Author Chris Mooney Illustration Graham Roumieu
One chilly September evening, 22 costumed men and women from all over the world mill around a tent on the campus of the Vienna Biocenter. They belong to the center’s newly formed Amateur Dramatic Club, and they’re about to perform an experimental version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Experimental in more ways than one: The performers are scientists, not actors.
Vienna brims with high culture, but it’s also a major life sciences hub, and the Vienna Biocenter complex is its crown jewel. Tonight’s performance brings those worlds together, if a little awkwardly. “Some people may still view scientists as shock-haired Frankensteins playing with forces beyond our control,” says Brooke Morriswood, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories, who’s playing Oberon. “But in reality, science is a highly creative endeavor with a lot in common with the arts.”
About 200 people, plied with plenty of beer, have gathered to watch the spectacle. The scientists take the stage. Apart from having little theatrical experience, most of them are speaking English as a second language, which seems to unlock whole stores of mayhem buried deep in the Bard’s beloved comedy. Adding to the effect, the action continually moves around the campus, from the Intercell “Smart Vaccines” patio (Duke Theseus’ court in Athens) to an adjacent lawn (Oberon’s magical forest), with the lively crowd tromping along.
As the final act begins, it starts to rain. By Puck’s famous closing speech, it’s pouring. “Give me your hands, if we be friends,” beseeches the mischievous elf in a thick German accent. The crowd obliges, first by applauding enthusiastically and then by helping the performers haul the improvised stage equipment out of the rain and back into the labs.