Nonprofit and Nuptials: How This Couple Combined The Two
By Alena Prcela
“We definitely don’t want to have kids,” Katie Yohe says, high-fiving her husband Lawrence Kern. “A.B.L.E.’s my baby.”
A.B.L.E. (Artists Breaking Limits & Expectations) Ensemble is the nonprofit Yohe and Kern founded to give individuals with Down syndrome the chance to perform—everything from Shakespearean plays to original feature films.
In fall 2017, the couple traveled to Northwestern’s campus to present about their organization during student group Seesaw Theatre’s Inclusive Theatre Festival.
Now, they are moving to a bigger stage.
On May 17, A.B.L.E. actors will perform “Cyrano de Bergerac” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In the time leading up to the show, Yohe and Kern have been busy as ever, both at work and at home.
Before they moved, their apartment dining room was their office. Headshots and Post-its with plot twists plastered the walls. The table held Kern’s cast binders instead of food.
Their current Lincoln Park apartment is smaller, but closer to their rehearsal space. The whole place doubles as a makeshift office. “We are literally on top of each other all the time,” Yohe says, recounting brainstorming ideas in the shower and shouting them to Kern in the next room.
Yohe, 33, who is the A.B.L.E. board president, artistic director, and teaching artist, began thinking about accessible arts opportunities in middle school. She sang in a choir that traveled around Pennsylvania. Her favorite place to perform was Melmark, a residential community for people with autism and other disabilities.
“I realized everyone needs that outlet,” Yohe says, recalling the residents singing along.
Conversely, Kern, 40, never imagined he would work with this population. He studied undergraduate theater in his home state of Texas and got a master’s degree at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, always dreaming about doing stage work. He planned to move to Los Angeles to focus on film and television after graduation.
Then he met Yohe on a blind date at Schubas Tavern on Chicago’s Southport Avenue. “I put absolutely no stock in this date working out,” Yohe says.
It did, though, when the couple bonded over their love of novelist and screenwriter John Irving. “I’d never met anyone else who could quote him,” Yohe says. “That pretty much nailed it for me.”
Within two months of meeting on January 28, 2009—Kern has the date engraved on his wedding band—they talked about moving in together.
Around that time, Yohe started a teen drama club at GiGi’s Playhouse, a Down syndrome achievement center, and also Northwestern Dance Marathon’s primary beneficiary in 2017.
In January 2010, Kern, who had no experience working with differently abled actors, taught a sword-fighting workshop for the club’s “Romeo and Juliet” production.
Instead of moving to Los Angeles, Kern remained a GiGi’s Playhouse teaching artist and watched the program grow from six actors to requiring a waitlist. In 2014, when the program split and became A.B.L.E, Kern was still around.
A.B.L.E has since blown up, gaining nonprofit status and adding in new adult programming. Yohe, also a Pilates instructor, says on paper that she works with A.B.L.E 15 to 20 hours a week, but thinks that number is closer to 30 or 40.
Those hours make A.B.L.E. feel like a family. Yohe and Kern have taken actors to the movies and have house sat for vacationing parents. “If I didn’t have to have a day job [as a Landmark Theatres bartender], I would probably be hanging out with them most of the time,” Kern says. “I love these guys.”
A.B.L.E. was even part of the couple’s May 2016 wedding. They got married on Friday, presented “Twelfth Night“ on Saturday, and threw their wedding reception on Sunday. “That was the qualifier: If you came to see the show you could come to the wedding,” Kern says.
Of course, the couple invited the actors to the reception.
Yohe and Kern have stood by the actors during their big moments too. Benjamin Collins, a 21-year-old with Down syndrome and autism, was almost completely nonverbal when he started with A.B.L.E. five years ago. But in their first feature film, “The Curse of the Tempest Jewel,” his mom was blown away to see—and hear—Benjamin acting.
“After one year, he transformed,” Sharon Collins says. “Their dedication, their love of this type of student is miraculous.”
Yohe and Lawrence, who are moving to a new apartment with a real office in June, don’t see this growth stopping anytime soon. “This is ultimately what I want to do,” Yohe says. “It’s purely about the joy of it.”