My interview with American Princess creator Jamie Denbo comes at the perfect time because days after we speak, I will head to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, CA for the first time. Denbo is, obviously, delighted, and gives me tips on the best way to experience it, including: see a water wench show and indulge in all the delicious food but maybe skip the pizza. I trust Denbo because long before she was working on shows like GLOW and Orange Is the New Black, she was working at a Ren fair.
Initially, Denbo thought working at a Ren fair would be something akin to Shakespeare in the Park. How wrong, she jokes, she was. The Ren fair is a unique community, vastly different from any other. In Denbo's new Lifetime series, it is exactly what the show's lead, Amanda (Georgia Flood), needs. She's a Manhattanite who ditches her cheating husband-to-be for a life of mud-slinging, fake English accents, and jousting. It saves her soul and shakes things up — even if her Upper East Side friends think she may be having a mental breakdown.
In our interview, Denbo talks about the personal experiences that inspired American Princess, working with executive producer and Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, and why we should all experience a Renaissance fair firsthand.
Refinery29: What came first, the fish out of water story or your desire to do a comedy about a Ren fair?
Jamie Denbo: "It's my story — I was Amanda. Not the wedding part, but the running away and not understanding what I was running into part. The Ren fair part is all true. When I found the Renaissance festival, there was no such thing as Google, so I truly thought I was doing Shakespeare in the Park for the summer. That’s what I thought was happening. And it wasn’t! These days, it’s so hard to walk into something that you don’t have any preconceived notion about because of the internet, so we wanted to give Amanda a life-changing event to set her off [into the world of the Ren fair]. So I guess, in answer to your question, the fish out of water story came first, because the truth is, the show is Private Benjamin at the Renaissance festival! That’s the way I’ve always described my experience, and that’s the experience I wanted to capture."
The gender politics of the Ren fair are a little bit different than in the real world. When I visited the set last year, you were shooting an episode about what one character considered sexual harassment within the Ren fair. How do you think that world intersects with feminism in modern-day America?
"It's an interesting place for it all to collide because the reality is, you've got the most powerful women in the world in charge of the free world — that's Queen Elizabeth. She’s the figurehead in about 90% of Renaissance festivals. There's a class system, but we’ve got a woman at the top, we’ve got Shakespearean representation, we’ve got all of this great pro-feminist stuff, especially since we’ve got all of Shakespeare's wonderful characters represented. But what we’re all talking about is corsets and tits. Here's the thing: it’s complicated. There’s such a range of acceptance that every individual has, and who are we to judge what every individual is comfortable with? The truth is you see every shape, size, color at the Ren fair. I believe it’s an interesting conversation because the fair was originally started as more of a hippie thing than a historical reenactment thing and from the hippie movement what we can take away that was good about that is non-judgment. People make decisions for themselves. They play the instruments they want to play, they do the art they want to do, they fuck who they want to fuck, they show what they want to show, and they body paint what they want to body paint! There is a huge part of Ren fair culture. So people have to make their own decisions about what they’re comfortable with. Some people want to play the historical part and be the lady who gets her hand kissed by the guy who gets on his knees, and some people want to dress in drag and make fun of the whole thing from the inside out."
Why is Amanda such an interesting character to place into the Ren fair?
"I was meant to follow a simple trajectory in my socially unexperimental life: go to college, meet a guy, get a graduate degree, settle in a suburb of Boston or New York, have some kids, give them Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, move forward with your life, rinse, repeat. Although Amanda is a more extreme example of this, I would say this is a girl who watches tons of Real Housewives, goes to cocktails with her friends, and gets facials every week. She is probably going to get married and have kids, and they’re going to go to the same temple that she goes to. Her husband will probably cheat on her, and she will decide to stay with him anyway because he makes a good living. She’ll be as happy as someone who chooses that can be — which is a certain level of happy. She’s at a point in her life where there could be another option, but if the option doesn’t present itself to her, she’s not going to go out and look for it. So it’s going to open a whole different world for her.
"I didn’t understand that there was such a difference between being a grownup and being a child. You can be both. You can be functional and you can continue playing a lot, and you can still be responsible and still be an adult. There are worlds where you can live that way and you don’t have to follow this path of the American Dream. I would say the millennials have it even worse because they are also existing in these paths. Take the college admission scandal, for example — it's all about going to the right school, get the right education. Now, [all our life choices are] being tracked on social media. You’re going to be judged if you fall out of line. I think this is an interesting time to tell this story because you’ve got people who can’t make a mistake without everyone knowing."
What other characters are you most excited about viewers meeting?
"You get this impression of [our Ren Fair's] Shakespeare (Rory O'Malley) at first that's one way, and then he opens up in such a nerdy, lovable way. He's a pleasure to watch. He becomes this delightful guy that you have this incredible investment in. And then also I think that the world is going to fall in love with Delilah, played by Mary Hollis Inboden, who is our washer-wench and is the warmest and sweetest. She represents all love and family, the kind of friend that becomes your family, that becomes more important to you than your own family, that becomes more supportive of you than your own family. She is all-in, she is all-fun, she is all love. I think that everyone is going to have a blast with her."
Do you see any similarities between this series and Orange Is the New Black, as you're working with Jenji Kohan on the project?
"They’re both based on sort of true events, they’re both fish out of water, and they both use a conventional, upscale everywoman to get into a subculture. But prison is not the Ren fair. The truth is that the people who work at the Ren fair, it’s almost like a commune: It’s a community, it’s a collaborative environment, it’s a big family. I think prison has elements of that, but for the most part, it’s a lot of every man for himself even if people do find [ways to bond]. At the end of the day, this is Jenji’s romantic comedy. There’s going be real pathos and real emotion, but it’s not going to drag you into the sadness of our society. There’s passion, there’s love, there’s sex, there’s fun. These are young, beautiful people in the prime of their lives, living in a playful, non-judgemental society, so anything can happen."
American Princess airs Sundays on Lifetime at 9 p.m. ET. Check out the trailer below.