‘Combat Conversations’ visits the Lehigh Valley

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One Fight Foundation and Impact Theatre NYC performed their theater production, Combat Conversations, on Saturday, February 9th, 2019, at the Banana Factory Arts Center. The goal of the play is to help bridge the gap by encouraging meaningful conversation between civilians and veterans. (David Owolabi/B&W Staff)

While out of the ordinary for some of the audience members, the sound of gunshots was all too familiar to the veterans watching “Combat Conversations.” This time around, the reason for these gunshots was for a theater production, not active combat.

On Feb. 9, One Fight Foundation and Impact Theatre NYC brought their collaborative project “Combat Conversations” to the Banana Factory’s Crayola Gallery in Bethlehem.

The event has two parts. During the first portion, civilian and veteran actors put on a play that illustrates the struggles many veterans face when they return to civilian life post-combat. The second part entails the director and associate director facilitating a conversation with the audience about the subjects covered throughout the performance.

For the veterans and their loved ones in attendance, “Combat Conversations” is an all too familiar story.

The play tells the stories of two veterans who proudly finish their service to their country with high hopes for the future. Halfway through the play, both soldiers begin to struggle when making adjustments to the changes in their home lives while also coping with the lingering mental effects of military service.

The story ends in tragedy for all the characters involved.

Fay Shepard, the director of “Combat Conversations,” said the goal of the play is to close the civilian-veteran gap by encouraging both civilians and veterans alike to engage in meaningful conversations about the issues that veterans face when they return home.

“We do theater for social change,” Shepard said. “We go into a community that we feel is not being heard and we discuss with members of the community what the problems are.”

Shepard was married to a veteran and has experienced firsthand the struggles that many veterans and their families encounter. She said it was a difficult relationship that motivated her to do this kind of work.

“Veterans need time to decompress,” Shepard said. “Their nervous systems are in a state of alarm. Spouses and children need to, in a way, stand back, be listeners and give them the space to decompress.”

While One Fight Foundation and Impact Theatre NYC seeks to educate its audiences through art, cast members have also experienced personal growth through their involvement with the program.

Temesgen Tocruray has worked with Impact Theatre for the past four years. He has had family members who served both for the U.S. and for Eritrea, and has seen his loved ones struggle to adjust to civilian life.

For Tocruray and many others involved with “Combat Conversations,” this program has led to personal growth and healing.

“When you think of the arts in general, you can get into a medicinal level of healing that just going to therapy just doesn’t get done,” Temesgen said. “When you’re watching a play, you’re engaged in a whole different way. Your brain is firing on all types of levels.”

Therapy through the arts is nothing new to Jenny Pacanowski, who is the associate director of “Combat Conversations”. It’s how she found herself after years of struggling to rejoin civilian society.

For most veterans, rejoining civilian life isn’t as easy as hopping on a plane back to their homes.

“It took me almost seven or eight years to feel like I was a part of the civilian world,” Pacanowski said.

After years of struggling to find a new normal, Pacanowski eventually found theater as a tool for therapy. Through the arts, she was able to articulate what her body was feeling. She said once she found an answer for herself to come home, she wanted to share this with other people. 

Now through her role in the play, Pacanowski is determined to do what she can to help others on their road to recovery.

“Veterans are really great at surviving, Pacanowski said. “We are not really great about happiness. I want to give people happiness, empowerment and true success.”

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