Newsletter, December 2016



Arts and Humanities Civic Engagement


Cultural Agents is an interface between academic learning and civic engagement. The Initiative promotes arts and humanities as social resources.



  • Pre-Texts Workshop at Waltham Public Schools
  • WHEN: December 5 & 12 | 3:30 -5:30pm
  • WHERE: High School Library, Waltham Public Schools, MA
  • WHAT: The team of Pre-Texts facilitators will be finalizing the series of Pre-Texts training workshop for education leaders of Waltham Public Schools.
  • Cultural Agents Student Fair
  • WHEN: December 7 | 4:00 -6:00pm
  • WHERE: 1737 Cambrdige St, Cambridge, MA 02138. (CGIS) Knafel Cafe
  • WHAT: Students from the Cultural Agents Course: “Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding” at Harvard University will be presenting their final projects. The assignment required students to design a creative aesthetic intervention to address social issues pertinent to our times. The Cultural Agents Student Fair is open to everyone. We look forward to sparking dialogue about innovative forms of intervention and posible collaborations!

General News: Cultural Agents 

XVI Anual Reunion of IDB Group and
Civic Society, Dominican Republic

On November 8th and 9th, Professor Doris Sommer was invited to the Dominican Republic to participate in the XVI Anual Reunion of the Inter-American Development Bank Group and Civic Society as a panelist in a session dedicated on the topic: The use of Innovation and its Impact in Sustainable Development. In addition to the panel, she led a forum on the  Alternatives for Sustainable Growth and Human Capital. In this this talk, Sommer shared Cultural Agents’ vision for promoting innovation, literacy, and citizenship. Among the topics discussed were: the idea of civic art as participative; the importance of pleasure in achieving change; admiration, not tolerance, as the basis of citizenship; artists as agents that break paradigms and create new solutions; the need to develop the faculty of judgment in order for democracy to thrive; Latin America and its creativity, traditions, and human capital as catalysts for innovation, sustainable growth, and development.
To view the forum on “Alternatives for Sustainable Growth and Human Capital”, please visit: 

Language Acts and Worldmaking in Conversation with Cultural Agents, King’s College London

On November 18th and 19th, Prof. Doris Sommer presented her groundbreaking work in the areas of civil agency and public humanities at the King’s College and the University of Westminster in London as part of The Language Acts and Worldmaking project, promoted by the Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) of the British Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). After offering a talk on Cultural Agents, Prof. Sommer facilitated a workshop session on Pre-Texts, which opened opportunities for new collaborations by showing how the Pre-Texts methodology contributes to complement The Language Acts and Worldmaking project’s (and OWRI’s) goals in language learning. Lead by Professor Catherine Boyle (Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at King’s College) this project aims to regenerate and transform modern language research and learning by foregrounding language’s power to shape how we live and make our worlds.

Open Internship Position at Cultural Agents

General News: Pre-Texts


Pre-Texts: The Arts Teach, Anything
HILT Speaker Series at Harvard


In the evening of last Wednesday November 30th, Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) hosted a discussion panel on Pre-Texts as part of its Speakers Series at the Fong Auditorium. With the title “Pre-Texts: The Arts Teach (Anything)”, this event offered a multi-disciplinary presentation of the Pre-Texts pedagogy, created by Prof. Doris Sommer as an innovative program for education professionals to employ close reading and critical thinking skills by making art [visual, performance, literary, etc.] based on challenging texts.

After the opening words of Erin Driver-Linn, Director of HILT, the following experts explained their different research approaches and teaching experiences with Pre-Texts. Prof. Doris Sommer (Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and Director of Cultural Agents) initiated the presentation session by explaining how the simple protocol of “Pre-Texts” can offer teachers an engaging method to change the traditional authority—based teaching system in class, as well as a way of achieving more by working less with the students. Prof. Sommer also introduced how she created this program and how Pre-Texts is based on Latin American practices and authors such as Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal and many others.

After this first presentation, Dr. Gigi Luk (Associate Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education) commented on her research “The Art and Science of Pre-Texts”, including information on how this education program can be assessed both quantitatively and qualitatively. Finally, Dr. Adriana Gutiérrez (Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University) and Dr. Viviane Gontijo (Advisor in the Portuguese Language Program at the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at Harvard University) presented, with several examples and direct professional observations, the advantages of using Pre-Texts in the teaching and learning of foreign languages.

At the end of their presentations, the panel engaged in constructive conversations with the participants in the audience, fostering HILT’s central mission: catalyze innovation and excellence in learning and teaching at Harvard.

– Federico Olivieri,
Administrator, Cultural Agents, Inc.

Featured Story

Commedia dell’arte Improv Classes in Prison:
Lower Recividism Rates and Behavioral Changes

IMAGE SOURCE: Peter Merts | New York Times Magazine

The Prison Project celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, and will expand to 10 California prisons in February 2017, just as some hard data has finally come in to prove the program’s merits. The recidivism rate in the state is more than 50 percent. But a recent preliminary study by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed that, for inmates who completed the Prison Project, that number dropped to 10.6 percent. Critics will point to a sample size that’s too small to draw broad conclusions, and it’s a valid concern. But the provisional findings are encouraging, to say the least.

There is now immense support from inside the prison system, and public opinion is shifting, thanks in part to Robbins and Williams’s up-from-the-bootstraps lobbying efforts. Governor Jerry Brown approved a $6 million line item in California’s 2016–2017 budget earmarked specifically for Arts in Correction, a partnership between the CDRC and the California Arts Council, up from $2 million the previous year. And in 2017, all 35 prisons in California will have at least some kind of publicly funded arts program — up from exactly zero a decade ago.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder is a vocal supporter of the Prison Project; after meeting with Williams and Robbins in Washington in 2014 to discuss criminal justice reform, he traveled to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, CA to observe their work firsthand. “This is the kind of innovative initiative that legislatures on all levels should support,” Holder told me. “The effort led by Sabra and Tim points the way to a more successful rehabilitation and re-entry process.”

In an interesting twist, Ronald L. Davis — whom President Obama appointed as the executive director of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing — recently expressed interest in having the Actors Gang create similar classes to train police officers in emotional intelligence and de-escalation techniques. In the spring, Williams says she’ll apply for a grant with the hopes of doing just that.


Teaching inmates to diffuse their emotions through 16-century commedia dell’arte improv exercises may seem like an unlikely cost-cutting measure, but that’s exactly what it could turn out to be.


The inmates sit on the floor in a circle and wear white makeup and masks, improvising scenes as characters from the commedia dell’arte tradition. We’re talking about stock characters like Pantalone (a cheap merchant), Arlechinno (a mischievous servant), and Capitano (a pompous military captain known for inflating his status). In a way, this all makes complete sense. The 16th-century style of theater from Italy and France started as a way for peasants to satirize the upper class. (The roving troupes of actors wore white makeup so they could be seen in twilight.)

Christopher Bisbano, who spent 18 years in prison on attempted murder charges, participated in one of those early classes. “It was three women and one guy and they all had on, like, jogging suits and running shoes. I thought we were going to do cartwheels or something,” Bisbano recalls. “We discussed what the work was about, then what was expected of us. Sabra talked about this early-16th-century form of theater. How this type of style works is you work from a state, one of the four core emotions: happy, sad, frightened, or angry.”

The work was challenging for many reasons, but also maybe one: because it requires inmates to look directly into each other’s eyes, which is rare in prison. “You’re not supposed to show happy or sad or being frightened,” says Bisbano. “It’s a sign of weakness.”


Beyond recidivism, the Actors Gang Prison Project work has led to a nearly 90 percent reduction in behavioral infractions for participants, one of the unexpected effects the program has had outside of class. “What it did was it started to change the culture on the yard,” Bisbano says. “There were no racial boundaries in class. The African-Americans, the whites, Mexicans, Hispanics, we were all playing together. It’s very rare in prisons, especially in California. When we had our presentations, we would invite other inmates to come watch. Then they would see that their homeboy was up there dressed up like some character, acting like a fool. It started to break some boundaries. We had something special in common.” “To be able to share personal stories in character, without judgment,” he adds, “basically it’s providing a safe place, a sacred place, where we could go and get into these characters and see what relationships developed.”

“The arts are really embraced in the space now,” continues Robbins. “We’re part of creating legislation. We’re part of changing the system here in California. It’s no longer this crazy idea that it seemed like it was ten years ago.”

–  Mickey Rapkin,
New York Times Magazine

In a powerful display of leadership and courage,
NYC vows to protect residents.

To view New York City’s message to its residents and the world, please visit:


Cultural Agents wishes everyone happy holidays!

We hope this new year sparks our imagination to find
innovative ways to communicate and collaborate.
May our creative spirits light the way. 

For more information on upcoming events, please visit our website:

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E. Boston, MA, 02128

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Caminos de Paz Cases for Culture Cultural Agents Opportunities Partners Pre-Texts Rennaisance Now
December 2, 2016
by Rodriguez