Emma Thvedt as Fern in Charlotte's Web.
Photo by Dan Norman
Joanna Harmon first encountered Charlotte's Web when she was about five years old when her father read it aloud to her.
"My father was dying of stomach cancer," she recalls. "I didn't quite remember the story, but I remember him reading the book to me. When I was preparing for the audition, it hit me differently. I understand why he chose that book to read to me at that point in his life. It became a super-powerful thing to re-encounter at this point of my life. I am quite lucky for many reasons to re-encounter the book now."
Harmon plays the titular character in the new Children's Theatre Company production that opens this week.
Director Greg Banks -- whose past work with CTC includes Pinocchio and Romeo and Juliet -- didn't read E.B. White's book until he was brought on to the project. "I found it moving. I might have even shed a tear at the end," he says.
The play's themes of friendship and loss resonate with folks of all ages. "We are aiming for audiences of four and up. I don't want to bash their heads with death and loss, but it's something they will bump up against in their lives," Banks says.
A key to that is creating a space that "feels like a real barn. Nature is onstage. You know we are in the theater, but it also feels like one of those great big barns in the Midwest," Banks says.
At the center of all of this is Harmon as the good-natured Charlotte, who befriends young pig Wilbur and saves him from becoming bacon and pork chops.
"My spider doesn't have eight legs, but she feels like a spider," Banks says.
A lot of that comes from the work done by Harmon and the puppeteers, who control her flying harness. This is the first time Harmon has performed in a harness.
"I think the movement and the character are one in the same. It was most exciting for me to start working onstage last week and really work with the harness. In the rehearsal room we worked on makeshift platforms, and I did my best to give the character a spidery physicality. But I can only do so much in the rehearsal room," Harmon says.
Harmon is aided by three harness operators, who control Charlotte's up and down, left and right, and forwards and backwards movements. "We've had a short time to work it out and you have to stay focused," she says.
Banks has also focused on the relationship between the spider and pig that drives the story.
"The center of the play is between Charlotte and Wilbur. I deliberately chose a young lad to be Wilbur. I didn't want an older actor. I wanted somebody who looked young and felt young. The character is grappling with those emotions the first time in his life. Some of this is new to [the actor], and I think that is beneficial to the piece," Banks says.
And while the play does have heavy material at its center, Banks believes the story handles it in a way that will be an aid to the youngest patrons.
"Children know what is going on in life. Children mostly get it. The more we help them to get clarity the better things are," Banks says.
IF YOU GO:
In previews; opens Friday through Oct. 17
Children's Theatre Company
2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and information, call 612.874.0400 or visit online.