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by Judith Newmark

In the days before Christmas, actress Kim Furlow had her hands full with a monumental crafts project. Homemade wreaths? Forget it. A gingerbread house? Oh, please.

Furlow’s putting a new theater together — much of it with her own two hands.

Last month, she even persuaded some 20 other people — actors and members of the St. Louis theater community, assorted friends and relatives — to pitch in. As they painted walls, built a stage and unpacked big boxes of seats, Furlow saw her longtime dream, Dramatic License Productions, starting to take shape — at, of all places, Chesterfield Mall.

Set to open in February with a production of the juicy women’s drama “Steel Magnolias,” Dramatic License has found a home in Artropolis, the new arts center on the second level of the mall, near Sears. Two other Artropolis tenants, the arts and crafts store Wood Icing and the arts and jewelry shop Añejo Studios, have just opened their doors; more are on the way.

If this sounds familiar, there’s good reason. About a year ago, another St. Louis area mall, Crestwood Court (formerly Crestwood Plaza) astonished both the retail and the arts communities when it proposed a joint effort, ArtSpace. Working with the Regional Arts Commission to make empty stores available at very low rent, the South County landmark quickly attracted theater troupes, dance companies, painters, paper-makers, fiber artists, photographers — and plenty of attention. “People never heard of anything like it,” said the commission’s Dan Tierney. “I’d love to think we started a trend.”

It’s true that artists have always gravitated toward cheap rent, which has usually meant old buildings in urban neighborhoods, like the romantically decrepit artists’ digs in the opera “La Boheme.” Suburban malls aren’t known for that. On the other hand, they may be able to offer the kind of workspace those bohemians scarcely dreamed of. (“We have two looms here — two!” exclaimed weaver Jim Peregrin at Green Rug in ArtSpace.) Not to mention parking and a place to eat.

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