Alum Ricky Downes III writes and performs his own Lion King parody

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Photo: Courtesy of Ricky Downes III

Ricky Downes III performing on stage

By Sophia Pargas

“The Lion King but it’s Just One Guy” began when Ricky Downes III ‘15 was a junior at Emerson—now, the production, a one man show, is free to stream on YouTube after it completed a successful run in New York City before the onset of the pandemic.  

Downes, who graduated as a visual media arts and animation major, combined his love for the classic Disney film and his passion for character acting to put a new spin on an old favorite.

“It was really just born out of the fact that I love The Lion King,” Downes said. “As a kid I watched it all the time. It started as a little joke that I could probably do a one man show of it, but eventually I just thought ‘let’s build some puppets, let’s do a crazy thing, let’s be silly!’ It was a big hit at Emerson, so I guess it worked out.” 

He said he aimed to not only have fun himself, but also to inspire laughter and silliness in his audience, which is exactly what he did. 

“Julie Taymor, who created The Lion King on Broadway, said the last thing she wanted to do was bring a cartoon to life,” Downes said. “She wanted to take the text of The Lion King and adapt it into theater. My goal was the exact opposite—I just wanted to make a cartoon come to life.”

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Though the script is unchanged from the original movie, Downes worked to ensure that his production had a unique spin and was reminiscent of his own fun-loving personality. 

“Writing the remake was a lot about adding in a lot of jokes and improvisation, just little tweaks which added more wackiness to the original script,” Downes said. “The real humor comes from the impressions of some characters, and others who are just completely different from the original.” 

With the help of fellow alum Gene Meyer ‘14, a stage hand and technical assistant for the show, Downes put on a production which captivated the attention of his fellow Emerson classmates and peers. 

“With the show, everything is so out there that we didn’t know how it was going to be received,” Meyer said. “I remember the day of, [Downes] filled the whole theater up and it went really, really well. It was a great performance, especially for the fact that it was a one man show with only stuffed animals as props. People loved it.” 

The duo wound up putting on several performances in the Cabaret theatre before closing the curtain on the show in 2013. The show’s new re-emergence as a fully functioning New York City production can be credited to the 2019 live action remake of The Lion King

Downes rented out the People’s Improv Theater, an iconic venue which hosts many stand-up and improv shows, and was able to improve the show with the new space and equipment available to him. 

“When the live action remake was coming out, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this idea and adapt it,” Downes said. “We created some different sequences, touched up the staging, fiddled with the puppets. The biggest thing that we revisited is that I created a lot of new animations. ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’ became a big animated sequence, and, for ‘Hakuna Matata,’ I projected sing-alongs so the audience could engage with me as I performed, and they actually did, which was very fun!” 

When compared to the original performance of the show, Downes has taken on a more technical aspect and added advanced animation. Downes took charge of building an audience to fill the theater, something he had always accomplished. 

“One thing that really helped with the marketing aspect was that Disney was putting out a ton of advertisements for their live action remake, and our show was the same opening weekend as that,” said Downes. “I just parodied all of their promotionals and kind of hopped on the success of the Disney remake to promote our own show. It was very useful and definitely kept the buzz of our show going.” 

As a result of his innovative marketing strategies, the show was a hit once more; it had attracted the attention of comedians and comedy lovers across New York City. 

“I didn’t know how a New York audience was going to take this, but once again, the theater filled up and I was amazed by the fact that it was actually received even better than before,” Meyer said, who again worked as a stagehand on the production. “It got bigger laughs this time around than it even did at Emerson, which was really awesome to see.” 

Due to the show’s success, the theater invited Downes back for an encore performance, which once again, attracted a full house. While the pandemic put a stop to any further performances of the show, Downes recently uploaded the edited footage to his YouTube account, which proved to be a difficult task. 

“I’ve done a lot of video work before, but this was definitely the hardest editing job I’ve had so far,” Downes said. “We filmed both the summer show and the encore show, but we ended up needing to merge the two and that editing process took all of July and August.” 

Even despite the complexity of the writing, producing, and editing processes, Downes is proud of the piece of art he created and is satisfied with the success that it had garnered in its run as a New York City performance. 

“I could not be happier with the initial success of the show and was so happy that the New York comedy scene embraced it with such open arms,” Downes said. “The most rewarding part of all of this was definitely the laughs.” 

In transitioning from an Emerson production to an independent one, Downes encourages current students to take advantage of the resources available to them while they can. 

“If there’s any Emersonians who want to make their art, just do not forget the fact that you can get everything at Emerson for free!” Downes said. “Renting out an actual theater in New York City compared to just filling out a form at Emerson is, you know, kaching, kaching.” 

Even despite his success as an independent comedian, Downes recalls the many lessons and skills he learned at Emerson. The lessons have helped him make a name for himself in the performance industry today. 

“Emerson taught me the importance of marketing and promotion, and creating a community of collaborators who can help you when you need it. It’s really just about creating a space where creative people can all feel welcome and know that their opinion is valued,” Downes said. “When you do that, the final product is bound to be a success.”