Lucas Miezal and Jack Butler filming The Curse of the Tempest Jewel on location Credit: Heidi Knappenberger

Like the earliest practitioners of film, the men and women who made silent pictures, today’s writers, directors, producers, and actors often come to moviemaking through other disciplines. Film is a collaborative medium; except for some rarified experimental efforts, it requires a team. But you don’t have to go to Hollywood to realize your vision, whether it’s for mass distribution or a niche audience. Two recent Chicago independent productions, The Curse of the Tempest Jewel (2015), a film noir-style caper, and The Spy Who Knew Me (2017), a riff on James Bond, are narrative features modest in scale but big on ambition, starring a local ensemble of young performers with Down syndrome.

At the helm are writer-director Lawrence Kern and executive artistic director Katie Yohe, husband-and-wife leaders of the nonprofit organization A.B.L.E. (Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations). Their cast is comprised of longtime workshop participants who perform annually in A.B.L.E.’s live plays and revues; the movies are an outgrowth of these shows. A.B.L.E.’s mission is to create performance experiences for individuals with developmental differences, providing programming that encourages creative growth and self-actualization. Another equally important goal is joy, which is evident while watching the two movies, both accessible on Vimeo.

Petite, vivacious, and highly focused, Yohe, 34, grew up in Pennsylvania. She graduated magna cum laude with a BFA in drama from Syracuse University, where she was part of a theater program, now called All Star C.A.S.T., that introduces typically developed undergrads to community actors with a range of developmental disabilities. “Finally, I felt a reason to be in the room,” she recalls.

For a time she was a working actor in the UK at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. After she moved to Chicago in 2007, she gravitated to GiGi’s Playhouse, a chain of “achievement centers” that offer therapeutic and education programs for people with Down syndrome. “They do a lot of advocacy,” she says. “They do literacy, job training, and occupational therapy, and offer different programs. My friend Mallory Alcala and I started this weekly drama club as volunteers [in 2010], and that morphed into what A.B.L.E. has become.” When not teaching pilates to help pay the bills, Yohe works, in her husband’s words, “nonstop” on A.B.L.E.; the only hiatus she’s taken was to earn her master’s degree in applied theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London.

The outgoing, athletic Kern, 40, was born in Austin and got the acting bug at eight, through Shakespeare at Winedale at the University of Texas. After graduation from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, he became a stage actor, shuttling between UT and London until he took a two-year break to look after his ailing mother. He moved to Chicago for an MFA from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. There he met the late casting director Jane Alderman, who helped him to audition for ER and other TV shows that have filmed here. These days he’s paid well as a motion capture actor for NetherRealm Studios, where he’s worked on many video games, most recently Mortal Kombat 11.

The couple, who met on a blind date, began working together when Yohe brought Kern to one of her classes to teach the students fencing and stage combat; a genuine people person, he was enchanted, and stayed. Every spring, A.B.L.E. builds a classical piece that becomes the season’s linchpin. Yohe says, “Right now, for our teen ensembles, that’s As You Like It. But prior to the classical performance, we’ll spend the fall devising our own piece centering on themes related to the play. In the past, when we’ve done these devised shows, we’ve talked a lot with our performers about what’s important to them, what they like, and don’t like. And so Lawrence has adapted some of these conversations into the film work.” The revue featuring A.B.L.E.’s adult ensemble, A Night at the Movies, was inspired, she says, “by one of our newer actors, who’s on the autism spectrum, and has an encyclopedic brain for movies.” Short films starring the cast will punctuate the live performance.

On the red carpet at the premiere of <i>The Spy Who Knew Me</i>: Emily Kwidzinski, Sam Radinsky, Quincy Bane, and Alena Brown with A.B.L.E. cofounders Katie Yohe and Lawrence Kern
On the red carpet at the premiere of The Spy Who Knew Me: Emily Kwidzinski, Sam Radinsky, Quincy Bane, and Alena Brown with A.B.L.E. cofounders Katie Yohe and Lawrence KernCredit: Courtesy the Artist

Chief among the techniques created to shoot the feature films is one also used on stage, called dropping in. Yohe explains, “We might have some actors who may not be that literate, or who aren’t reading their scripts, or maybe have short-term memory issues. So we’ll have one of our teaching artists or facilitators on stage literally right behind an actor, or if we’re filming, then we’ll be under the table, or off camera elsewhere, and we’ll feed the line. Then the actor repeats it back, with whatever flourish is intrinsic to them in terms of their personalities and what they’ve chosen to do with their characters. Then in the edit we take out the neurotypical adults’ voices.”

Another technique that Kern has found useful in directing his young film stars is doing the master shot first, not just to have an establishing shot, but to help the actors feel centered through the close-ups and cutaways that follow. It’s also helpful to have a monitor on set so that after a take the performers can view it (they love to watch themselves) and work on any adjustments that might need to be made. “They are so hungry for any chance to show what they can do every day,” Kern says. “In most movies and TV shows, if there’s a character with developmental differences, that’s how he/she is defined. Our films are about our characters’ [and actors’] desires and wishes—for jobs, for relationships, for fun. We’re making a statement by not making a statement. This is a film universe where Down syndrome isn’t even a thing.”   v

A Night at the Movies Tue 5/14, 7 PM, the Fasseas Studio at the Menomonee Club, 1535 N. Dayton,, $15.

As You Like It Mon 5/20, 7 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600,, $15.