SWAMPSCOTT – It’s not often you see a nice Jewish girl from Swampscott rolling around in the mud, impersonating the tavern wench of a 16th century English village.
Jamie Denbo, a veteran actress and writer who worked at the Sterling Renaissance Festival in upstate New York for two seasons, admitted as much. “I used to joke that I was the only [Renaissance Festival employee] with an Israeli savings bond supplementing my income,” said Denbo, who is also known for playing eccentric Swampscott Jewish mother Beverly Ginsberg in the long-running podcast, “Ronna and Beverly.”
Now Denbo, who has appeared in everything from “Orange Is the New Black” to “Weeds” to “Veep” to “The Heat,” has translated this story into a new sitcom called “American Princess,” which will debut June 2 on Lifetime. Denbo refers to her show, which she co-produced with “Weeds” and “Orange” creator Jenji Kohan, as “‘Private Benjamin’ at the Renaissance festival,” a reference to the 1980 film starring Goldie Hawn as a Jewish socialite who joins the Army after her husband dies on their wedding night.
In “American Princess,” Amanda Klein (Australian actress Georgia Flood) is an Upper East Side Jew who catches her husband cheating on their wedding day. She runs away, and impulsively joins a Renaissance fair. Her own personal renaissance follows. Just like Denbo did in real life, Klein finds a new community that eventually helps her become happier and more fulfilled.
Denbo has wanted to tell this story ever since she left the Sterling Renaissance Festival over two decades ago. She thinks “American Princess,” where she is an executive producer, writer, showrunner, and occasional guest star, will resonate with self-conscious millennials who grew up in an age of helicopter parenting and social media.
“This generation has so much fear of being judged, and there’s so many cameras and lenses and eyes on them all the time,” she said. “To be forced to step out of your comfort zone and adapt to a new place, a place where nonjudgment is still so much a part of their experience, is a wonderful thing. She has to be shocked into it, but she learns a lot while she’s there.”
Denbo enjoyed a traditional Jewish upbringing. She attended elementary school at Epstein Hillel, spent summers at Camp Tel Noar, and graduated from Swampscott High School.
Years later, Denbo’s Jewish upbringing stays with her. “Everything I do has a Jewish bent, because it was a huge part of my growing up,” she said. “It can’t help but color my worldview, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, sometimes in fun ways, sometimes in just specificity.”
According to her mother Carol, Denbo displayed comedic talent early on, and starred in plays for Marblehead Little Theatre, the Children’s Academy of Performing Arts, and Camp Tel Noar. “Jamie was funny from the time she could talk, from her first words,” said Carol.
Denbo performed improv at Boston University, where she half-heartedly studied communications because she felt she needed a “real education.”
“I knew [improv] was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how you could make that into any kind of living,” she said. “That kind of thing is not on the menu when you grow up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, which is a sleepy little lighthouse town with college on the mind for people.”
Yet Denbo realized her true passion, and tried out for summer stock productions after graduating from BU in 1995. She hadn’t studied theater, and felt she was unpolished. One of the few places that called her back was the Sterling Renaissance Festival.
After two summer seasons performing in a Renaissance-era style of interactive, improvisational theater, Denbo got a full-time acting job at Walt Disney World in Orlando. With several years of professional improvising under her belt and some money saved up, Denbo moved to New York City and joined the storied Upright Citizens Brigade comedy and sketch troupe.
In 2006, the troupe asked Denbo and Jessica Chaffin, a Jewish actor from Newton, to host an all-Jewish “Kosher Christmas Show.” Denbo put on a wig, a pair of sunglasses atop a pair of eyeglasses, lots of dangly jewelry, and a thick Boston accent. Beverly Ginsberg, arguably Swampscott’s most famous imaginary Jew, was born. Chaffin, meanwhile, transformed into Ronna Glickman, a leopard-print-sporting Marblehead matriarch with a house on the harbor and lots of unsolicited advice.
In frequent live shows and a popular podcast that ran from 2011 to 2017, Ronna and Beverly kibbitzed and bickered about the happenings of their North Shore Jewish universe, from the air-conditioned hot yoga class at the JCC to Beverly disturbing Yom Kippur services at Congregation Shirat Hayam by opening up a crinkly candy wrapper.
Beverly is a freewheeling, free-spirited kook with dysfunctional twin daughters and several ex-husbands who represents an almost surrealist scrambling of Denbo’s subconscious. “She is a true alter-ego,” Denbo said. “She is definitely an amalgam of my mom, my grandmother, and a lot of the women I grew up around. But she’s also very oddly Gen-X in her thinking. She really doesn’t believe in political correctness, but she does believe in sex positivity, so I would say those parts are definitely my id creeping out.”
Denbo’s parents, Carol and Sam, who still live in Swampscott and attend Shirat Hayam, realize Beverly is at least partially based on them and their friends. “It’s a little bit of everything. I like to think of myself as a little more sophisticated, but I do have the ability to laugh at myself so I can confess that maybe a tiny bit come from me, hopefully not the whole personality,” said Carol.
“I look at Beverly and I say, ‘Jeez, thank God Beverly is a female,’ because if she were a male, I would hide every time [Jamie] got near,” Sam said. “Everything you say is logged into her brain, that could come back to haunt you, so you have to be very careful around her.”
Denbo comes back to Swampscott at least once a year – most likely to log in new material for Beverly – but also so that her children, Nola and Walter, can visit their grandparents. Denbo and her husband, actor and comic John Ross Bowie (Barry Kripke on “The Big Bang Theory”), are working to raise their children Jewish in a way that is personally meaningful. For Denbo, that means incorporating some musical theater.
“On Yom Kippur, my family and I sit down and watch all three hours of ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and nobody leaves, and we all sing along, and it’s a little funny, but it’s also very serious,” said Denbo, stressing the importance of creating your own meaning rather than simply going through the motions. That is, after all, how she ended up at the Renaissance fair.