Live Wire

Behind the scenes with veteran American Idol stage manager Debbie Williams.

In the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton, camera operators and crew in stage black are adjusting the lighting and pulling focus for both nominee stand-ins and seat cards. Over the house PA, a sunny, staccato voice summons the rehearsal to attention: “Here we go, everybody, 5, 4, 3 …”
You won’t see Debbie Williams, a 28-year veteran of television production (ER, American Idol, Dancing With The Stars), unless she’s blocking entrances and exits for presenters Jimmy Fallon and Melissa McCarthy, or when Reese Witherspoon rightly questions the unintelligible words scripted for her on the teleprompter. In a flash, Debbie, in a Hurley trucker cap and headset, appears beside Reese and calls the writer to the stage. The dangling participle is corrected, and Debbie announces the next act, scene and item, resuming the brisk tempo required for the following evening’s LIVE: 71st Annual Golden Globe Awards.

You once compared live television to putting out fires or to being in the eye of a hurricane. Why would any sane professional want to do live television?

Debbie Williams: Live has an adrenalin rush to it. Everybody is on their game. There’s no going back, and you know when it’s over. The funny thing is that when you go live, it works out perfectly, and when you tape, something always breaks down.

Describe—for someone who’s not in the business—what a stage manager does.

DW: I’m the director on the stage. The director is way off in a booth somewhere, in our ear. Live variety-show TV stage managers have to know everything about every department and what everyone does—the set moves, the special effects, the music and the flow of talent. 

The Sound of Music was live recently. What did you think?

DW: I was watching because all my friends were working on the show and because no one’s done a musical live for over 50 years, since Cinderella. It got great ratings. There were problems with it because Carrie can’t act, but from a technological standpoint, it was perfect.

You skated with Ice Follies from the ages of 3 through 15 and came to this town as a dancer. How did that inform what you do for Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance?

DW: I had been a performer, so when I started as a stage manager, there was a shorthand. I identified with talent, and I understood what they were going through.

Of all the shows you’ve worked on, what have been the biggest surprises?

DW: Jennifer Hudson. She was bumped off American Idol at #5. And Carrie Underwood. She was an underdog and was so shy when she came on American Idol. She had never been on a plane before she came to Idol. Simon called it.  

Thoughts about Simon?

DW: I always liked working with Simon and loved listening to what he had to say because it was exactly what we were thinking. He was great on American Idol because you related to him as Everyman.

You worked with George Clooney on ER. How was that? 

DW: The best. When he was on ER, he had this idea to do a live episode. The set on Warner Bros. was built like a hospital, and we had to dress in hospital outfits. When we had to cue a scene, I would put a folder in front of a desk and walk away, or in the locker room, I would tap George’s shoulder to signal the start of the next scene. 

Paula Abdul.

DW: Love her.

What are your guilty viewing pleasures?

DW: The only series I stuck with was Six Feet Under. I’m a massive History Channel addict, especially about WWII.  And, you’re going to laugh, but I love all the Housewives shows …

Atlanta?!

DW: All of them. I find it fascinating to listen to all of these women arguing with each other over silly things. It’s my mindless, silly, guilty pleasure.

Anything else?

DW: Say Yes to the Dress.

Never heard of it.  

DW: It’s so good. It’s all about girls finding bridal gowns. My daughter and I can watch marathons of this show.

You’ve done everything. What’s your next dream job?

DW: I’d like to do another live dramatic show with George Clooney. We almost did Good Night, and Good Luck as a live TV movie. CBS pulled out because it was too expensive, so George made a movie and won an Oscar.
I did the MDA (Muscular Dystrophy Association) telethon with Jerry Lewis for 28 years, so I would have to say my dream job would be something with meaning. When you see how it helps families, you find meaning.
I recently met with people in Las Vegas who want to do a show for Alzheimer’s. If I can take the skills I’ve learned and use them to help people, it feels good. Those are the things I want to do now. It’s good for my soul. 

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