Arts·Queeries

With a little help from a famous drag queen, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser is re-imagining the symphony

The new doc Disruptor Conductor shows how the orchestral conductor is changing who his work is for.

The new doc Disruptor Conductor shows how the orchestral conductor is changing who his work is for

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser. (Max Attwood)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

In his work as an orchestral conductor, pedagogue and public speaker, Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser puts a big emphasis on connection.

"Connecting the audience to what is happening on stage, with me, with the musicians, with the experience," he says. "There is a lot happening in front of you during an orchestral concert; giving the audience new and deeper insight into everything going on — and there are many ways to do this — gives their time with you new life and deeper meaning."

Bartholomew-Poyser works with orchestras across North America, conducting and creating shows and concerts that connect with "specific target audiences and diverse groups" that are usually not populations traditionally associated with the orchestral world. One fabulous example? His teaming up with Symphony Nova Scotia and RuPaul's Drag Race contestant Thorgy Thor to create Thorgy and the Thorchestra, the first orchestral drag show in Canada.  And its the journey they undertook together that's at the heart of the new documentary Disruptor Conductor, which is airing on CBC this Thursday as part of CBC Doc POV.

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser is an unlikely hero on a mission to create live orchestral shows that are for everyone. 1:11

As Disruptor Conductor shows, Bartholomew-Poyser and Thor clearly made for quite the dynamic duo. Classicially trained on the violin, viola and cello, Thor got a chance to combine her two greatest passions: orchestral performance and drag. And working with her as she got to do that was a dream for Bartholomew-Poyser.

"Thorgy Thor is a class act," he says. "I was unsure what to expect as I had never worked with a drag queen before. On television Thorgy is the comedy queen, always brimming with wacky ideas. In real life, she is detailed, diligent and constantly, constantly working and creating. Constantly. I learned, from her, the effort that accompanies excellence in that field. It's monumental. Interestingly, if you want to do learn drag, there's no school. You just start and hopefully get mentored along the way. Thorgy has become an international drag superstar in a field with absolutely no set path. When you consider this you realize her phenomenal talent." 

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and Thorgy Thor. (Max Attwood)

Their collaboration led to two sold-out shows in Halifax during the city's 2018 Pride celebrations, and has since popped up in other Canadian cities and at New York City's Gramercy Theatre. 

"People loved it," Bartholomew-Poyser says. "I think we were both surprised by the monumental reaction when she first came on stage. You get used to 'symphony audience reactions.' This audience reacted like a totally different people group -because they were a totally different people group. We had found a new niche, the drag-orchestral audience. A pretty exuberant bunch!"

Bartholomew-Poyser thinks her and Thor are on to something with the "drag symphony." 

"There's loads of potential [in the concept]," he says. "Music, costuming, dance, music theatre ... it's all there. As many angles and possible ways to create a show as there are drag performers. The individuality of the drag performer can really dictate the overall show; it is an idea with a future."

Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser is a conductor on a mission to make orchestral music accessible to everyone. The show he has created aims to include those who haven't always felt included. 0:55

Luckily for people who might not get a chance to take in Bartholomew-Poyser and Thor's collaboration live, Disruptor Conductor offers the next best thing. And Bartholomew-Poyser hopes audiences will take some additional things from it as well.

"Musically, I hope [viewers] realize that a night at the symphony is fun and relaxing," he says. "And that they'll always learn or experience something new. It is definitely worth the babysitter. Honestly, I want people to watch the documentary and then go online and grab a ticket to a symphony."

He also hopes that people — especially young people and people from all minority groups — come away from it "motivated to continue working hard towards their goals in their chosen fields." And that really is at the core of so much of his work, drag symphonies and otherwise. 

"With the help of participating symphonies, we've been able to tailor concert experiences for many diverse people groups," he says. "It is really important to consider the preferences of the group you want to include.  This seems hilariously intuitive, but it's actually really not. We often focus on getting people to like or want the things we like or want. This can be done, but is it not also nice for people to come to a concert and hear 'their' music? That makes for a special event and increases a community's ownership of the orchestra."

Learn more about Bartholomew-Poyser and his work when Disruptor Conductor airs on CBC Thursday, Sept. 5 at 9pm

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.