What began as a way to bring neighborhood children together across a forest-lined path has become an institution in Fairfax Station.
Heather Cooper said the idea for the Halloween Parables came from the countless times she and other parents would call homes in the neighborhood, looking for their playing children or arranging playdates to keep them from walking through the forests that separated their houses.
"I called one of my neighbors to see if she'd mind my cutting a path through the forest between her house and mine," Cooper said. "As soon as we cut that path, we started having all sorts of ideas."
The largest and most popular idea has been the annual Halloween Parables play, which is expected to draw around 400 people to the Havenwood neighborhood on Sunday, Oct. 23.
"The first year, we just decorated it for Halloween, but everyone loved it so much we knew we had to do more," Cooper said. Little did she know it would one day become a full-fledged theatrical production, complete with sets, lighting, costumes and standing-room-only audiences.
"When we first did the play, it lasted about 10 minutes and had 15 kids. This year we have 45 children in the play and 400 people have RSVP'd to be in the audience," she said. "The haunted path was originally a straight line, but now it's about an acre of land that winds all around the neighborhood and has ghosts on pulleys and sound effects."
IN ADDITION to providing a fun afternoon for neighbors and their families, Cooper said the play is used to teach a valuable moral lesson to the children.
"This year, the lesson is don't tell lies," she said. "We try use current events to make it funny."
Boy Scout troops that help out earn their theatrical merit badges, she said, learning how to direct a play, design stage lighting and hook up sound equipment.
However, the show almost ended after last year's performance. Cooper announced, at the end of the play, that this would be the last year for the Halloween Parables.
"I got 23 letters that week, some of them from children with drawings of faces with tears in their eyes. I couldn't let them down, so I agreed to do it for a few more years," said Cooper, the mother of two children, ages 12 and 8. "Maybe we'll have another two or three years until my kids get sick of it," she laughed.
The children who participate in the play don't have to worry about memorizing lines, she said, because the soundtrack for the play, complete with voices, is played over a speaker system. "They have to memorize choreography and learn how to move and where to be at certain times," said Cooper. "They do have to coordinate their mouths with certain lines in the soundtrack and some of the voices that appear to come out of these little kids is hilarious." She remembered one time a "wolf-man" voice seemed to come from a small girl.
Cooper and her young helpers and stars spend six weeks preparing the play, rehearsing on Sunday afternoons for two hours. When the children have the Columbus Day holiday, the entire day is dedicated to decorating the Haunted Path, with each child responsible for his or her own section of the path to decorate as they wish.
"We go through literally 180 bags of Wal-Mart spider webbing," said Cooper. "There's a whole second sound system set up in the woods."
The effects of producing and participating in the play will stay with the children long after they've grown up and moved on, said Cooper. "I look back on what I learned from my own experience in theater and know that later in life, these kids will be able to be more relaxed in front of large groups and will have more self-confidence because of this play," she said.
For the second year, this fall's production will be dedicated to the memory of Holly-Ann Long, a former cast member of the Halloween Parables and one of Cooper's young neighbors who was killed last year after being struck by a car. "We started this play six weeks after 9/11 as a way to bring the community together and remind each other that most people, even ones who live thousands of miles away, are our friends," Cooper said.
Members of the neighborhood have found themselves wrapped up in the play as well.
"This is a phenomenal thing," said Gloria Monick, whose two children have grown up participating in the play. "Heather's been like an angel sent to this community."
Unlike many school activities where parents simply "drop off" their children, Monick said, Cooper encourages and welcomes parents getting involved in the production and preparation for the yearly event.
"It creates this web of people that often don't know each other because our houses are so spread apart," Monick said. "It means the world to me that she does this. The play provides a long lasting memory the kids will have that's bigger than something they'd be involved in from their school."