Joe Vaněk with playwright, Brian Friel

The Joe Vaněk Archive of Theatre and Opera Design

Joe Vaněk was born in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, and brought up in a small farming village, Walton, five miles outside Stratford on Avon.

Vaněk took a B.Ed degree at Sussex University in Art and Drama, from 1966 – 1970 and an M.A. degree in Theatre Design at Manchester University from 1971 - 1972.

From the late 1970s through to the mid-1980s Vaněk worked at the Tricycle Theatre, the Young Vic and across West End venues in London. Vaněk was Head of Design at the Palace Theatre Watford, under the director Michael Attenborough from 1980 to May 1984. Vaněk lived in London for a period of thirteen years before moving to Dublin in 1995. By this time, Vaněk had also designed for the Lyric Theatre Belfast production of Northern Star by Stewart Parker, directed by Peter Farago in November 1984. In the same year, Vaněk won the Harvey’s Award for Best Design for his work on Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance.

Mason and Vaněk collaborated many times, at the Gate Theatre and at the Abbey Theatre over successive years. Vaněk and Mason first worked together on a production of Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance in 1984 before collaborating again on Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer again produced at the Gate Theatre in May 1985. Vaněk first designed for the Abbey Theatre on the set and costumes for the production of St. Stephen’s Green - The Generous Lovers by William Phillips and directed by Leon Rubin in May 1988.

Throughout his career, Vaněk has been designing for most of the major theatre, opera and dance companies in Ireland. He was Director of Design at the Abbey Theatre from 1994-1997, and also Design Associate for the Wexford Festival Opera from 2006-2008. Vaněk has worked with Landmark Productions on new works and adaptations, including Knives in Hens by David Harrower and Frank McGuinness’ adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, directed by Michael Barker-Caven and staged at Project Arts Centre in February 2008.

In 2002, Vaněk designed the set and costumes for The Book of Evidence, adapted from the novel by John Banville, and which was first produced by the Kilkenny Arts Festival in association with Fiach Mac Conghail and River Productions. In 2012, Vaněk designed the sets and costume for Dubliners by James Joyce and adapted by Michael West & Annie Ryan. Produced by Corn Exchange Theatre Company and the Dublin Theatre Festival, the play ran as part of the Festival in 2012 at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.

Vaněk has been nominated for the Irish Times/Irish Theatre Award Best Design Award for The Shape of Things (Gate Theatre) and The Goat (Project Arts Centre) and received the Best Costume Design award for The Queen of Spades (Opera Ireland).

Vaněk’s work is closely associated with the plays of Brien Friel, including the Tony-Award winning Dancing at LughansaWonderful TennesseeMolly Sweeney, Aristocrats, and Performances, between the Abbey Theatre, the Gate Theatre and respective international tours. Vaněk also designed new plays by many of Ireland’s leading writers including Sebastian Barry, Marina Carr, Hugo Hamilton, Tom Kilroy, Tom MacIntyre, Frank McGuinness and Tom Murphy.

In 2015, Vaněk published his book, Irish Theatrescapes: New Irish Plays, Adapted European Plays and Irish Classics, an illustrated volume that charts his career and designs in Irish theatre.

This exhibition includes newly digitised material from the Vaněk archive, held at the Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. The Vaněk archive offers a unique perspective into the processes and work of one of Ireland’s and European theatre’s most renowned designers. Vaněk’s notebooks and costume drawings reveal the artistry of his designs, with beautiful manuscript illustrations, vividly coloured and matched with costume samples, allowing a tangible insight into the characters and places made real on the stage through Vaněk intricate designs.

Extensive photographs show landscapes, architecture and items that were documented within Vaněk’s early ideas for particular productions. Correspondence with directors and playwrights, in particular with the likes of Brian Friel, show how much Vaněk inhabited the worlds in which he designed, building them into vivid worlds on the stage.

This exhibition opens the archive of contemporary Irish theatre’s leading designer, Joe Vaněk, and charts a scenographic journey from page to stage through the theatrescapes of Vaněk’s distinguished career.




  • Grace Vroomen
  • Dr. Barry Houlihan
  • Eimhin Joyce
  • Dr. Cillian Joy
  • Aisling Keane