Goodbye, Laura -- hello, Babe

At 21, soap superstar Genie Francis takes the next step

We find Genie Francis relaxing in her stuffy dressing room at the Birmingham Theatre, looking like everything a young man would ever want a young woman to be. She's blond and wholesome, but one stops short of cute, because the gaze is so intent, and the voice, when she answers questions, is so self-assured.

To millions of soap opera fans, she's Laura of Luke and Laura, the lovers who rescued a failing soap called General Hospital and put it on top of the ratings. Today, however, Miss Francis would like everyone to forget Laura, at least for a while, and see her as Babe, an eccentric young woman who shot her husband "because I didn't like his stinkin' looks."

Miss Francis is playing the youngest of the three amusingly distressed sisters in Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, Crimes of the Heart, at the Birmingham. It's her stage debut. She says she's studied hard for it, and wants to establish herself as a serious actress.

"I played Laura for five years," she explains. "At the age of 21, it's time to stop and say, 'Hey, what am I doing? What do I want to do?' It's time to explore, to study, to plan. When I proceed, I'll do so with a strategy."

When she finished her last General Hospital assignment last fall, she headed for New York and joined the legions of hopefuls in leotards and leg warmers, trooping to acting classes and movement classes, going through the Stanislavsky and Strasburg drill.

An established television star really doesn't need this aggravation. "Sure, I could stay there (in Los Angeles) and just let them package me, put me in things that aren't nearly demanding enough. And in a few years, I'd be just another burnt-out blond."

"This is wonderful," she says of her first theater assignment. "Being out of the series has been very uplifting to me. Now I can play all kinds of different roles."

Miss Francis, whose father, Ivor Francis, is an actor, grew up in show business in New York and L.A. At 14, she auditioned for and got the part of a rather mean little girl on the series Family, with Kristy McNichol. Three months later, she was cast as sweet Laura Webber on General Hospital, about the time producer Gloria Monty overhauled the show. "All of a sudden, I was a big success," she says.

Before curly-haired Tony Geary came along as Luke Spencer, Laura's romantic interest was Scotty. In the jargon of the trade, that was the Scotty-Laura storyline. But Scotty quit, Luke appeared and "the sparks flew right from the start. Luke and Laura had this terrific chemistry. Yeah, Tony and I knew right away."

For the next several years, soap fans monitored the ebb and flow of the relationship, which weathered a rape, a flight to freedom and, in an episode that made daytime ratings history, their marriage.

"I think Tony and I have always worked so well together because we're similar as human beings. We have the same sense of humor, and know how to make each other laugh. And we're both very competitive -- not in a mean way, but in a playful way. We'd play one-uppance. We'd try to throw each other off, to get the better of each other by adding little surprises, doing scenes a little differently each time. That always got the sparks flying. It electrified the performance.
"Offstage, Tony Geary is the exact opposite of Luke Spencer. He's very sweet and soft-spoken, very serious, even cerebral. Me? Oh, I like quiet things, too. I like to ride horses, go to movies, and just be with small groups of friends."

Miss Francis says she got the part of Babe by auditioning, and considers herself very lucky to have been chosen. Though she's getting top billing -- she is, after all, the box office draw -- she's not really the star. In this play, there is no star. "It's a marvelous cast, and a very different experience for me. I've never had the opportunity to rehearse one piece so long, to explore the character with other actors this way."

In soap opera, she explains, one must work more quickly. "We'd shoot a 90-page script per day," she says. "Ninety pages. The days' shooting schedule would range from 10 to 18 hours, depending on the technical demands of the particular script. We'd learn the lines, go through them, shoot it.

"I got to know Laura very well in five years. I knew her better than the writers. Sometimes they'd hand me a script, and I'd say, 'No, Laura would never do this,' and they'd change it. For instance, after she and Luke came home, they were going to have Laura move in with her mother. I said, 'No, she'd never do that. Look, she's been living with this guy for a year. Why would she move in with her mother?' They agreed, and changed it.

"The soap opera formula is easy, but the production schedule is really what makes it hard. Over the years, as you might imagine, I've gotten to know the technical aspects pretty well. I used to catch mistakes, and sometimes I'd call attention to them." She laughs, then adds, "My advice wasn't always appreciated. I'd love to direct, and someday, way up the road, I'm sure I will. But now, who wants to take orders from a 21-year-old girl?"

The Crimes production was put together by the Nederlander theater organization just for the Birmingham. There are no plans at this point to tour it, a spokesman said. The set is a replica of the Broadway original and, says Miss Francis, so are the costumes. Even the original blocking of stage movements is being followed closely.

"I'll go back to L.A. after this," she says, "but I don't know what I'll do. A movie, if the right one comes along. I love the theater, and there are parts I'd love to do -- Joan of Arc, Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Romeo and Juliet. The only thing I know for sure I don't want to do another series. Not because there's anything wrong with series, but because I just feel I need the experience and discipline of doing a variety of roles.

"The people who work on soaps are as fine and as dedicated as any artists in the business. What they do is altogether different from nighttime TV. The secret of a good soap is that it's like life. People watch whole generations grow and change. Soaps are about relationships, they're about feelings, they feed the soul.

"This doesn't really happen on nighttime TV. At night, it's all glitzy and slick, but they don't really try to engage the emotions. Daytime TV must. I think we may help some people who have trouble expressing their feelings by offering a kind of catharsis."

Will she ever go back to General Hospital? "That's not entirely my decision," she says. "After all, Tony and I left together." Geary recently indicated that he wouldn't mind dropping in occasionally as Luke... so stay tuned.

by Edward Hayman

Thank you to Kelly for sending me this article and picture!