When American Idol debuted on Fox nearly six years ago, it drew the network's highest ratings ever for a non-sporting event. Today the show has become a cultural phenomenon. Stage manager Debbie Williams, who's been there from the beginning as Idol's self-described "den mom," says the reason it's unlike any other job she's had—and that includes more than a dozen years of stage-managing the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and MTV Music Video Awards—is the atmosphere fostered by executive producers (and episodic directors) Nigel Lythgoe (who recently left the show) and Ken Warwick. "They allow everyone to take part in the spontaneity," Williams says. "It's like being let loose on a playground every single day."
Sometimes the Idol romper room can turn from run-of-the-mill crazy into beyond insane, and that's where Williams keeps things from imploding. "The first season that Kelly [Clarkson] was on she cried all the time," Williams recalls. "I understand how nervous these kids are and it's my job to make sure the set is a safe and comfortable haven for them to do their best work."
It's also answering millions of questions a day, delegating tasks to her two assistant stage managers, Spencer Emmons and Michelle Aller (aka Mavis), listening to the director on her headset and overseeing the crew, not to mention deflecting on-air crisis which invariably center around Idol's prickly celebrity judges. "This season we had 'Abdulagate,'" Williams laughs, "when Paula Abdul's on-air mix-up created so much controversy."
As Williams tells it, the show had gone to a commercial and it suddenly dawned on her that perhaps no one told the judges the format had been changed. "Paula got confused and gave her comments on two songs, even though the kids had only done one. That's when the press found out the judges see the dress rehearsal and they had a field day."
But Williams says the on-air blunder just brought the Idol family closer together. Nothing, in fact, fazes Williams, not even shepherding 76 former Oscar winners onstage at the Academy Awards for a one-of-a-kind ceremony. With each performer timed to a film clip, "if one person got out of order it would have been a disaster," says Williams.
Initially stymied as to how she would pull off the historic segment, Williams hit upon a simple idea. "I thought about when we were in school, so I had colored lines placed on the ground backstage with line monitors to keep each row of stars intact. There I was telling Sean Connery and Cloris Leachman they'd better listen to me or else I'd be living in Peoria tomorrow without a job. It was a total blast."
Harking back to her first career as a dancer, Williams compares stage-managing to choreography (she's also lead stage manager for So You Think You Can Dance). She writes and memorizes notes for all set transitions, blocking, and individual routines, engraining the telecast's "choreography" in her head. "In television the directors are in the booth, so they place all their faith in the stage manager," concludes Williams. "Every department funnels through our position, so if you can keep your sense of humor with chaos all around, you're in really good shape."