after reading about their tactics (appear nonaggressive, friendly, not too interested, walk away and she’ll realize she wants you) she had a stunning realization.

      “Oh, my God, this would work on me!” Davies laughs. “You’re used to holding people at a certain distance and expecting a game, but it’s the nonthreatening thing—of course that works.”

      Davies still seems equal parts horrified and amused by her research, which makes sense since the play is billed as half spy thriller and half romantic comedy. Davies admits that her ambitions when writing The Romeo Initiative bordered on masochistic, but her efforts paid off with a 2012 Governor General’s Award nomination. The play is also currently being translated into Italian, so Davies has hope that a foreign production is in Romeo’s future. But right now, with only the first week of rehearsal behind them and opening night looming in the distance, Davies is trying to live in the moment and savour the experience of having Romeo on-stage in Vancouver, just six years after moving here from Edmonton.

      “It feels like a breakthrough, honestly, to have this production in Vancouver,” Davies says. “This is my home and I intend on being here, so it’s a little bit like a coming-out party.” 

      Touchstone Theatre’s production of The Romeo Initiative runs at the Cultch from Friday (November 15) to November 24.