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 Set Design for 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, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance in 1984 at the Gate Theatre being their first production, before collaborating again on George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer at the Gate in May 1985. Vaněk first designed at the Abbey Theatre in May 1988, designing the sets and costumes for St. Stephen’s Green - The Generous Lovers by William Phillips, directed by Leon Rubin.

Throughout his career, Vaněk has designed 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 plays 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, adapted by Michael West & Annie Ryan, and 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.

In 1992, Vaněk was nominated for two Tony Awards, (Best Set and Best Costumes) and a Drama Desk Award for Best Set Design for the Broadway production of Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. He was also nominated for The Irish Times/Irish Theatre Awards Best Design for The Shape of Things (Gate Theatre, 2002) and The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? (Project Arts Centre, 2005).

In 2001, Vaněk won the Irish Times/Irish Theatre Award for Best Costume Design for the Opera Ireland production of The Silver Tassie (Mark Anthony Turnage) and also for The Queen of Spades (Opera Ireland) in 2002.

Vaněk’s work is closely associated with the plays of Brien Friel, including the premiere productions of Tony-Award winning Dancing at LughansaWonderful TennesseeMolly Sweeney, Performances, and a major revival of Aristocrats, 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.

Writing in Theatrescapes, Frank McGuinness said: “When I give a script to Joe Vaněk for him to design, I always feel something that does not come easily to me: that is a sense of security. What happens is that I can trust him to see what I write, and that is as rare as it is simple”. Brian Friel commented that “The Greeks would have been happy to have worked with Joe Vanek: he would have been as nimble in mighty Epidaurus as he is in the compact Gate or Abbey. He takes possession of a performing area with such discretion, so unobtrusively, with such economy and efficiency that the designer’s presence is minimal and the theatrical effect instantly arresting. No designer is less ostentatious. More than any other designer working in Ireland, he knows his place.”

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 reveal the artistry of his designs, with beautiful costume designs, vividly coloured and matched with fabric samples, allowing a tangible insight into the characters and places made real on the stage.

Extensive photographs include 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.


Read a message from Joe Vaněk.



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