June 27, 2019

All’s (Renaissance) Faire in Jewish ‘American Princess’

From left: Lucas Neff, Georgia Flood, Mary Hollis Inboden, Rory O’Malley, Seana Kofoed. Photos courtesy of Lifetime.

When Jewish New Yorker Amanda Klein finds her fiancé receiving sexual favors from a hooker right before their wedding ceremony in the country, she slugs them both. Then she does something really impulsive. Wandering into the woods, she finds herself at a Renaissance faire and decides to stay. Her transformation from privileged Upper East Sider to serving wench with a weird new family is the premise of Lifetime’s new dramedy series “American Princess.”

You could call it a gefilte-fish-out-of-water scenario, but creator-writer Jamie Denbo, who executive produces with Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann, thinks of it as “Private Benjamin” at the Ren faire, with a “delightfully entitled” heroine. “It’s one of the few places left in the world where you can escape for a day or two and find real human connection, where optimism and non‑judgment still abounds,” she said. “Comic-Con is no longer an authentic nerd experience. Renaissance festivals still are. And it’s not a place where you find your typical city‑dwelling, plugged‑in millennials. I wanted to bring those worlds together.”

Shot in Simi Valley, standing in for upstate New York, the series stars Australian newcomer Georgia Flood — who is not Jewish — as Amanda in an ensemble featuring several Jewish cast members. Lesley Ann Warren plays her mother, Sas Goldberg plays her sister, Max Ehrich is her cheating ex and Sophie von Haselberg — Bette Midler’s daughter — portrays one of the faire’s “Rennies.”

“American Princess” is the personification of “write what you know.” Denbo worked at a Renaissance faire in the 1990s, and the quirky characters are composites based on her co-workers. “This show is a love letter to the Ren-faire community, presented with the utmost kindness,” she said.

Sas Goldberg, Lesley Ann Warren, Georgia Flood in “Jewish American Princess.” Photo courtesy of Lifetime

Like Amanda’s character, Denbo had romantic relationships with several of the men, with “a couple lasting, a couple not lasting. I had a terrific boyfriend who I’m still friends with,” she said. “I made lasting connections with a lot of those people.”

While “American Princess” depicts some bawdy behavior that would not be acceptable in other workplaces in the #MeToo era, Denbo points out that “getting physical is part of the culture and part of the joy. I had my toes sucked by a biker. There were some sexual encounters that I probably shouldn’t elaborate on because my parents read the Jewish Journal,” she said.

Denbo grew up in a middle-class, Conservative Jewish family in Swampscott, Mass., attending a Jewish day school and a summer camp she calls “the greatest influence on my Jewish life.” An only child, she spent a lot of time alone, playacting and wanting to be Goldie Hawn, Madeline Kahn, Barbra Streisand and Lily Tomlin.

She earned a degree in communications from Boston University, but otherwise “spent four years smoking pot and wasting my parents’ money. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I wanted to do theater, but I didn’t want to go to school for it,” Denbo said. “My friends went from Jewish sororities to graduate school. I was the black sheep.”

She had enjoyed doing improv at college and decided to try summer stock while figuring out what to do next. However, her lack of training produced no results — until she got a callback from the Sterling  Renaissance Festival in upstate New York. She envisioned Shakespeare in the park. “I didn’t understand what a Renaissance festival was,” Denbo said. It wasn’t what she expected, but it “was ridiculous and delightful, such a funny place. I loved it so much. It changed the course of my life.”

Denbo discovered “a community of nomads in a class of their own. They have created a way of life that really works for them. At first, it was just confusing. Like Amanda, I went through a real initiation period, and I had to release so much judgment that was imposed on me from my former life,” she said. “This was not the typical route for a Jewish, educated girl. There are very few Jews at the Renaissance Festival. I used to make a joke about how I was the only Rennie with Israeli savings bonds supplementing my income.”

Since her faire days, Denbo has amassed dozens of TV and film credits, including roles in “Weeds,” “Terriers,” “Spy,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Veep,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “Glow.” Having made her writing-producing debut with “Ronna & Beverly” in 2012, she tried turning her Ren-faire experience into a screenplay and a one-woman show before partnering with Kohan and Herrmann on “American Princess.”

 “There are very few Jews at the Renaissance Festival. I used to make a joke about how I was the only Rennie with Israeli savings bonds supplementing my income.”

— Jamie Denbo

She likes being in charge and doesn’t miss acting, although she does appear in an episode late in the season. She also voices many characters in the animated Netflix show “F Is for Family.” “I get to do crazy voices that don’t necessarily match my rather conventional 45-year-old-woman looks,” she said.

Denbo is married to actor John Ross Bowie (“Speechless,” “The Big Bang Theory”), whom she met at an improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB). “We were friends for a really long time, and then we realized that we had a lot of fun together and should be together. We’ve collaborated a lot,” she said. “We do a two-person improv show at UCB called ‘Super Married.’ It helps that we think each other is pretty funny.”

Bowie is not Jewish, but they’re raising daughter Nola, 11, and son Walter, 9, in the faith. “We do Shabbat. They go to a Jewish camp,” she said, adding that bar and bat mitzvahs and a trip to Israel are in the future, when her son is old enough to appreciate it.

“I’m very proud of the fact that I have managed to keep a tremendous amount of my artistic integrity and comedic voice in the things that I have written and produced,” she said. “In the future, I’d like the opportunity to keep putting my voice out there. I’d love to play Mama Rose in a stage production of  ‘Gypsy’ and Mrs. Lovett in ‘Sweeney Todd.’ And I hope we get to make more of ‘American Princess’ because I have fun stuff planned for Season 2. There’s a lot of stories in that world that are yet to
be told.”

“American Princess” premieres at 10 p.m. June 2 on Lifetime.