Over the past 25 years, Flathead Valley Community College’s beloved theater director has pushed the program to new heights. Now, over the next five years — the final years of his distinguished career — Joe Legate will work through a bucket list of all-time productions.

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Sally Finneran
In September 2010, Joe Legate stepped into the office of Jane Karas, the president of Flathead Valley Community College. The theater director wanted her blessing to produce “Equus,” a psychological thriller about an unimaginative psychiatrist treating a young man with a pathological fascination with horses.

“I went in and for 40 minutes talked nonstop,” Legate said. He told Karas, “‘I really want to do this show. It’s such a vital show — but, by the way, there’s nudity involved. It’s not about the nudity, but you have to do it.’”

He’d wanted to produce the show for decades, and his experienced student-actors wanted to push themselves. He knew he could create a sensitive environment to challenge his students, the theater department, and the audience. Eventually, he says, he paused to catch his breath, and Karas stopped him.

“You have to,” he remembers her saying.

“Even though there was this stumbling block in the required nudity of the production, that didn’t take away from the artistic or educational integrity,” he said. “She knew how important it was for me to do the show. She trusted me.”

Legate, who has been teaching theater and speech at the college for 25 years, has earned trust to spare. Under his watch, the FVCC Theatre has flourished from meager beginnings into a vibrant program with five instructors and state-of-the-art facilities, the kind that can pull off a skillful production like Equus.

“(Legate) developed an outstanding theater program,” Karas said, and she praised him for keeping the “focus on the success and well-being of our students.”

Now embarking on the closing act of his academic career, Legate hopes to complete a bucket list featuring challenging productions and classic, feel-good favorites before taking his final bow.

“I ’m the luckiest person in the world,” Legate has said. “Everything has fallen in place to have probably the best job that I could ever, ever have … I totally fell into this profession by sheer, blind chance.”

Legate is so suited for theater that it seems he would have found his way here one way or another. Born on a farm in southeast Missouri, the 61-year-old says he never saw a play as a child. Education, however, was a family value — his mother, who put her own studies on hold to raise her children, eventually earned master’s and education specialist degrees, and Legate says that as a psychological examiner, she was instrumental in writing Missouri’s Title IX program.

When it came time to pursue his own higher education, Legate knew he wanted to be a teacher. At the University of Arkansas, he “fell in with the speech and communication group,” and figured he’d become a speech teacher. Then, Legate’s advisor, who suggested he consider a minor, signed him up for a stagecraft course. During his first class, Legate realized, “It was just a shop, and having been on the farm, I knew how to use tools. I always had.” His first task was to glue fur on a giant King Kong head for a play called “The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy in which a woman escaped from reality into a dream world crafted from pieces of thousands of movies.

“I thought, ‘This is just silliness, but this is fun.’ And they were nice,” Legate recalled.

Many of his peers didn’t have the same technical skills, and he quickly discovered a niche. After a semester spent hammering nails, he attended opening night.

Tanner Fortre, playing Dracula, performs with Beki Hafemeyer, playing Lucy, during a dress rehearsal at Flathead Valley Community College.

Tanner Fortre, playing Dracula, performs with Beki Hafemeyer, playing Lucy, during a dress rehearsal at Flathead Valley Community College

“I went to the play, sat down, the lights went down, then these beautiful, pretty lights came up,” he said. “And this bombshell hit the stage floor, singing and dancing, and I was mesmerized. I thought, ‘They will pay me to do this?’ I was hooked.”

So he tried acting, but he says he never had the knack. More importantly, he realized that he didn’t have the same fire for being on the stage as his castmates.

“When you go backstage after a show, the actors are just high, they’re euphoric,” he said. “And when I would come offstage, it was sort of a, ‘Phew, dodged that bullet.’”

His passion, rather, was in building the stage, and helping to shape what happened on it from behind-the-scenes. When he directed his first show as a student, a comedy called “Next,” about a middle-aged, overweight man who has mistakenly been called in by the draft, he finally tapped into the rush he’d witnessed backstage.

“I understood what it was like to be an actor, and to have that sense of excitement, euphoria,” he said. “Even today, almost 40 years later, (I feel it). I was thrilled.”

He says he’s drawn to the creativity and variability of theater — each show has a different personality, and each day of set-building or directing has different demands.

As an instructor, he looks forward to “helping (students) address their challenges, their concerns, and doing everything you can to make them feel like a success.”

Legate earned a Bachelor of science in education, as well as a Master of Arts in both speech communication and theater, from Arkansas State University. He also holds a Master of Fine Arts in technical direction and lighting design from the University of Southern Mississippi. He bounced around the United States as a teacher — “professors are the great transients of the professional world,” he said — and has worked in New York, South Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, and North Dakota. In Mississippi, he met his wife, Julie, a psychology student who enrolled in the school’s theater program as a crewmember to pick up an extra credit.

“Very quickly, we fell desperately in love, almost from the moment we met,” Legate said with a smile. “Six months later, we were married. It was ridiculously foolish.”

Julie also fell in love with theater, and has since been onstage many times. But like Legate, she leans toward supporting those under the spotlight.

“She has been a vital part of every show I’ve done here,” Legate said. “She has been, without question, my most ardent supporter and a very, very trusted friend. We call her the Theater Mom. We adopt almost every student that comes through here.”

James Vale, center, playing Reverend Brown, performs during a dress rehearsal of Inherit the Wind at Flathead Valley Community College

James Vale, center, playing Reverend Brown, performs during a dress rehearsal of Inherit the Wind at Flathead Valley Community College

While the couple was living in North Dakota, Legate interviewed for the position at FVCC “on a lark.” He took a quick trip over and found himself enchanted by Northwest Montana.

“How could you not fall in love with the valley?” he asked. “It’s so beautiful, so magnificent, you have to.”

But, he says, that’s not what captured him — “I’ve lived in beautiful places before,” he noted. It was the school.

“In almost 15 years of teaching at universities, I had never encountered a faculty that was so dedicated to teaching. I was floored, absolutely floored by it,” he said. “There was no sense of personal prestige. It was total dedication to working with the students. I was totally impressed.”

When Legate was offered the job, he and Julie packed up their bags and two young children, and moved West. So far, it’s been their happily-ever-after.

Legate plays the role of FVCC theater director naturally, with tenderness and graciousness. A testament to his impact, he’s officiated the marriages of dozens of former students, and kept in touch with many over years, some for decades. Though he says he’s never told a student to “be a star,” when he learns that someone wants to pursue a career in theater, he’ll “bend over backwards to help them achieve that goal.”

He’s watched some of them go to Broadway or become teachers themselves.

One such former student, Rich Haptonstall, is now a Legate’s right-hand man, an associate professor in the FVCC theater department. He too was once an undecided undergraduate, interested in studying maybe psychology, or law. He too had a King Kong-type moment, when he realized he could excel creatively in theater, something he attributes in no small part to Legate’s mentorship.

“He’s propagated this culture of fun and interest,” Haptonstall said. “There is that fine line between creating a fun, active, energetic environment, and also creating something relevant within a given artistic situation. He really does pursue his work seriously … Our philosophy here is, first and foremost, we’re going to learn something, do some work, and create some art, but it’s going to be fun. That was his mark on me. He was very good at making you understand that you could do it — and he didn’t do it in a big showy way, just a matter-of-fact way.”

Legate often speaks of the balance between challenging himself and his students, and having fun.

“It’s easy to get on our high horse — ‘We’ve got to do art!’ — forgetting that sometimes just making someone have a good laugh and feel good is pretty all right, too,” he said.

He tends toward comedies — “I have no love for tragedies,” he said — and that his theater bucket list, currently composed of 12 shows, is full of happy endings.

“I am a hopeless romantic, and there are few things I like better than a really good love story,” he said. “I love happy-ever-after. I really do. Schmaltz-y as that may be, it’s the truth. That’s how I want my life to be, it’s how I want my boys’ lives to be, it’s how I want my friends’ lives to be — I don’t want their lives to be filled with tragedy.”

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Joe Legate talks to his theater students before a rehearsal

The list features Shakespeare’s classic, “Twelfth Night,” and “The Woolgatherer,” an award-winning play lauded as wildly humorous. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is on the list “just because (it’s) so ridiculously fun. There’s no lessons in that; there’s no ever-after. It’s nothing but ridiculously fun. But it is that — it is that, indeed.”

The remaining productions in the current academic season include “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Bye, Bye Birdie,” which Legate said “will be an opportunity for us to simply go mad. It’s nothing but a good time.”

He hopes he can check off all the shows on his bucket list in the next five years, but he’s also not holding himself to that deadline. He says he picked 30 years simply because it felt like a reasonable length of time for a career, and he may “stretch it out a couple more years.” He still feels that rush on opening night.

“I’ve heard myself say too many times, ‘As soon as that sense is not there, I’m done.’ It’s still there,” Legate said. “I still love the rehearsal process. I still love working with all these actors, helping them develop their characters, helping them develop a show. All of it is so satisfying, so exciting, and so much fun.”

When the time comes, Haptonstall, who says the “goal would never be to try to replace Joe,” will likely take the baton, carrying on Legate’s legacy and ethos.

Legate has more adventures to pursue, such as eating his weight in seafood, he has joked. He rafts, fishes, and brews beer. He spends time with Julie, who is now a substitute teacher. He also gardens, going “back to my early days of living on the farm,” he noted. “Sometimes things come full circle.”

“Time marches on,” he continued. “It’s undeniable that, eventually, it’s going to be time to do something else.”