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Making a show of themselves: The curiously powerful world of the empty stage

From celebrated theatres to working men's clubs and school halls,  welcome to the strangely beautiful world of empty stages, as photographed by Tim Etchells and Hugo Glendinning.

Hugo Glendinning regularly photographs the greatest British theatre and dance companies – the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and Royal Opera House. He shoots honed, expressive bodies filling the nation's loftiest stages.

Those honed, expressive bodies are utterly absent from his latest project, however, and many of the stages are much less lofty. As the exhibition title suggests, Empty Stages comprises more than 100 photographs, shot over nine years, of, well, empty stages from all over the world.

"It started from 27 years of being in theatres and staring at empty stages, waiting…" says Tim Etchells, Glendinning's collaborator on the project and founder of the performance-art company Forced Entertainment. "A lot of my time is spent looking at an empty stage thinking 'What can we do?', 'What can we make happen here?'. So the empty stage, in a way, is like a blank piece of paper, an empty picture frame – it's a constant pull on you to think of something to fill it. I have a fascination for that empty frame that I've been looking at for many years."

The Empty Stages project started when Forced Entertainment took part in Tate Modern's Live Culture festival in 2003, and Glendinning was heavily involved in the book that was to come out of it. An exhibition was planned as part of the festival, and the pair alighted on the empty stage theme, partly inspired by a research project in Sheffield's The Lantern Theatre. "We spent a week in Sheffield looking at other kinds of space, not the more traditional space, but kind of working men's clubs, pubs…" recalls Glendinning. "Just an array, using Sheffield as a testing ground for what we could find," adds Etchells, breezily completing Glendinning's sentence with an ease that reflects a friendship that goes back 32 years.

After the exhibition closed, Glendinning and Etchells continued photographing empty stages and adding to their collection. They seldom seek permission from theatre authorities, enjoying the random nature of what they find when they arrive, capturing "whatever is happening on there – especially if it's not what's meant to be happening on there. It's just a place that's become dormant or the anticipation of something; that is much more interesting to me," says Glendinning.

This policy of never announcing their arrival ahead of time has created some awkward situations. The doorman at the Non-Political Club in Sheffield could not understand why they wanted to take a photo of the empty stage. Phone calls and petty officialdom inevitably ensued. "Funnily enough, seeking permission has always been a problem," says Glendinning. "And almost always results in failure. I've tried to get permission for Théâtre des Marionnettes in the f Jardin du Luxembourg. They absolutely wanted money. So I went every other week to watch the puppet show and hung around with my over-large camera and had to shoot wider with a faster shutter speed because it's dark in there. It's not quite as good as it should be. There's quite a lot of that. Not quite as good as it should be. But it's OK. Because you nicked it."

Now that Glendinning and Etchells have accumulated around 100 pictures, neither sees the point of stopping. "After you've gone beyond a certain point, it feels like that's what you do as an artist," says Etchells. He likens Empty Stages to a word project he's working on, a Forced Entertainment performance, the text of which comprises a list of about 2,000 questions that he continually adds to. "Whenever in a book or a film or a conversation I hear what I think is a good question that isn't in that show, I write it down," says Etchells. Describing both projects as "an ongoing catalogue which you are busy with over many years," he says, "they become a way of orientating yourself in the work".

As our interview winds down, Glendinning remarks on how many of those stages have been destroyed. "I don't know if it's a phenomenon in the past 10 years, or if it's the natural destruction of the world that happens. A lot have gone." So Empty Stages, the photography project, might become a lasting social commentary of how communities are evolving and how people choose to experience entertainment.

Empty Stages runs at the Festival d'Avignon in France until 28 July (festival-avignon.com)