Want to be a West End star? You have to get used to being out of work...

As this year's BBC talent show Over The Rainbow reaches the end of its yellow brick road, one talented hopeful will be thrust into West End stardom. Whoever is chosen will have it made. A role in a West End show sets you up for life, right?

Not necessarily, says Claire Greenway: "This business is a roller coaster. Very few people's careers are a steady climb. One minute I was making monkey noises in a tent at the O2, the next I had a leading role in a West End show."

Greenway, 29, from Merseyside, has been playing Sister Mary Patrick in Sister Act at the London Palladium for the past year. When she got the role, she was working as a pit singer in Damon Albarn's musical Monkey – Journey To The West.

Greenway says: "There's no 'working your way through' the ensemble, then on to a cover, then on to a small part, then a lead, then a star... It just doesn't work like that. You're just right for something, or you're not."

She had always wanted to be a performer. "My lightning-bolt moment was watching the tour of Les Miserables when I was nine," she says. "My mother swears I didn't breathe for the whole first act. I was totally in love."

Greenway trained at Chetham's School of Music and in musical theatre at the Royal Academy of Music, scoring her first role in Hot Mikado at Upstairs at the Gatehouse. "At the time, I didn't have an agent, which makes everything a little harder," she says. "For the audition, not only did I have to sing, dance and act, but I also had to play all the instruments I play. This meant dragging my sax out of the dust in the corner and panicking for a week."

Though she appears to have made it now, in her short career Greenway has played a Dr Martens-wearing fairy godmother, and has sung on film soundtracks and as a pit singer as well as holding down other jobs in telesales, jewellery sales and teaching.

Being a star can be hard graft, she says. "One day a week to cram in seeing friends and family, particularly if they have day jobs, is tough. Our Sundays go far too quickly, but the joy of a great part in a great show with a great cast is a gift."

As well as being a great all-rounder and having star quality, to make it in the West End, says Greenway, you need to get good at being out of work. "Make sure your well-being isn't associated with how well the next audition goes, and work out how to live your life inbetween jobs, because the times out of work can be longer than the times in..."

As a performer you are usually self-employed. You'll be contracted for anything from a few weeks to a year or more. Rights are tied into the contract, the overall ones agreed by Equity, and the ones specific to the show agreed with management and agents. Each show has Equity representatives – members of the cast who liaise with the union. In new shows there can be additional work around recording albums,filming promotional videos and adverts and making TV appearances.

Tim Driesen, 31, has just finished playing the role of Phoebus in Notre Dame de Paris in Antwerp, and has written a musical comedy Super Alice Smith. He says: "I think I have always known that I wanted to be a performer. It's a cliché, but as a child I put on shows in our back garden, where I charged admission in the shape of sweets."

Driesen trained in musical theatre at Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom. On graduating, he found an agent and won a role in Thank You For The Music, in which he played Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. "The audition was on a Friday and I started rehearsals on Monday. So I can't say my first job was the pay-off of a long, strung-out audition process."

But Driesen says: "To be able to sing, act and dance and be able to maintain the same standard of performance eight times a week, with clean-up rehearsals thrown in, is an intense process."

The economic downturn has hit the theatre hard. "There aren't many new shows being produced, and a lot more people stay in the same jobs for longer," he says. "You're only as good as your last job, and in recent years you're competing with celebrities, who will get in an audience but might not always be the best person for the part."

But the surge of good fringe productions, with casts of West End performers sharing the profits, means the quality of fringe shows has improved. "The best thing about working in the West End is you're working in one of the two capitals of theatre, says Driesen. "People come to watch you for special occasions, and you even get the occasional on-stage interval wedding proposal."

Get the spotlight on you

Most West End performers have done some kind of formal training. Visit ukperformingarts.co.uk for a list of courses and institutions.

Broadwayworld.com has a regular slot called The Audition Panel in which West End stars offer tales of their own auditions.

The Stage (thestage.co.uk) is the place to go for details of forthcoming auditions.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
News
i100
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

Guru Careers: Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant

£16 - 20k: Guru Careers: A Graduate Editor / Editorial Assistant is needed to ...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor