“This is Zach –”  

“— and this is Willie, and to get started, can we have a suggestion of anything, anything at all!”

So began Zach & Willie, the theater-program thesis production of Zach Zimmerman ’10. For the first half of the show, Zimmerman and Willie Myers ’11 performed a series of improvised scenes based on the suggestion of one audience member. The word offered: “toothbrush.”  

In the next moment, Zimmerman and Myers were two students shaving at the sink and discussing their big dates.

“We embrace whatever we feel the scene looks like, and come up with characters,” Zimmerman said. “It’s sort of organic in that sense. You’re building a reality.”

Zimmerman, a religion major pursuing a theater certificate, and Myers, an East Asian studies major, met two years ago as writers and actors for the Triangle Club and Quipfire.  

The two toured the country with Quipfire and were struck by the improv scene in Chicago, where several alumni perform.

“We saw things that we hadn’t seen before, and we wanted to try them,” said Zimmerman, the artistic director of Quipfire. “We wanted to go back and learn the kind of things they’re doing.”

Last summer, with financial support from the University, Zimmerman and Myers flew to Chicago, the launching pad of many of today’s famous comedians. Living in a small, sparsely furnished sublet, they subsisted on ramen noodles, Taco Bell, and “lots of bad TV.” For five weeks, they took classes at the iO Theater, whose alumni include Tina Fey and Chris Farley.

“We’d see at least one or two shows every night,” Myers said. “I think we saw 60 shows, at least.”

Over the summer, they began putting together the basics of the production, an improv show that consists of a montage of scenes developed and performed on the spot. They returned to Chicago over winter break to perform and prepare for Zach & Willie, which was presented Jan. 7-9 at the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman College.

Most thesis productions center on existing scripts, said Michael Cadden, the director of the theater program. “Zach & Willie” is the first improv thesis production since 2003. “I wanted to do an improv thesis because improv is simultaneously writing and performing,” Zimmerman said. He is required to write a paper along with the performance for his theater certificate, but in mid-February was  "unsure of length or content." (Another thesis is required for his major.) 

On one night of Zach & Willie, Zimmerman and Myers played everything from cops to video game-playing teenagers to rabid pigeons. They were humans watching slugs; then gods watching humans; then swirling, slow-speaking supergods watching gods. They were a husband and his very-drunk wife at a party. And they were, it turned out, very good at playing cats.

At the end, as the audience clapped and cheered, 60 rubber ducks — the only expense of the two-man show — fell from the ceiling.

“The biggest thing is attitude. The audience can tell if we’re uncomfortable,” Zimmerman said. “We have to love what we’re doing –”  

“— or get out of it,” Myers added.