The Art of Falling and Searching for Loretta

Author: Katerina Bryant

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 9 Dec 2025.

Bryant, Katerina, 2022 The Art of Falling and Searching for Loretta, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The creative work, The Art of Falling, is a speculative biography of the life of Loretta La Pearl – America’s first woman clown – merged with essays exploring my search for Loretta’s story fifty years after her death. I place these two narratives side by side, my life and Loretta’s, forging connection between two women living in different times and vastly different places.

While being interviewed by Earl Chapin May in 1927, Loretta talks of learning to fall. It is the first thing a clown must do, and so the book centres on Loretta’s resilience when confronted with not only the physical, literal act of falling but falling as a metaphor for falling into a difficult professional world where she must not only perform but also conceal her identity.

In Loretta’s biographical story (spanning 1915 to the 1960s), she endures much throughout her long performing life: learning the man she loves is already married; spending years performing with him – waiting for him – while he obtains a divorce; and eventually witnessing his death to cancer. Throughout Loretta’s life, she both endures and thrives – always gentle, contemplative, and in love with the circus.

In my own narrative, I find Loretta in a drawer at the Oregon Historical Society in 2016. As well as writing my physical journey to search for Loretta in America, in a series of essays, I think through what it is to be her. I explore embodiment and the performing body, how women who push beyond society’s boundaries are deemed ‘monstrous’ and what happens to those who are deemed the ‘first’.

The exegesis explores three key elements that arose when writing the speculative biography. In the first chapter, I look at hybrid approaches to contemporary Australian biography and encounter The Convict’s Daughter by Kiera Lindsey, The Book of Dirt by Bram Presser and Tracker by Alexis Wright. The second chapter questions the ethical implications of writing biographical history. Particularly, how they change when, due to archival gaps, the biographer speculates. In the third chapter, I discuss my practice-led approach to writing speculative biography, and how the integration of essays alongside speculative biography can indirectly signal to the reader where and to what extent a biographer is speculating. Through this hybrid approach, the contract of non-fiction can be upheld with the reader while the creative work maintains a narrative voice. In the final chapter, I reflect on writing speculative biography during the pandemic, exploring the impact of global events on archives.

Keywords: Speculative biography, women's history, circus women, clown, woman clown, first woman clown, circus history, nontraditional biography, memoir, hybrid nonfiction, hybrid biography, hybrid memoir, nonfiction, archival erasure, archival gaps, archives, gender

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Kylie Cardell