Empowering Women Veterans Through Theatre

Empowering Women Veterans Through Theatre

In October, Canopy Theater and The Vortex are producing the premier of Jenny Pacanowski’s original drama, Dionysus in America. As a Iraq war veteran and an artist, Jenny tells of the American Dionysian Rites in the age of TSA checkpoints. For more information go to http://canopytheatre.org. Read about Jenny’s transition from military life to the arts in her own words:

I became a poet so I wouldn’t kill myself. Or live at the bottom of a bottle or chase the dragon into an overdose.

My reintegration from military culture to civilian culture was difficult and unnecessarily painful. The first VA (Veteran Administration Medical Center) I went to they tried to commit me into the psych ward because it was 3:30 pm and they didn’t have anyone that could just talk to me, and explain the symptoms of PTSD, and how that connected with my panic, anxiety and depression.

I feel lucky every day that I am alive. I lived through a war that included experiencing small arms fire attacks, improvised explosive devices, and a rocket propelled grenade launched at the convoy I was in. I have lived through truck accidents in combat, and avoided crashing my car into a tree or a human when driving drunk. I have lived through shooting drugs into my arm. Each time I dodged the bullet of overdose or insanity.

Two photos stacked on top of each other, the first shows a woman wearing military fatigues and sitting in a military ambulance, the other one shows a military base beneath a partly cloudy sky
Jenny Pacanowski in the FLA (military ambulance). Taken in Iraq on Al-Asad a marine corps base because we were attached to the navy hospital to run convoys with the marines as Army medical support.

I am lucky, and I believe it’s because the world needs to understand the cost of war. The veterans I mentor and teach need to know that the end doesn’t have to be suicide. It can be writing, performance, being part of a community or trying all new therapy modalities. Most importantly, they need to know that war and military service don’t have to lead to the end, but can instead lead to a new beginning.

I went to many writing workshops for vets starting in 2007. I was hooked, but resistant to being sober. In 2011, I moved to Ithaca, New York, joined a veteran organization and started facilitating writing workshops for vets.

By 2013, I joined The Veteran’s Project: Impact Theatre in New York City, and started performing in a play. I embraced my poetic side by performing with Poetic Theater Productions. This led to multiple opportunities such as Decruit, which uses the performing of Shakespeare’s monologues connected with personal monologues to heal.

I also started exploring Greek works with Aquila Theatre, utilizing the works to discuss the current wars and veterans’ experiences. With Aquila’s support I wrote “Dionysus in America” adapting “The Bacchae,” a tragedy written by the Athenian playwright Euripides. As I was reading the Greek works, I realized that they were written from a very masculine perspective, so I started rewriting them from a woman’s perspective—well, a woman combat veteran’s perspective. I also adapted some of “The Odyssey” in the goddess Circe’s voice instead of Odysseus’.

woman smiles on stage during rehearsal
Jenny Pacanowski rehearsing for Forward March! The Future of the Warrior at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, PA on Oct 9th and 10th. The journey from basic training to reintegration told by the veterans that lived it!

I decided to start my own nonprofit Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving with the skills I learned in NYC, and also brought NYC resources and programming to Pennsylvania. We have had many successful collaborations and continue to grow to serve the often ignored population of women veterans and family members of vets. Many opportunities along the way have pushed me into the public eye. I have been able to provide a face and connection to veterans’ struggles and issues, and address why we as a community, as a country are responsible to reintegrate veterans home.

The opportunities I’ve had through public speaking, writing articles and being interviewed by a variety of news and television outlets, including ‘The Chew,’ the New York Times, the Washington Post and Turner Classic Movies, I’m building a better future for veterans and helping the community be part of the solution.


To learn more about Jenny Pacanowski and her organization please visit https://www.womenveteransempowered.org/

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