Amelia Kallman’s career path as an actress growing up in Northern Virginia was fairly conventional: She went from dance lessons and commercials as a child, to community theater and high school plays as a teen, to drama college in New York. She studied Shakespeare in England, had an agent and auditioned constantly — all the show business stuff.
And then she met burlesque.
Previously known to Kallman only as a historical term in theater, she soon embraced the creativity and empowerment of burlesque as an art form. Before long, she and her husband had launched the first burlesque club in China — to almost immediate wild success. And not long after, they were fleeing China just ahead of the authorities, a million dollars in personal investment down the drain.
Now the Chantilly High School graduate is reliving the life-changing experience: She and her husband, nightclub designer and rock raconteur Norman Gosney, are showcasing a multimedia show that incorporates their lives wrangling with Chinese officials and the vagaries of the international show-business life. The show previews Saturday at Vienna’s Jammin’ Java before its world debut next month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“I was 23,” Kallman said of her drastic career shift in a recent interview. “Was I going to move to L.A. and wait tables and try to land a big part? Or move to China and open the first burlesque club and see what happens?” She chose the latter, because, she said, “I was enchanted by the prospects of creating my own directions and making my own way.”
Kallman’s odyssey began when she and Gosney, more than 30 years her senior, nervously entered China in 2007 and begin searching for a venue, which they opened in 2009. Although the Chinese authorities closely monitored the content — translations of skits and even Frank Sinatra lyrics had to be submitted for review — crowds promptly filled their renovated hall and their “Chinatown Girls” dance troupe was hired out for private events across the region. Their experiences are captured in a book just published, “Diary of a Shanghai Showgirl.”
But their backstory is equally fascinating, traveling classically diverse paths to a first meeting in the penthouse of the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Gosney lived for 25 years while designing such Manhattan nightlife landmarks as Limelight, Area and Danceteria.
Gosney, now 65, grew up the son of a pub owner in Bristol, England; trained and worked in British theater; then began designing clubs such as London’s UFO, where Pink Floyd was an early house band. He hung out with a young David Bowie, moved to New York and ran with Andy Warhol’s crowd, and he designed chic nightclubs for the rich and beautiful.
Kallman, now 31, grew up in Chantilly, attended Greenbriar West Elementary School and Rocky Run Middle School, and began showing a flair for drama at a young age, said her mother, Pat Kallman.
“I’ve worked with a lot of kids over the years,” said Pat Kallman, a former producer with “Captain Kangaroo” and founder of Chantilly’s Alliance Theatre company, “some are just born to be a performer. She used to like to do dance and fashion shows, and once she started acting, she was being paid by age 9.”
Amelia Kallman continued to act, dance and do commercial work while attending Chantilly High, where she headed the thespian society and performed in such works as “Street Scene,” where her performance as Emma Jones, a caustic neighbor, won a “Cappie” award for best supporting actress among all drama productions by Northern Virginia high schools.
“She was wonderful — she would create multi-dimensional characters,” said Ed Monk, her Chantilly drama teacher. For Emma Jones, Monk said, “most high school kids would play her ‘mean, mean, mean.’ But Amelia did her part-mean and part-nice. She was just very talented for her years.”
Kallman, who also performed at the Kennedy Center and the Folger Shakespeare Theater, graduated from Chantilly in 2001 and entered Marymount Manhattan College to study acting. Then in 2004, she and some girlfriends crashed a party at the Chelsea Hotel that turned out to be in Gosney’s penthouse. The two met, clicked, and soon became a couple.
Gosney was still in the business of designing hip nightclubs around the world but decided to open his own illegal speakeasy in an empty office building in midtown Manhattan. Instead of velvet ropes and thumping disco, Gosney said he tapped into his experience with theater and “working men’s clubs” in England. He launched the “Blushing Diamond” burlesque club.
“Burlesque?” Kallman said she thought. “I wasn’t familiar with it at all. ‘It’s just stripping, I’ve done Shakespeare!’ Then I saw it and I realized how creative and beautiful it was. These women were in control of their own acts, really innovative and different.”
Kallman came up with her own act, in which “Miss Amelia” acted out a movie in three minutes suggested by the audience. “It always shocked people that I could talk and be intelligent,” she said.
But Gosney sensed that the police would soon come knocking, and he’d always envisioned China as a ripe market. He said he wanted to open a first burlesque club in Shanghai, train dancers and performers there, and then open a dozen other clubs across Asia and create a circuit for the various acts.
While Gosney found an empty Buddhist temple and remade it, Kallman recruited and trained dancers and singers. The process, rife with bribery and antipathy to foreigners, took them two years. But in 2009, they opened “Gosney and Kallman’s Chinatown,” and after a brief blip due to lack of sound insulation, they enjoyed a year’s run of packed houses.
The goal was to create a noir scene out of a 1940s Hollywood film, Kallman said, summoning the feel of a sophisticated nightclub with white tablecloths and strolling showgirls not found elsewhere in Shanghai’s generic club scene. Gosney worked the room, chatting up high-rollers and making patrons feel welcome while directing others to special private suites. A master of ceremonies sang songs and introduced acts. Kallman led the “Chinatown Dolls” through cabaret and comedy routines, along with other acts. Gosney said the place was on track for steady profitability, and “if I’d have had another million dollars in my pocket, we would not be having this conversation.”
But he did not have another million dollars. Troubles with building contractors and government regulators, including a night in a Shanghai jail for Gosney, caused the now-married couple to flee hastily in 2010. They have since settled in London, where Kallman is working on a fitness video, a graphic novel and pitching a TV show based on her Shanghai adventure.
Chinese authorities were initially supportive of a cosmopolitan nightclub in “the Paris of China,” Kallman said. “We had this dream — we were creating this new modern city,” she said. “We believed we were going to be the future.”