CRUMBS, Canada’s Most Famous Improv Secret

2008 May 15
by Alistair Cook

CRUMBS is, among other things, the most famous improv group in Canada that nobody in Canada really knows about. They’re a couple of laid back guys from Winnipeg who have been tearing up stages across Canada, the US and Europe since 1997. First of all, I like these guys as people. The reason you don’t know about them is that they lack the straight-to-the-jugular marketing attitude most of my TV and film friends have. These guys have gotten to where they are not by knocking on doors, but by putting up a few posters, making memorable stickers and being the coolest kids on the block.

Of course, my second reason for loving these guys is that I’m constantly amazed by their ability to rock a freeform improvisation of any length (or as they call it, “the Prairie Harold”). They do this with a relaxed swagger, without breaking a sweat, without a moment of hesitation and without any breaks in commitment. It’s something to behold. Not bad for a couple of unhandsome dudes from Canada’s windy city. Alright, fine–they’re handsome as well.

I managed to sit both Stephen Sim and Lee White down together at the Winnipeg Improv Festival, “IF…”. It just so happened that the festival coincided exactly with the CRUMBS tenth anniversary. Sitting on Lee’s balcony, looking out over the Winnipeg skyline, we talked about CRUMBS’ history and philosophy. Lee was in his traditional outfit, a bulky hooded sweatshirt, baggy jeans and a toque. His trademark long hair had been trimmed two inches for the first time in four years in honour of the anniversary festivities. Steve, on the other hand, was wearing his signature look–a stylish, clean-lined outfit. His hair was askew, bed head style. Lee sipped a Canada dry while Steve coughed up most of his lung due to a horrible cold going around that we collectively nicknamed the Neon Sludge. Between coughing fits, we proceeded to get the real deal on the CRUMBS.

If you’ve ever spoken to Steve and Lee you’ll know a conversation is a game to them. As improvisors, they listen intently to every word and play upon every phrase, twisting and weaving until the result is a smile, laughter or (more often than not) a genuine sense of connection. “We’ve been working hard, this is sort of our destiny” Lee says as we begin discussing CRUMBS formative years and why the guys bothered with improvisation instead of starting a punk rock or hip hop act.

Although they had each dabbled in improv, sketch and other forms of comedy before 1996, both Steve and Lee cite joining improv collective Higher than the Ground as the real start of their improv careers. The group consisted of almost thirty people and was lead by local improv legends Steve Macintyre and Rob Slade. Slade & Macintyre were the first significant inspiration for the CRUMBS; the legendary duo made a name for themselves doing shows with audience members, especially ones with no improv training. They would focus on making the audience member a star.

It was a great training ground for me, having to do scenes with the insane person who wants to try it,” Steve says. “Steve and Rob taught us that you can take a million improv classes and learn from everybody in the world,” Lee adds. “But if you don’t have the guts to get up there and do it, then it doesn’t matter how much knowledge you’ve got.” That sense of adventure and onstage ease was the seed for CRUMBS. “That’s where our calmness comes from,” says Lee. “Everything else we stole from people.”

Higher than the Ground eventually disintegrated, with members leaving to different cities and new work. This left Steve, Lee and Devon McCracken alone to start something for themselves. The trio, the first incarnation of CRUMBS, were united by a shared hatred of comedy as it stood in the late 90s. “I don’t know if you remember but the 90s were a tough time for comedy,” Lee says, smirking. “Comedy was dead,” Steve offers. “So we were like, ‘Let’s have a funeral!’”

With that, CRUMBS first show, “The Death of Comedy,” was born (not to be confused with the play written by Paul Anthony and Devin McCracken). “We had been pissed off at comedy a bit…we didn’t want to do what was being spit out at us on TV, in papers, on TV, in movies, on TV… well mostly TV,” Steve explains. “We didn’t have a lot of a problem with newspaper comedy,” Lee adds with a grin.

Lee and Steve moved to Vancouver where they worked with what would later become !nstant theatre company. Steve traveled to Seattle for the Second Annual International Improv Festival by invitation of Randy Dixon. Dixon, who had trained with Del Close, would influence CRUMBS tremendously and set them on course for eight years of touring in Europe. I remember being at the festival and talking to Steve after he learned about the Harold for the first time. He likened it to what CRUMBS was already doing. He had found his form–what would later be dubbed “the Prairie Harold.”

Steve met a few very good friends in Seattle and cemented relationships when he returned the following year. Members of Berlin group Die Gorillas invited CRUMBS to their first European festival. They made a serious impression and paved the way for other Canadian groups, like Rapid Fire Theatre and !nstant Theatre Company, to tour Europe as well. Europeans embraced CRUMBS with open arms. “It was kind of embarrassing,” Lee recalls, thinking back to a poster for the CRUMBS European tour that boasted, in bold print, that they were “THE BEST IMPROV IN THE WORLD.” “They kind of treated us like rock stars,” says Lee. “Not only because we could do a pretty good show, but also because we have this legend following us around that we know how to party.” Legend? “Well, I mean, I guess we do like to party.”

CRUMBS still performs four or five months out of the year in Europe, traveling through Austria, Slovenia, Belgium, Switzerland and over thirty cities in Germany. “It’s cool there dude,” Lee says. “I mean, in Freyburg the population is like 200 000 people, and yet they have seven improv groups… and they are all getting audiences!”

Cementing CRUMBS fame into the history books would also have to include Steve’s involvement in the World Impro Cup where Jacob Banigan and Derek Flores, along with Steve, won the tournament for Canada by beating out improvisors from seventeen other countries around the world. (It’s always struck me as funny that CRUMBS is one of the “winningest” groups in the world while simultaneously being one of the least competitive.)

Since that time there have been a few changes in the group. Devon is now spending most of his time with his wife, who he met while on tour in Germany, and playing bass in his band. Craig, the CRUMBS guitarist, left the group recently as well, seeking to continue touring the world under the name “Old Seed.” CRUMBS, continuing a tradition of innovation, now tour with the famed DJ Hunnicutt playing background music for their scenes.

Back on Lee’s balcony, I quizzed CRUMBS on their improv philosophy. Without missing a beat, Steve quoted a bunch of things I’d said earlier in the day back to me. As I mentioned, this is the kind of conversational play Steve loves. It also speaks to how the CRUMBS aren’t fond of rules or the discussion of rules. They are able to improvise within some of the most difficult and structured forms of improvisation, but when it comes down to defining their own style–or even explaining what they will be doing in that evening’s performance–they won’t be pinned down. After a few minutes of word play, in which Steve labels the CRUMBS style “awesome,” Lee interjects with a gem: “Improvisation is like Zen philosophy, and if I gave you the reason why then it wouldn’t really be Zen philosophy. You have to discover that for yourself. I can tell you what Zen is, but unless you do it, you won’t understand it.”

I think this sums up the kind of magic combination that only can be found when the right two performers meet. You can’t teach what the CRUMBS do, you can only sit back and enjoy it.

As Lee and Steve say themselves: “We’re punk rock skaters, outcasts. If we didn’t stick together we would have gotten the crap beaten out of us.” This is why they have such a strong bond. Like any good relationship, they both need and trust each other. This kind of connection can only be found in a group that has enjoyed a lifetime together. Now, if only we could get Canada to care as much about them as Europe does, or as much they do about each other. Then we’d be doing CRUMBS justice.

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